When I was a kid, my mom had a pressure cooker. If you were born before 1975, your mom probably used one as well. Beans that normally take hours on the stove were tender in less than half an hour; tough, inexpensive cuts of meat could be shredded with a fork in an equally short time. Convenient, right? And economical. So why did pressure cookers disappear from the scene?
Truthfully, they never did. Pressure cookers developed an unfortunate reputation for riskiness, as tales of exploding vessels and steam injuries found their way to cooks’ ears. The construction of early pressure cookers was to blame – although most never failed, they did rely on a single valve and a metal weight – usually called the rocker or jiggler – to relieve excess steam pressure, and lacked redundant safety features like locking lids and additional valves. Even when used correctly, they tended to be noisy – the steam whistled through the valve as the rocker’s weight clanked against the cooker lid.
Pressure cooking is back, though, and manufacturers have improved the safety features, significantly reducing the likelihood of an explosion. My pressure cooker, manufactured by All American, features two vents, as well as a lid that clamps shut at six points, and also locks by twisting. The pressure and temperature indicator permits relatively accurate pressure monitoring. How does it work? Water vapor pressure buildup. With the lid firmly clamped in place and sealed with a gasket or other mechanism, the vessel – filled with the food to be cooked and a sufficient quantity of liquid – is heated. Because the lid is clamped shut and sealed with a gasket against the vessel, steam cannot escape through the margin between the lid and the vessel, and builds up inside as the liquid boils. As the pressure increases within the vessel, so does the boiling point (the temperature at which water passes from the liquid to the gaseous phase). At sea level, at the maximum recommended safe pressure for most pressure cookers – 15 psi – water boils at 122C (252F). Collagen breakdown for tough cuts of meat takes place quickly at this temperature, as does carbohydrate and fiber breakdown for hard items such as beans.
The time savings?About 70% from conventional cooking times. Pressure cooking makes weekday braised possible. The braised pork shank with buttery celeriac purée below took an hour and fifteen minutes, including prep time; a stew would have taken about 30-45.
While pressure cooking the shanks, make the purée. Then quick pickle some red onions to add crunch and bite to the dish. Using a vacuum sealer, you can pickle the onions in minutes. The vacuum process removes air from the onion cells – when the vacuum is released, the brine rushes in to fill those spaces.
2 pork shanks or lower arm cuts from just above the joint
2 carrots, sliced on the diagonal (1/2″)
2 celery stalks, peeled and diced
1 small onion, peeled and diced (1/2″)
Several sprigs of thyme
1 1/2 c dry white wine
4 c chicken stock (unsalted broth is ok)
Place pressure cooker over medium heat; when hot, add olive oil to film pan. Season shanks on meaty ends with salt and brown on both meaty sides. Remove and hold; add mirepoix to the pan and sauté until vegetables take on a little golden brown color; season with salt and add wine. Reduce by 2/3 and add stock and herbs.
Place rack in pressure cooker and set shanks on top. Secure the lid, bring to 15 psi, and cook 45 minutes. Turn off heat and when fully depressurized, remove lid. Remove shanks and set aside. Strain braising liquid through chinois into a smaller pan and defat. Reduce to the consistency of a thin sauce.
[Note: if you are not using a pressure cooker, set the oven to 250F and use a large, deep vessel with a lid to perform all steps up to the point of placing the rack in a pressure cooker. Bring the stock/mirepoix mixture to a simmer, return the shanks to the vessel, cover with a lid or a parchment lid, and place in the oven to braise for about 4 hours. Then continue with straining and reducing the liquid.]
Meanwhile, separate meat from skin/fat (reserve for another use) and divide into large chunks.
Buttery celeriac purée
Keeping the celeriac in acidulated water as soon as you cut it keeps the purée snow white.
2 medium celeriac
1 lemon, juiced (reserve halves)
2 tsp white wine vinegar, plus more if necessary
3 oz butter or so (depending on celeriac size), divided
salt and white pepper (use both kosher salt and celery salt)
Add the lemon juice to 3 quarts of water. Peel the celeriac and rub with lemon halves – dice 1″ and immediately drop dice into acidulated water. Bring to a simmer and cook until tender. Drain.
Combine the celeriac, half the butter, and the vinegar in a Vitaprep or blender. Blitz until the celeriac is smooth, scraping down the sides if necessary, and add more butter by bits to improve the texture. Pass through a tamis if necessary (although the puree should be smooth enough and very light if you use the vitaprep and this step should be unnecessary). Season with salt and blitz to combine; taste and adjust with additional vinegar if necessary.
Because this is a flash pickle, I used a stronger brine than is usual, reversing the water to acid ratio. This pickle is meant to be consumed fresh, not held for storage.
Red onion, peeled and sliced thinly, pole to pole
3 tbsp distilled white vinegar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp coriander seeds, cracked
Combine salt, sugar, and coriander seeds with 1 tbsp water and heat to dissolve salt and sugar. Off heat, add to remaining vinegar. Place onions in a foodsafe plastic bag (eg as for Foodsaver) and add half the vinegar mixture and coriander.
Vacuum the onions in a chamber vacuum sealer (or using a home vacuum sealer on the “liquid” setting, if available). If you see bubbles emerging from the onions (unlikely using the home sealer), wait until the bubbles stop; otherwise, wait several minutes before cutting open the bag.
Place a large spoonful of celeriac puree in the center of a plate or shallow bowl. Arrange several chunks of pork shank, garnish with onion pickle and some bitter greens (watercress or arugula), or celery salad.