This article originally appeared on TASTE, an online magazine for today's home cook—reporting from the front lines of dinner.
It may seem surprising that in the 21st century, home cooks are going absolutely nuts for pressure cookers. Slow cookers, too, a Super Bowl party fixture and throwback to 1970s-era Crock-Pot dinners, are a top-searched term on high-traffic recipe sites like MyRecipes.com. But what attracted people to these kitchen appliances in the first place remains the allure today: convenience. The ability to make healthy meals on the cheap, and fast, in the case of the pressure cooker, or, in the case of the slow cooker, in absentia.
Enter the Instant Pot, a multiuse countertop cooker that may be the world’s first viral kitchen appliance. Version 1.0, introduced in 2010 by a company based in Ottawa, Canada, was created as an electronic slow cooker/pressure cooker hybrid, and it swiftly established itself as a culinary disruptor. Just like that, home cooks no longer had to choose between cooking slow food fast or setting it and forgetting it. They could do both, and with a foolproof electronic version, supervising a sometimes terrifying stovetop pressure cooker became a thing of the past.
In the most basic terms, a pressure cooker is a sealed vessel that holds steam during cooking. The pressure builds in the pot, increasing the temperature at which water boils. This raises the cooking temperatures of what’s in the pot, and subsequently decreases cooking time. Cooking stops when the pressure releases—the part that scares (and possibly scars) people. While new stovetop models are incredibly safe and the chances of them spewing like geysers are slim, there still is a negative stigma attached to these devices.
The pressure cooker has been a cooking implement since 1679, when the French physicist Denis Papin introduced “A New Digester or Engine for Sofning [sic] Bones.” The device, as Papin’s name suggests, lends itself to culinary miracles. Beans transform from dry to tender in 20 minutes without presoaking. A frozen hunk of meat melts into a rich stew in the same amount of time. Bone broth, which takes up to 24 hours on the stovetop, is done in two hours under pressure. “It’s what I call fast-forward cooking,” says pressure cooker guru Lorna Sass, the author of Pressure Perfect, who, for the record, has never used an Instant Pot. “You throw the dried porcini in, the risotto rice in, broth, you have a delicious risotto that’s maybe, start to finish, ten minutes.”
These days, pressure cookers are sophisticated. Like the iPhone, every year or so, Instant Pot releases updates, piling on features like Bluetooth connectivity in the Instant Pot Smart, which allows remote use with the help of an app. The Instant Pot 7-in-1 edition, released in December 2013, offers additional rice cooking, yogurt making, steaming, warming, and sauté functions (the latter allows you to brown ingredients in the same pot you’re cooking in, something a traditional slow cooker can’t do). This model is the #1 best-selling electric pressure cooker on Amazon, with other Instant Pot models occupying the top five slots in that category. At press time, Instant Pot electric pressure cookers are the fourth, fifth, and twelfth overall best-sellers in Amazon’s Kitchen & Dining department. Though Amazon wouldn’t disclose numbers, a press release from the online retailer stated that 215,000 Instant Pots were sold on Prime Day alone in 2016 (compared to only 90,000 televisions). A spokesperson for Instant Pot confirmed that 2016 marked yet another year of double-digit growth.
Instant Pot, which has a surprisingly primitive web site for an Amazon phenom, has limited its advertising to the social media variety, betting on the power of online word of mouth. According to a story on NPR, the company gave away more than 200 of its appliances to bloggers and “influencers” to encourage cyber-gushing in the form of recipes and testimonials. The Internet is flooded with videos by pros and amateurs alike created specifically for the device, leaving little guesswork when it comes to how to make, say, bouillabaise or ribs. Big-time blogs such as Nom Nom Paleo, the Martha Stewart of cave-person cooking, according to The New York Times, has an entire section of the site devoted to Instant Pot recipes. The affordable price point helps, too: The 7-in-1 Instant Pot costs around $99, versus almost three times as much for other highly rated electric pressure cookers.
The power of the Instant Pot is real. Nili Barrett, whose Instant Pot tutorials are among the most-watched on YouTube—with more than 132,000 views for her whole-cooked chicken—started her channel as a way to keep in touch with friends. When she began posting Instant Pot recipes, her star rose. “Instant Pot users would share my videos with their friends,” says Barrett. “That’s when my popularity grew.” Now she sees a spike in views and subscribers around Amazon Prime Day and Black Friday, when Instant Pots go on sale. “I’ve gotten 3,000 new subscribers since Black Friday, which is a 40 percent increase in the last three months.”
It’s hard to tell what came first—the pressure-cooked chicken or the pressure-cooked egg. Does the Instant Pot sell because of clamoring fans, or do the fans clamor once they’ve bought the device? It seems like one hand feeds the other. The official Instant Pot Community Facebook page, nearly 400,000 members strong, has become a pressure-cooking guild of sorts and home to some of the most die-hard members of the online community. When I joined the group to ask whether it was normal for the pressure release valve to come right off the lid of a new Instant Pot, I got 11 responses in 10 minutes. The users are so active, a lingua Instant Pot has even developed among them. NPR = natural pressure release. QR stands for Quick release. PIP is Pot-in-Pot cooking. “A lot of people are in what is called the Instant Pot cult,” says Barrett. “They want to make the only appliance in their kitchens the Instant Pot, and they want to make everything in there.”
But some people still prefer the straightforward slow cooker. “In the pressure cooker, as soon as you get it off to pressure, you can’t just pause it, open it and add something new,” says chef Hugh Acheson, a Top Chef judge and the author of a forthcoming book of slow cooker recipes. “In the slow cooker, you can add incrementally through the process.” With the Instant Pot, you can do both.