What the best pressure cooker has
- A high level of safety. Modern safety features are one of the biggest advantages of newer pressure cooker models. This prevents the exploding disasters of the old days. The best cookers should shut off or have automatic pressure releases if the pressure ever gets too high.
- Reliable performance: Pressure cookers should perform consistently well, browning meat perfectly and reaching and maintaining a steady pressure with each use for many years. Electric pressure cookers that double as rice cookers or slow cookers should perform equally well in all their modes.
- Simple-to-use controls. Because they can be unsafe when used incorrectly, it's important that pressure cookers have clear pressure indicators and lids that lock on easily and securely. The digital controls on electric countertop pressure cookers should be intuitive and accurate.
- Easy maintenance. Stovetop pressure cookers are made of heavy duty stainless steel or aluminum, and they shouldn't have too many crevices to catch moisture or trap smells. Electric pressure cookers often have nonstick interiors that make them easy to clean, but stainless steel pots get good reviews for cleanup as well. Follow the manufacturer's instructions for use, cleaning and maintenance for best results.
- Widely available replacement parts. Most pressure cookers -- electric and stovetop -- have gaskets that will eventually need to be replaced. Many also have vents or pressure gauges that can fail. Be sure that these parts are available from the manufacturer so you don't have to replace the whole appliance.
Know before you go
Electric or stovetop? Stovetop cookers reach a higher pressure, reach it faster, and maintain it longer than electric models, and they're more compact for the volume they hold. Electric models are more versatile -- often doubling as rice cookers, slow cookers or both -- and may be easier-to-use for owners new to pressure cooking or those without enough stovetop burners when cooking a multi-course meal.
How many are you cooking for? For a small-to-medium-sized family, 6- or 8-quart pressure cookers are best, while a 4-quart cooker is fine for one to two people. Some super-sized recipes and cooking tasks, like preparing a whole turkey, require a much larger pressure cooker, but the bulky size makes it more challenging to store or use regularly.
What kind of cooktop do you have? Many pressure cooker manufacturers don't recommend using a pressure cooker on a smoothtop glass or ceramic stovetop. Smaller pressure cookers should be okay, but you have to take precautions not to slide the cooker on the cooktop (which is true of any cookware you use on a glass cooktop -- for more information, see our reports on cooktops and ranges). In addition, some glass cooktops struggle to get hot enough to get a pressure cooker up to its highest temperature. If you have a glass or ceramic cooktop, you'll probably be better off with an electric pressure cooker.
How much space do you have? Most stovetop pressure cookers are about the same size as a large pot, but the domed lid with handle make them a lot taller, so you'll need to be sure they fit on the shelf where you intend to store it, although some experts say you should store pressure cookers with the lid off just in case there is any residual moisture. Electric pressure cookers are big and bulky; if you want to keep it on the countertop be sure you have the space to do so. You should also measure the clearance above your range before purchasing a larger capacity pressure cooker.
If you're just learning to use a pressure cooker:
The one consistent comment we saw across the board about all types of pressure cookers is that the included recipe books and/or instruction books are really, really bad. Often, cook times are confusing, or it's not clear exactly what cut of meat they are referring to, or they seem to be written by someone whose first language is definitely not English. Be patient and turn to the internet. There are many excellent web sites and videos that will help you figure out how to use any type of pressure cooker you have. For example, Hip Pressure Cooking has a handy chart to help you determine pressure cooking times and liquid needed for practically any food. And you do need liquid -- pressure cookers are not meant to be used dry and may not work if you try to do so.
There are also a number of cookbooks dedicated to pressure cooking, and they have saved the day for many a bewildered new pressure cooker owner. Don't be afraid to experiment and put the food back in to cook longer if it's not quite done. Eventually, you'll get the hang of it and be pressure cooking like a pro.