Stovetop pressure cookers have come a long way in recent decades. Many a budding cook's childhood nightmares come from the unstable models of yore, with terrifying tales of pot roast on the ceiling and death from flying lids narrowly averted. But that was then, this is now. Today's stovetop pressure cookers are almost as safe as electric models, with numerous built-in safeguards to keep you from accidentally removing the lid before the pressure is equalized -- or that keep the pressure cooker from even working unless it's properly assembled and locked.
The benefit of stovetop pressure cookers over electric models is that they reach a higher pressure, so they cook slightly faster. However, unlike electric pressure cookers, stovetop pressure cookers need some hands on attention: You have to watch for the pressure to come up and then lower the heat, or remove the cooker completely from the heat. If you prefer a more hands-off approach so you can multitask or to free up a burner on your stove, see our discussion of the best electric pressure cookers elsewhere in this report.
Convenient features set our Best Reviewed model, the Fagor Duo 8-Quart Stainless-Steel Pressure Cooker (Est. $110) apart from the rest of the pack in this category. The Fagor Duo is roomier than the standard 6-quart size, which makes it easier to cook whole chickens or larger cuts of meat. However, if you need a smaller -- or even larger -- capacity, this pressure cooker is also available in 4, 6 and 10 quart sizes, and those get equally glowing reviews. Features include two pressure settings, a quick-release valve and an ergonomic handle. It also includes a steamer basket. This unit is equipped with all the safety features found in more expensive models: a secure lid that locks in place and a pop-up indicator that alerts you when the optimal cooking pressure is reached.
The Fagor Duo gets its share of praise from experts after comparison testing of cooking performance, too. The stainless-steel base caramelizes food well; in particular, its wide base gets raves for how well it browns. It's reported as very easy to use, something that owners who were leery of trying out a stovetop pressure cooker are thrilled to report.
We did find a few quibbles with the Fagor Duo pressure cooker. The lid does not lock automatically and we read some reviews that say you have to fiddle with the handle and locking mechanism before it will engage. There are also some breakage issues with the handle; for some, it just broke off after being in use for a while. Others report that it breaks very easily if you drop it, although that can probably be said of anything made of hard plastic.
It's a lot more expensive, but the Fissler Vitaquick 8½-Quart Pressure Cooker (Est. $250) earns top honors in one professional roundup and gets a lot of love from users as well. It's extremely well-made, say reviewers, and is very easy to use. It was the only pressure cooker to reach 250 degrees in one professional test, and owners say it's important to be careful of cooking times if you're following a recipe from another cooker because this one cooks faster, so adjust accordingly.
However, there are a few issues that keep the Fissler Vitaquick from landing in our top spot. One is the price; we're simply not convinced that it's worth paying so much more than the Fagor costs. Also, we read several recent reports of defective or broken valves, and customer service is reported as very unhelpful in resolving the issues -- a serious oversight for a $14 part on such an expensive piece of cookware.
If you're leery of making too large of an investment in a pressure cooker until you decide if you'll actually use it, or if you just need something for smaller batches, we recommend starting with the Presto 01362 6-Quart Stainless Steel Pressure Cooker (Est. $50). Thousands of happy owners give it rave reviews, and it does very well in expert tests as well. It lacks a couple of useful features, including a quick-release pressure valve, and it only has one pressure setting. This makes cooking times a little less precise, but many owners find the unit perfectly sufficient for their needs. Many say they bought it just to dip their toe into the pressure cooker waters, so to speak, and never moved on to something bigger or better because they did not need to. Others weigh in to say that they've owned it for years and it's still going strong. The Presto also comes in a 4-quart size, the Presto 01341 (Est. $40) that gets equally good reviews and may be a better starter unit than the larger, 6-quart cooker.