I love cooking with my slow cooker. It is essentially a two button operating system, kind of like operating an elevator. When the plug finally rotted away, after 15 years of service (thanks Sunbeam!), I was confronted by a new reality, shopping in the age of Instant Pot. I have been aware of the multicooker — equal parts slow cooker, steamer, pressure cooker and sauté pan — rumbling around on the margins of mainstream cooking tech for more than five years now. It always seemed like the tool everyone was about to purchase. This year the Instant Pot (and other brands like it) has arrived. Starting back in July the cookbooks focused on what I considered this new technology started to arrive on my desk, as Halloween approached fully two-thirds of all the books on pile were for use with a multicooker.
Still I resisted. Simply looking at the operating panel of your average multicooker made me wistful for one last ride on my Sunbeam Crock Pot. Rather than a gentle journey along the winding path of unattended cookery, this new-fangled kitchen technology promised to be as relaxing as piloting the Millennium Falcon. All those switches! All that activity!
Luckily my friend, New York Times Food reporter, Melissa Clark has written her 41st cookbook "Comfort in an Instant" about the multicooker (in fairness, this is Clark's second book about the tool — "Dinner In An Instant" came first, so she is a veteran in the space). Melissa Clark was my guest on Salon Talks and guided me through the transition from slow cooker to multicooker. Change is good!
Hi. I'm Manny Howard. This is Salon Talks. Today, our guest is Melissa Clark who is a food reporter for the New York Times and the author of this book, Comfort in an Instant. Today we're going to be making Chicken Parmesan in the Instant Pot.
Now, you need to help me a little bit on the Instant Pot thing because it's a little daunting.
Cause you're a Luddite. You're a Luddite. You don't like things like this, do you?
No. Well, I don't. But I know we're living in an Instant Pot moment-
... and I have to join the moment.
Yes. So, I'm going to try to talk you into it in the course of this next 20 minutes. So the Instant Pot is, it's a pressure cooker. And I know that you know about pressure cookers, the old fashioned kind that sit on the stove, and you put split peas in them, and they cook really quickly, but you're always a little worried that maybe they're going to end up on the ceiling.
The whole thing's gonna blow up.
Exactly. They do use them as bombs, so they are certifiably dangerous. But not the electric kind. So what an electric pressure cooker does is it kind of crosses a pressure cooker with a slow cooker in terms of convenience. You take this thing, you plug it in, you load it up with food, and it's all automatic. It does everything. It takes the fear out of it because it's so regulated inside, but as soon as it hits pressure, it regulates itself so you don't have to worry about it ever overheating. It's not going to happen. There's like 15 different safety valves built into this thing.
So it's convenient. You plug it in. But it's fast. You know like a slow cooker, you put your ribs in, and two days later they're ready. This, 15 minutes. So it's got the convenience factor 'cause you plug it in and you go, and it's fast. It cooks things really quickly and it's perfectly safe.
I want to talk about the recipes in the book, but I just want to go through some of these buttons because they're a little —
There are a lot of buttons.
It seems very casual, but it's a little mysterious. Like it just says Soup, so I don't know what that means. Meat, Stew, Bean, Chili, Poultry. What do the buttons mean?
Well, the buttons are preset times that it's kind of like the lowest common denominator. It's like, okay. Well, most bean recipes cook in 45 minutes, so it's preset at 45 minutes. Or most rice recipes will cook in 12 minutes. But it's much better to set your own. So, you can if you're in a big hurry, and you want to make soup, and you press it and it says 25 minutes, it'll probably come out okay. But if you're following a recipe, you just use whatever the recipe says because it's figured it out for you.
Or you start to learn, like okay, you know what, carrot soup actually takes 10 minutes so you can hit Soup, and you can just hit this little minus key until it reaches 10, or you can just hit Manual Pressure, and then hit the little keys until it reaches 10.
But basically, you're just . . . . Pretty much all of the buttons do the same thing no matter which one you press. You press it, it'll give you a little number. That number is how many minutes it's going to cook under pressure, and then it turns itself on, and it cooks it for that many minutes.
Now are there some recipes that involve all the functions of—
You mean like all the buttons. Like you could press them all at once?
Well if you sauté something, and then you pressure cook it for just a little bit of time, and then you slow cook it, is there that kind of thing, or you choose —
You probably wouldn't go slow and fast. Like you'd either pressure or you'd slow. So there's a slow-cooking button. Where is it? I never use it, so I don't even know where it is.
So we don't, we're not just going to —
There. Slow cook. Okay. Yeah. You can slow cook in this thing. In fact, if you have a slow cooker, I always say, "Throw it out, and just get one of these instead because it can cook fast or slow."
My slow cooker just died on me.
Well there you go.
The plug finally rotted away.
See? So there you go. So you get one of these and you have the option. If you really want to cook your favorite brisket recipe that your grandmother's been making, and you know exactly how to use it in a slow cooker, you can still cook that in this thing. But if you want to take that same recipe and do it under pressure instead, it'll cook in about probably about 45 minutes instead of six hours. So, you know-
And it'll give you the same result. You don't feel like there's any difference?
I think it gives you a better result.
Because the pressure, especially with meat, you know the pressurized chamber, it softens any toughness out of . . . You know those tough cuts like brisket or shanks?
It softens it all, and it just melts, makes the most melting texture. So I really like, I like it better. You know, which is why I wrote a book. And it's not scary. I don't think it's scary. I mean, would this thing ever hurt you?
Well . . .
This Instant Pot moment, it's undeniable, right?
But Instant Pot has been around for ... five years is when I became conscious of it. Right?
At least, yeah. At least. Maybe even seven years. It's just been building, and I think people want to save time in any possible way they can. So if they can get one of these, and they can make . . . I mean, God. My favorite thing is to make chickpeas in it. If you could do chickpeas in under an hour, dry chickpeas, and you don't have to soak them, and you throw them in the pot. This is a boon for people who do not plan ahead. I do not plan ahead. I'm very spontaneous. And you can't be spontaneous with chickpeas unless you have one of these.
You just made hominy the other day, right?
I made hominy. If anyone has ever made hominy, you know it takes an entire day. You have to soak it, and then you have to cook it for like three or four hours, and I just did it in an hour and a half.
I feel like there's lye involved in cooking hominy at some point.
I feel like you read too much "Little House on the Prairie." You don't need lye.
You definitely don't need it in the Instant Pot. There's no lye.
No lye in the Instant Pot.
When you were putting . . . 'cause you've written so many cookbooks, right?
And some of the recipes are quite intricate, and all of them are fabulous, but when you're putting together Instant Pot, when you're curating the recipes for the Instant Pot cookbook, what are you thinking? How are you putting them together, and are there things that you really want to include, but you just can't figure out a way?
Yeah, totally. The thing about it is a lot of people when they write Instant Pot recipes, they're so in love with the thing, that they don't actually see its shortcomings. You know when you're in love with someone, you're like, "Oh, but they have enough hair. No, really." Or, "That suit looks good enough."
The gun in the glove compartment.
Exactly. But what I wanted to do was only do things that the Instant Pot does either as well, better . . . or not even as well. It has to be better or more convenient than traditional cooking methods, because otherwise, what's the point, right? So it doesn't do . . . It's a moist environment. You're cooking it in steam, basically pressurized steam. So it's not going to do crispy. You're not going to get crispy-skinned roast chicken. People who put a whole chicken into that thing and say, "Oh, it's . . . you know at the end, you just run it under the broiler." It doesn't come out well.
What it does do well are things that naturally benefit from a moist environment, right, like thick, tough cuts of meat.
Braises, I'm thinking, right?
Braises. Wintry braises. Chicken works really well as long as you do either dark meat or white meat. 'Cause you know how when you're roasting a chicken, you can never get the white meat to cook at the same rate as the dark? There's always like the white meat might be a little overcooked, or the dark meat might be a little undercooked. It's just going to be exacerbated in that thing. So do all dark meat or all white meat.
And beans. Oh my God, the best beans. Like I was talking about the chickpeas. So if you have beans that you haven't soaked. Lentils, it will cook in 10 minutes. Un-soaked. You could have lentil soup in 15. Like the whole thing. And we mentioned-
I love lentils too, but I never, ever, ever . . . Always out.
Melissa Clark: Right. Because it's just-
Always at a restaurant.
Yeah. But in this thing, you'd make 'em all the time. And we mentioned the sauté function, so if you want to make a soup, or a stew, or a braise, and you want to brown your meat or your onions, you can do that right in the pot. You don't have to get a pan out because the heating element will work from the bottom. It'll heat it up. It's like a burner, and you can get a nice sear on it.
And it's a proper sautéing surface. It's a good, hot temperature.
It's stainless, so it's good. It works really well. But yeah, so in terms-
So you get that caramelization?
You get the caramelization . . . . and the caramelization is the key to sauce. You know that, right? It's like when you get that deep rich color, you pour the wine in, you let it simmer just . . . The thing about an Instant Pot which is so great is yes, it's convenient. But you're still cooking. It's still you. You're in charge. You're the boss. So if you want a nice caramelized reduced sauce, so you do it in the pot. You just let it simmer. You give it time. Then you add the meat and then it goes fast. So it's that combination of you know.
That's a very important detail, too, is you're the boss, right?
Right. So, people think that it's like a magic pot. It's not a magic pot. It's a cooking tool. You're the boss. You're the cook. So don't get lazy. Don't think, "Oh, I'm just going to put everything in and turn it on." If you know that a braise tastes better when you brown the meat, then brown the meat 'cause it's not going to be as good.
But then there are certain recipes which turn out great without browning. Like the Chicken Parmesan that we're going to make.
Yeah. So what's so great about that is it's not, instead of breading it, I just cook the chicken breasts right in the sauce, so it's lighter and it's also all about the amazing flavor of the garlic, and the oregano, and the tomatoes, and the sauce. And the pressure really infuses that into the meat, and it's just a very rich flavor. And then tons of mozzarella on top, and then you broil it-
. . . although we might cheat a little bit with the broiling-
Yeah, 'cause —
... 'cause I don't think you have a broiler here.
There's a trick.
Yeah, there's a trick.
You just happen to have a butane torch? Is that —
I carry a butane torch with me wherever I go.
So, just return briefly to the recipe curation thing. What were you looking for? Like a mix of, like you said, the beans and the braises, and then that super recognizable ... we'll call it the Parmesan?
What else is in there?
What I wanted to do . . . So, I've written two books. The first book was Dinner in an Instant. And that was when I was like, "Oh, what can I do with this thing?" And I was pushing it to its limits. There's a Persian dish called, it's a rice dish, and it has something called a tahdig on the bottom. So it's a Persian rice dish with a crispy, crispy rice. And this is a really hard thing to get on the stove. You can do it in the Instant Pot really easy as long as you have, you do have to buy a nonstick liner. It costs about 30 bucks. You order it online. And then what it does is, it automatically creates this gorgeous golden-brown crust. So imagine a rice pilaf, except that it sort of cooks into a cake, and then you turn it out, and it's got golden-brown crunch-
All over it. And then you cut it. And it is so good.
So I was really pushing it. I'm like how do I get, I want to make that in there. And I was able to do it.
For "Comfort in an Instant," what I decided to do was to really play on the fact that people want this thing for its convenience and its speed. So most of the recipes are after-work-friendly recipes that will come together in 30 minutes or less. So you get home from work. You've planned nothing. This is me. I plan nothing. You look in your fridge, and you're like, "Oh, okay. Chicken." And then you can do something really quickly, but really, really deliciously.
So some other things, rice pilaf is a great one. Risotto. This makes the best risotto in six minutes. And you can do anything to it. Risotto with pesto, with mozzarella, with tomatoes, with mushrooms, with sausage. And so, there's a bunch of recipes for things like that.
And the risotto, you brown the —
No, you brown the onion, but that's it. And the rice for two seconds, or maybe, okay, 30 seconds. And then you add the stock all at once. You don't have to stir.
And it comes out so creamy. And then, oh, mascarpone in that. A little mascarpone. Yeah! So good.
How does it come out creamy? Is it the pressure cooking . . . ?
Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Because when you're stirring risotto, you're breaking down the starch in the rice, right? And that's what gives you your sauce is the constant stirring to break down the starch. The pressure in the Instant Pot does that for you. It's like, "Starch, you're out of here!" And it just becomes this amazing sauce, and you don't have to do anything.
For me, my favorite thing is I'll put stuff in there. I'll get home from work, I'll put stuff in there, and then I'll go for a run. 'Cause I don't have to babysit it. I can plug it in and leave. And then when I get back, I am starving, and my dinner is ready.
That's fantastic. You're talking about the nonstick insert into the thing.
I just happen to have . . .
Ooh! A box!
. . . a box, and I'd like you to do the unboxing honors, but these are some appendages . . . I suppose appendages is probably not the right word, but . . .
Accessories for the Instant Pot.
Yes. Okay. Let's look and see. I love opening boxes and . . . Let's see if we need any of these things, 'cause sometimes they sell you a bunch of stuff that you don't need.
Like some of the things are-
That's what I was hoping you would help me understand is what's really going on.
Okay, so this thing if I can get it out . . .
There we go.
Okay, this is great. This is something you absolutely need. This is a little bitty cheesecake pan. Isn't it cute?
So we're gonna do a cheesecake in this thing?
You can do cheesecake in there. Okay, think about cheesecake. To get the creamiest cheesecake, you do it in a water bath in your oven, right? 'Cause you create a steamy, moist environment. Steamy, moist environment —
. . . 22 minutes. You put your crumbs on the bottom, your yummy cream cheese goodness, and then you put it in there.
So yes. You need that. Everybody needs to make cheesecake. You can also make a chocolate torte in that thing.
This is a steamer basket. So, this is great. These handles on top make it really easy to put in and out, and you can do all your steamed ... I do steamed potatoes or steamed beets, butternut squash. Any thick root vegetable works really well. Or even something like broccoli, just don't cook it for long. Do it-
I was gonna say, not a very —
... two minutes at low pressure.
Right. Okay. Two minutes.
Brussels sprouts? I don't know. I'm feeling like —
Yeah, no, Brussels sprouts ... oh, Brussels sprouts are so good in there.
Yeah. But again, two minutes at low pressure.
Right. 'Cause you could really wack the vegetable. . .
Vegetables are tricky, so people forget that this thing, you can do high pressure. You can also do low pressure. So when you're cooking something delicate like chicken breasts, like fish, or vegetables that aren't root vegetables like broccoli, you wanna use low pressure so it cooks it a little more gently.
Custards. You do low pressure for all your custards like chocolate custard, like a pot de crème. Ahh, so good. And you do it-
We're just pushing one, two buttons?
You're pushing one, two buttons.
It's not —
You do have to make the chocolate custard mix. It's not going to make it for, you know, this thing isn't going to make it so that-
You're the boss.
... you don't have to ... You are the boss. You are cooking. You make your ... You take the cream. You take the chocolate. You take your eggs. You put them in the blender. Takes maybe five minutes. You pour it into ramekins, and then you put it in there.
This thing is yogurt. So, here do you want to open that? What's ...
This is fun.
I know, right? It's like ... Can I keep these? These are really fun.
You can make yogurt in these, or you can make custards, or little rice pudding cups, or the chocolate pot de crème that I was talking about.
It just fits right in there.
Yeah. So there is a yogurt function on the Instant Pot. Yes.
Exactly. And you can make your own homemade yogurt in there really easily. It keeps it at a perfect 110 degrees, which is the optimal temperature for fermentation.
And for how long?
You can do it as long as you want. So it'll hold the temperature, and you can do it ... I like my yogurt to be fermented for about eight, nine hours, but if you like it really sour, you can let it go. I like a milder yogurt.
Yeah. And then this, okay. Oh, these are for eggs. Look. Little eggs.
Yeah, I would never have been able to cook those.
Or you can also just use it as a trivet. So, if you want to take your cheesecake pan. So you put this in. You put the water on the bottom. And you put your cheesecake pan on top, and then it steams it above the water.
Is that important to do?
Yes, it is important to do. You don't want to submerge your cheesecake, or ... Yeah, exactly. And it all fits so nicely.
And, oh, these again.
These things I'll never use. I'd rather burn my hands, frankly.
You do that once, and you will start using these. You can get a wicked burn. They're so cute.
Yeah, see, you could glue like velvet on them, and then you would have a puppet.
I would totally glue eyes on these guys. I want them. Can I have them? These are good.
Yep. Those are yours.
Okay. My daughter and I are going to fun with these puppets.
The puppets are yours to keep.
That's my door prize. I love it!
Melissa, I love this Instant Pot. Oh, thank you, man.
This, what the heck is this?
Okay. That's great, yeah. The head grips. I have no idea what this ... It is a bowl clip.
Okay, so this is a good example of something you do not need to have.
I don't need this.
Maybe they just needed something green in the box. [throws tool over shoulder]
Yeah, I don't know. I would throw that out. I'm taking these. I'm taking these with ... Can I wear them for the rest of this conversation?
Yup. You can. We could just —
Melissa Clark: It won't be distracting?
Melissa, thank you so much for coming on, and giving me not only the basic course, but also the advanced course with all the gear. I love gear.
I know. Bye.
The book is "Comfort in an Instant." The fantastic guest is Melissa Clark.
Salon Talks Extra: Watch Melissa Clark and Manny Howard cook Clark's Weeknight Chicken Parmesan from “Comfort in an Instant" in the Instant Pot.