It was sometime last summer that, with the fervor of a televangelist, my colleague Molly Eichel began preaching the gospel of the Instant Pot.
The seven-in-one device - it's a pressure cooker, slow cooker, steamer, sauté pan, rice and yogurt maker, and warmer - could make hummus from dried chickpeas in, like, 45 minutes, she insisted. She used it for buffalo chicken meatballs for a recent party. And had I heard about our friend Matt's incredible recipe for Instant Pot ribs?
But I refused to be converted. For one thing, my gas stove seemed like all the cooking power I needed. For another, I'm constantly receiving pitches for new gadgets, many of them solving problems no one knew existed (see: "Four-in-one avocado tool," "banana slicer," and "electric lunchbox"). So I tend to be a cooking-tech skeptic.
Still, Molly insisted: "This is the kind of thing that you don't need - but once you have it, you use it all the time," she said, showing off her prized kitchen tool. "I use it three times a week. Could I rehydrate chickpeas on my stove like I did for years before I got this thing? Yes, of course. But I don't want to. If I use this, it takes 45 minutes and it's amazing."
Given that the $100 device was one of the most popular holiday gifts of the season - and that we're seeing more and more cookbooks designed just for it - I grudgingly agreed to give it a shot.
We chose from Kathy Hester's The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook for Your Instant Pot (January 2017, Page Street Publishing, $22.99); Jennifer Robins' Paleo Cooking With Your Instant Pot (January 2017, Page Street, $21.99) and Laurel Randolph's best-selling The Instant Pot Electric Pressure Cooker Cookbook (April 2016, Callisto, $14.99).
Some of the recipes they suggested weren't exactly world-changing, like a 30-minute vegetarian curry that would hardly take more time to throw together on the stovetop.
Others cut a few minutes of inactive cooking time, like eight-minute hard-boiled eggs or 14-minute steamed artichokes.
Still others were mystifying, like frittatas, quiches or brownies that are steamed instead of baked - never to attain a crisp, golden-brown exterior. Why, Laurel Randolph, why?
But other recipes did seem extraordinary: a risotto that requires virtually no stirring? Soup made from dried beans in less than an hour? A one-pot recipe for pasta bolognese? Those actually sounded tempting.
So, I made my apologies to the dusty, half-full box of arborio rice that's been sitting in my cabinet for months, waiting for me to honor it with the 40 minutes of stirring required for a pot of risotto. Instead, we sauteed some onion, garlic, and mushrooms, tossed in some white wine, then added the rice and broth, closed the lid, and crossed our fingers. After six minutes, we unlatched it, tossed in some Parmesan cheese, and gave it a quick stir.
Was it the most perfectly cooked risotto I've ever had? Not even close. But - and this should probably be the tagline of the Instant Pot - it was good enough.
Same goes for the bean soup, which started with sauteed onion and pepper, followed by pressure-cooked celery, butternut squash, and dried beans, followed by a 40-minute wait. (Thanks to Boyle's law and possibly some other rules of physics I haven't contemplated since high school, there is apparently no need to soak the beans overnight or to simmer them for three hours.) The result was, more or less, bean soup - though a few of the beans were not quite cooked enough, and the rest of them, plus all of the vegetables, were pulverized into mush. But, it was a nutritious, decent meal with minimal effort, and totally edible with a splash of sriracha.
After that, we approached the penne Bolognese with trepidation. After all, with pasta, texture is paramount. Still, we sauteed some onions, browned ground beef, then tossed in the penne, to be smothered with a layer of crushed tomatoes. After five minutes in the pressure cooker, the results were in: Fairly evenly cooked, al dente pasta. We sauteed it a couple of minutes more to remove some liquid, but it was a passable weeknight meal, especially for using only one (dishwasher-safe) pot.
The new stack of cookbooks offer lots more experiments to try: coconut milk yogurt, gluten-free bread, steamed shrimp, tamales, and even a steamed key lime cheesecake in a springform pan small enough to set inside the Instant Pot. Many of the recipes, even those with long cook times, require so little effort it's worth experimenting with them.
Sure, our results weren't exactly beautiful: What you gain in cooking speed, convenience, and ease of cleanup with the Instant Pot, you lose in finesse.
But I was wrong to lump the Instant Pot in with the strawberry-stem removers, garlic peelers, and miscellaneous avocado tools.
Because, for some, it might not be frivolous. I realized in using it that, for $100, it puts almost any type of cooking within reach for people without access to a stove or oven: college students in dorms, people in the thick of kitchen renovations, those traveling away from home, even those living in marginal housing situations.