TIts column ends well, with a perfect pan of beans, cooked in a third of the usual time, using less than a third of the usual energy. This column started decades ago, when I decided I was afraid of pressure cookers. Recovering Memories Although unreliable, it’s not clear exactly why I’m afraid. We didn’t have one at home, and relatives who didn’t use it no longer used it by the time we grew up. There was no accident next door, nor a media scare movie that settled in my mind. The unwarranted fear became a quiet pause that I clung to even as the pressure cooker developed dramatically. Some of the best chefs I know tell me to get over it.
In fact, this column began with the French physicist Denis Papin. Born near Blois in 1647, he studied medicine before moving to Paris, where he helped Dutch physicist Christian Huygens build vacuum pumps. Later, in England, Papin worked with physicist Robert Boyle – whose theory of gas pressure and volume is known as Boyle’s Law – and built air pumps for the Royal Society of London. Papin’s research explored the relationship between boiling temperature and ambient pressure. When you cook in a normal saucepan under atmospheric pressure, water boils at 100°C until it comes out like steam. However, inside an airtight vessel, the trapped vapor molecules move faster, resulting in an increase in ambient pressure, which means that water boils at a temperature of 121 degrees Celsius. In 1679, Papin demonstrated an exciting invention: a closed vessel with an airtight lid in which steam under pressure is used to cook food and soften bones; Digestive Engine. One feature was a small, heavy piston that moved up and released steam; Pressure relief valve – the original model for all modern pressure cookers.
The form needs work, though. Two centuries passed before a domestic version of the Papen Digestive Engine was patented and realized its potential: overhauling everyday life, saving fuel and time, making cooking easier, reducing waste, and enhancing group meal preparation. The 1940s saw an increase in use. Unfortunately, this success was poorly timed, because metal previously intended for domestic uses was redirected to the war effort (resulting in cheap post-war alternative pressure cookers, which had a reputation for blowing out their lids). Seventy years later, pressure cookers have worked wonders, and the best chefs I know ask, “Haven’t you got one yet?” And I’m stuck in 1949.
Or you are. Step in Catherine Phipps, who has been a vocal advocate of pressure cooking for a decade, and whose statement about the process has just been updated. Two weeks ago I sat down and read the introduction. How, why, what, articles and recipes. She explains: “For me, the joy of pressure cooking is the fact that I’m able to cook right from scratch, but in a fast, convenient and sustainable way…reducing my fuel bills and water consumption by an amazing amount.” It assures that the modern pressure cooker is not only safe, efficient and easy to use, but the food cooked inside is enjoyable.
Also step into my partner Vincenzo, who, prior to meeting me, was dedicated to his own pressure cooker. I asked him why he hadn’t bought us one, or encouraged me to use one, to overcome my fear. He replied that he did it on various occasions and that I was stubborn. That night, I soaked 500g of borlotti beans. The next morning, we drove up to his parents to borrow their pressure cooker (which I must point out is an Italian model, and slightly different from the ones Phipps writes about, so with different times, but the inspiration was all hers).
Put the beans in at noon, raise the pan to pressure, move the plunger up and release the steam, then cook for 20 minutes on lowest heat.
This column ends with a perfect bowl of beans (soft and fatty, twice the amount of dried beans you started with, and surrounded by glorious bean broth), cooked in a third of the time, using less than a third of the energy than usual. I took half of it out of the pan, seasoned it with olive oil and salt, and ate it with the spiced red pepper (from the jar) and toasted bread. I saved the rest for the minestrone pressure cooker, but more on that next week.