[Photographs: Vicky Wasik, unless otherwise noted]
The Instant Pot’s ascendance has been so sudden, so swift, so far-reaching, and so utterly dominating that it’s hard to think of another kitchen product in recent history that has so thoroughly cornered the market.
Before the Instant Pot, when I tried to convince people that a pressure cooker was worth buying, their eyes would glaze over. After the Instant Pot’s explosive rise, nearly everyone owns a pressure cooker, even if half of them don’t seem to realize it.
And that, really, speaks to the power of the Instant Pot. People own them, people love them, and people often have no idea what they even are. So let’s set this straight: Instant Pot is a brand name of a multi-cooker, and a multi-cooker is basically an electric pressure cooker with a few bells and whistles thrown in for good measure.
If you own an Instant Pot, what you really own is a multi-cooker. If you don’t own an Instant Pot, but have been debating whether or not to pick one up, it’s worth noting that there are many other multi-cooker brands on the market, some of which are worth considering (see below for our top picks). A multi-cooker usually includes a base unit where the control panel and heating element live; an insert which holds the food itself and can be removed for easy cleaning; a lid with a gasket and valve for pressure cooking; and various accessories like measuring cups and a steaming basket (depending on the model).
As the name implies, what’s most appealing about a multi-cooker is the range of cooking options it offers. It steams! It sears! It simmers! It cooks beans! It cooks rice! It cooks stews! It cooks chili! It makes yogurt! It’s a pressure cooker! It’s a slow-cooker! It can make my bed and clean my toilet and rub my feet and sanitize my dentures! All! In! One!
Do you know how we know it can do all those things? Because it has buttons on the front that tell us so!*
* Okay, I lied, it won’t sanitize your dentures. But man does a multi-cooker make a mean bed.
Let’s cut through this noise. A multi-cooker is really just a couple things, plus a whole lot of preset modes. A multi-cooker is, in the simplest sense, an electric pot; its lid has a gasket that can seal the pot shut to trap steam and build pressure, and the cooker has sensors in it to automatically control heat and pressure as needed.
Given this, a multi-cooker is really just:
- A pressure cooker. This is its primary function; not only is there usually a manual pressure-cooking option (all of our recommended cookers offer one), but most of the specialized modes on a multi-cooker (rice, beans, stews, chili, etc.) are also just pressure-cooking modes with preset times and pressure levels.
- An electric pot: When the lid isn’t sealed, the multi-cooker can work like any pot, whether you use it to steam foods or sear them before stewing or braising.
- A slow-cooker: The multi-cooker can hold its contents at a low enough heat that it also doubles as a slow-cooker. There is rarely a reason to use this function, as I’ll explain below.
- A yogurt-maker: Similar to the slow-cooker mode, the multi-cooker’s ability to hold very low temperates means it can also be used to incubate yogurt.
We’ve reviewed pressure cookers before—both stovetop models that are strictly pressure cookers, and multi-cookers, which are primarily pressure cookers that can also perform some other tasks. You can read our entire review here, but the quick answer is that our top pick is the Breville Fast Slow Pro, while our favorite budget pick is the Instant Pot Duo60.
Multi-cookers like the Instant Pot are great at making chicken stock, just as all pressure cookers are.
So, now that we’ve roughly defined what an Instant Pot and other multi-cookers really are, and which are our favorites, let’s briefly go over what they’re truly good for, and which features you should just forget.
Pressure Cooking and Preset Pressure-Cooking Programs (Rice, Stew, Stock, Soup, Etc.)
By far the most important feature of a multi-cooker is its ability to function as a pressure cooker. Frankly, if everyone would stop calling these things “Instant Pots” and start calling them “electric pressure cookers,” there’d be a whole lot less confusion about what this device is really all about.
A pressure cooker is able to drastically reduce the cooking times of many long-cooking foods by raising the internal pressure of the chamber; as the pressure rises, so does the boiling point of the water inside. At sea level, water boils at 212°F (100°C), and it will not exceed that temperature until there’s little to no available water left. By raising the pressure, the water temperature can slide higher, going upwards of around 250°F (120°C); at elevated temperatures, tough meats melt and tenderize and beans cook through in a fraction of the time. Braises that would have taken two, three, or four hours are done in thirty minutes to an hour. Beans, which can take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours on the stovetop, can be done in ten to twenty minutes in a pressure cooker. It’s an incredibly powerful tool with jaw-dropping results. You can literally get home from work and have a stew on the dinner table in an hour from start to finish, something that is otherwise impossible with more conventional cooking methods.
Most of the settings on a multi-cooker are really just pressure-cooker presets: bean mode, rice mode, chili mode, stew mode, soup mode, poultry mode, meat mode, risotto mode, stock mode, and multigrain mode, for example. They can be helpful, but they can also be maddening.
Control panel of the Breville Fast Slow Pro. [Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]
If you’re totally new to pressure cooking and are not following a trusted recipe, the presets are useful in that they can give you some shot at getting results that are good, or at least put you in the ballpark. But those settings are just as often confounding because there are enough variables to render them useless.
Just look at Instant Pot’s web page on cooking rice using the rice mode. The promise sounds great: Use this device for perfect rice every time. Rice mode can supposedly detect moisture levels and then make realtime adjustments to the heat and pressure levels accordingly.
But the reality is a little different. Read the article and it becomes clear that the preset is only designed to work with basic white rice, and that several other types of rice will require a manual setting. And that doesn’t include factoring in your elevation if you live well above sea level, the type of water you use, personal preferences on doneness, and more. Unless you only eat one type of rice and just happen to like it exactly as the Instant Pot preset produces it, you’ll soon be overriding the preset and using a manual setting instead.
This is true of all the other preset pressure-cooking modes as well. Variations in recipes, in ingredients, in local conditions, and in your desired results will all play into the time, pressure, and temperature levels you choose; often the recipe itself will be the best guide for what settings to choose. Plus, if you set those parameters manually, you’ll have a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t, which is far better than not understanding why a preset mode didn’t produce the results you wanted.
Beyond variations in specific recipes, multi-cookers themselves are also varied from one to the next. There’s no overarching standard that ensures that “high pressure” mode on one cooker is the same as “high pressure” mode on another (although those should hopefully be close, somewhere in the 12 to 15psi range). There’s also no standard that ensures one machine’s meat mode is the same as another’s. Ditto all the other preset modes.
Cooking dried beans using the pressure-cooking mode of a multi-cooker produces excellent results in a fraction of the time.
What this means is that if you live and die by the presets, you only really know how to cook with the specific model of multi-cooker you’ve grown familiar with. Buy a new multi-cooker one day and you’ll have to re-learn its preset quirks all over again. But by using the manual mode, you’re more clued into what pressures and times the cooker is actually using, parameters that are more consistent across models and brands. That makes you a more informed cook, and a more informed cook will have a better track record for success.
But this doesn’t mean that the special pressure-cooking modes do nothing. According to Instant Pot, for example, the cooker uses sensors to manage heat, pressure, and temperature.
Steaming mode, for instance, lets the heating element rip full blast, since there’s no risk of scorching the water on the bottom of the pot (foods being steamed should be held aloft in a steamer basket). For modes that cook thicker dishes like chili and porridge, the cooker reduces the intensity of the heating element to reduce the risk of foods burning on the bottom.
It’s a nice feature if near-total hands-off cooking is most important to you. But you can also avoid burning your food just as easily by bringing the contents of the cooker to a boil with the lid off, stirring frequently to keep the food from sticking to the bottom; once at a boil, put the lid on and allow the cooker to finish coming up to pressure. Once at pressure, it doesn’t take a lot of additional heat to keep it there. This is how you prevent scorching in a stovetop pressure cooker, and it works fine.
This is one of those modes that works well, but isn’t all that useful unless you’re short on pots and stovetop space. In steaming mode, you simply add some water to the multi-cooker insert, add a steaming rack of some sort (included or not, depending on the multi-cooker model), and then turn the machine on. Set to steaming mode, it will crank the heat of the heating element to full-blast, working to get the water boiling as quickly and relentlessly as possible, producing enough steam to cook whatever it is you’re cooking. The lid can go on to contain the steam, but it won’t lock (locking would fully trap the steam, leading to pressure cooking).
There’s no reason not to use this setting, except that you can just as easily steam foods in a pot or wok set over a stovetop burner. Unlike the pressure-cooking mode, which offers dramatic performance differences compared to traditional stovetop methods, the steaming mode on a multi-cooker is just like any other steaming setup.
Searing meat in a multi-cooker works, but not as well as in a traditional stovetop pressure cooker.
Many braise and stew recipes call for browning meats and aromatics before adding the liquid, since browning develops a layer of flavor that can transform whatever you’re cooking from good to great. This makes the searing mode in a multi-cooker very important, but it has its limitations.
In my experience, a multi-cooker doesn’t sear nearly as well as a Dutch oven or stainless steel pot set over a stovetop burner. Multi-cooker inserts tend to be tall and narrow, with a small footprint for the bottom of the pot, and the heating element only gets so hot. This can be a problematic combination, making the multi-cooker prone to overcrowding and thus steaming, when you want to be searing and browning.
You can make it work by searing ingredients in very small batches, and by waiting longer for trapped moisture to cook off and true searing to begin, but it’s certainly not the strong point of any multi-cooker I’ve ever used. It’s fine for making a stew or braise from start to finish all in the same multi-cooker pot, but I’d never use a multi-cooker to sear foods that don’t otherwise require being in the multi-cooker.
Slow-Cooking (With Major Reservations)
A: stock cooked in a spring-valve stovetop pressure cooker; B: stock cooked in a multi-cooker like the Instant Pot; C: stock cooked in an older stovetop pressure cooker with a jiggler; D: stock cooked on the stovetop in a Dutch oven; E: stock cooked in a slow cooker. As you can see, the slow cooker yielded the worst results, with the least flavor and gelatin extracted from the chicken and vegetables. [Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]
This is one of the other top selling points of the multi-cooker: It’s a slow-cooker, too! But as any cook worth their salt knows, a slow cooker isn’t really worth its salt. Yes, they can be left unattended for hours and even days with relatively little risk, but with their low cooking temperatures, the food they produce is never as good as dishes produced by more traditional stewing and braising methods. Nor are a slow-cooker’s results as good as those achieved in a pressure-cooker, which can produce a better version of the same dish in a tiny fraction of the time. For a more thorough discussion of how slow cookers compare to pressure cookers, read our article here.
There’s really no contest. In almost all instances, you should be using the pressure cooker mode, not the slow-cooker mode.
Similar to the way a multi-cooker uses low heat for the slow-cooker mode, it can use even lower heat to incubate yogurt. Many models will scald the milk first (a common first step in yogurt making) and then switch over to incubation mode.
Does it work?
Yes, indeed it does. Though it’s not as hands-off as multi-cooker manufacturers make it seem. You still need to monitor the temperature of the milk with a separate instant-read thermometer, especially when the milk is cooling, since you can kill your starter and ruin your batch if you add it to milk that’s too hot. This is once again one of those situations where the multi-cooker works, but it doesn’t save you much effort compared to scalding the milk on the stovetop.
As for incubating the yogurt, which requires holding the temperature somewhere around 110 to 115°F, the Instant Pot I tested recently seemed to do a serviceable job, in that the yogurt successfully set (a sign that the milk never overheated during the incubation phase). I wasn’t able to monitor the temperature of the milk the entire time, so I’m not quite sure just how much it may have fluctuated, but it clearly didn’t fluctuate too much given the results.
What I do know from my initial yogurt testing is that the Instant Pot I tried produced my least favorite yogurt of the bunch—the yogurt was set, but it seemed fragile and it separated into curds and whey easily. It also had a strange metallic flavor, which I haven’t yet been able to explain.
It’s possible that, with more testing and tweaking, I can find my way to better yogurt results with the Instant Pot or another multi-cooker, but I also know from my testing that there are other methods that work very well, including using an immersion circulator or just going the old-fashioned route of leaving the yogurt in an oven overnight with the oven light turned on.
So, do you need an Instant Pot or other multi-cooker? If you don’t own a pressure cooker already, then yes, there’s a strong argument to be made for it, because I think all cooks will find a pressure cooker to be a very useful addition to their lives. And if you’re often short on stovetop space, having a stand-alone unit can be incredibly useful. If you have no interest in pressure cooking, though? Skip it, because that’s all a multi-cooker really is.
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