What is the Instant Pot, and How Does it Actually Work?
If you’re a regular reader of my blog, then you’re probably already familiar with my obsession with the Instant Pot! I’ve written quite a few posts about the Instant Pot over the past few years, and I even centered my very first video course around it. (Learn more about out Instant Success with Jillee here!)
While I can’t say enough about this magical kitchen appliance, I do know that it can be a little intimidating at first for new users, and even a little confusing at times (even for experienced users!) But the purpose of today’s post it to clear up any confusion or apprehension you may feel by answering all of the most important questions about the Instant Pot.
We’re going to cover a lot of ground in this post, but don’t worry! I’ll explain everything as simply as I can, so that you leave this post with all the information you could possibly need about what the Instant Pot is, what it does, and how to get started cooking delicious meals of your own!
What Is The Instant Pot?
The Instant Pot is an electric pressure cooker that can also fill the role of several other appliances, including a slow cooker, rice cooker, yogurt maker, steamer, warmer, and even a sauté pan, just to name a few. (It’s no wonder why the Instant Pot is often advertised as a “multi-cooker!”)
Much like electric kettles provide a convenient alternative to stovetop kettles, the electric pressure cooker has become a convenient (and not to mention safer) alternative to stovetop pressure cookers. And with all of the other additional features it offers, it’s easy to see why the Instant Pot has become such a popular kitchen gadget for home cooks!
How Does The Instant Pot Work? / What Does The Instant Pot Do?
The Instant Pot consists of three basic parts: the base unit, the inner pot, and the lid. When using the basic “Pressure Cook” program (which was labeled “Manual” on older models), you start by locking the lid onto the base unit to form an airtight seal.
The heating element in the base unit warms the inner pot, creating steam and building pressure inside the pot. (This is why almost every Instant Pot recipe calls for at least 1 cup of liquid. You can’t get steam without liquid, and you can’t pressure cook anything without steam!)
In the Instant Pot’s heated and pressurized environment, foods cook faster than they would otherwise. Foods are also less likely to dry out because of the presence of all that steam. Neat, right? :-)
But other Instant Pot programs are designed to be used without the locking lid, or with a different lid that won’t form an airtight seal. Using these sorts of programs (including “Slow Cook” and “Sauté”), the base unit heats the food inside the inner pot, but the steam is allowed to escape and pressure never builds.
(For a more detailed explanation of the differences between an Instant Pot and a slow cooker, read this post.)
The user manual encourages you to perform an Initial Test Run before cooking anything in your Instant Pot, and I heartily agree! This simple test helps familiarize you with the basics of using the Instant Pot, and it’s an easy way to ensure that the machine is functioning correctly.
Here’s how to do it:
- Pour 1 cup of water into the pot, and lock the lid into place.
- Select the “Steam” button, then set the timer for 2 minutes.
- The screen will display “ON” until the pot reaches pressure, when it will switch to “2” to count down the cooking time. When it’s done, the screen will read “L0:00,” which means that the cooking process is done and the warming function has started.
- Release the pressure from the pot, either by allowing it to depressurize naturally (until the pressure indicator on the lid drops down), or by twisting the Quick Release handle.
You might notice steam, strange sounds, or a weird smell while performing the Initial Test Run, but never fear—it’s all perfectly normal! Following these simple steps is a great way to get started with your new Instant Pot.
Is The Instant Pot Safe?
In terms of safety mechanisms, electric pressure cookers are lightyears ahead of those old rickety stovetop pressure cookers. You can rest assured that the Instant Pot is very safe to use!
The older and more basic Instant Pot models feature 10 different safety mechanisms, while newer and more advanced models have either 11 or 13. Each safety mechanism provides a layer of protection that helps eliminate user error and prevents pressure from building to unsafe levels.
You can read more about the safety mechanisms built into each Instant Pot model at InstantPot.com.
Where Can I Find Instant Pot Recipes?
I recommend starting by checking out this post, which features an extensive list of delicious Instant Pot recipes that I handpicked myself! This should give you more than enough inspiration and delicious meal ideas to keep you occupied for the foreseeable future.
And if you’re looking for a more obscure type of recipe that isn’t included in that post, try doing a search for “Instant Pot recipes” on Pinterest. That should put you on the right track!
What Should I Make First?
For your Instant Pot’s maiden cooking voyage, I recommend keeping it simple by choosing one of these five basic and beginner-friendly pressure cooker recipes. Cooking something basic like pasta or potatoes will help you get a feel for how it all works, without the added risk of potentially messing up a whole meal.
How Do I Clean The Instant Pot?
As far as care and maintenance go, the best way to keep your electric pressure cooker working correctly is to keep it clean. I recommend giving it a light cleaning after each use by washing the inner pot and sealing ring, and wiping down the lid and base unit.
You should also aim to deep-clean your pressure cooker around once a month to remove food bits and residues that can build up over time. For step-by-step instructions for both everyday cleaning and monthly deep-cleaning routines, make sure to check out this post.
Another Instant Pot Cleaning Tip!
More Instant Pot FAQs
How Long Do I Cook _________?
Whenever you cook something using the “Pressure Cook” or “Manual” setting, you’ll be prompted to set a timer for the food you’re cooking. Different types of foods take a different amount of cook time, and factors like temperature (is it frozen or thawed?) and size (is it whole or is it cut into pieces?) will affect the time as well.
But don’t worry, you don’t have to memorize dozens of cooking times or experiment blindly to find the right one. Just download my handy Instant Pot Cooking Times Cheat Sheet and use it to quickly look up common cooking times whenever you need them!
What Accessories Should I Buy?
While you can already do a lot with just your Instant Pot and the tools that come with it, there’s a whole world of useful Instant Pot accessories out there too! Some are helpful for making a specific type of food (like a small springform pan for making Instant Pot cheesecake), while others can be used in a variety of different ways (like stackable steamer baskets.)
Check out this post to learn about all of my favorite Instant Pot accessories!
Should I Use Quick Release Or Natural Release?
After cooking something in your pressure cooker, there are two basic ways to safely release the pressure from the pot:
- Quick Release: The Quick Release method involves turning the steam release handle on top of the lid to “Venting.” This opens a valve and allows steam to escape rapidly out of the holes in the release handle.
- Natural Release: The Natural Release method is simple—just leave the pot alone! The pressure inside the pot will drop over time as the steam and liquid cool. This take anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes (or longer) for the pot to depressurize naturally, depending on how full the pot is.
Which method you should use depends entirely on what you’re making. Quick Release is a good choice when cooking vegetables, seafood, and other foods that are likely to overcook, while Natural Release is good for red meats, stews, and other foods that benefit from a “rest period.”
Whenever I’m not sure which method to use, I like to split the difference by using a combination of both! I’ll do Natural Release for 10 minutes, then Quick Release the remaining pressure.
To learn more about the different pressure release methods, and which one to use when, check out this post.
Which Instant Pot Is Right For Me?
There are plenty of options to choose from in the Instant Pot lineup! But which multi-cooker is the right for you? These brief summaries of all the major Instant Pot models will tell you everything you need to know!
Price: $79, 6-quart (also available in 3-quart and 8-quart capacities)
This is the baseline Instant Pot model, featuring six primary functions and 12 built-in programs. It doesn’t offer the same number of bells and whistles as the higher-end models, but its a solid choice for anyone looking to save money (or who mainly wants to use it for pressure cooking and won’t miss the extra features.)
Price: $79-99, 6-quart (also available in 3-quart and 8-quart capacities)
The Duo is the most popular Instant Pot model, and it’s one of our favorites! The major difference between the Duo and the more basic Lux model is that the Duo is a 7-in-1 cooker (thanks to the added yogurt maker function), setting it one notch above the 6-in-1 Lux for the same price.
Price: $99, 6-quart (also available in 3-quart, 8-quart, and 10-quart capacities)
The Duo Nova debuted in 2019 as an upgrade to Instant Pot’s massively popular Duo model. It offers the same 7-in-1 cooking features as the Duo, but has an upgraded LCD display as well as an upgraded lid design. The new EasySeal lid seals automatically when you start cooking (which is a highly useful feature for those of us who frequently forget to set the steam release handle to “Sealing!”)
Price: $119-129, 6-quart (also available in 3-quart and 8-quart capacities)
The Duo Plus is the next step up from the Duo and Duo Nova, with a jump in price to match. This one gets a “9-in-1” moniker for its egg cooking and a sterilizing functions, and it has an upgraded LCD screen that’s brighter and easier to read.
(Is the Duo Plus worth the extra $20? In my humble opinion, if you’re okay with the $119 price tag, the new Duo Evo Plus is likely the better buy at that price point. More on that below!)
Price: $119, 6-quart (also available in 8-quart capacity)
The Instant Pot Duo Evo Plus is the latest addition to the Duo family. With the addition of Sous Vide technology (learn what sous vide cooking is all about here), this 10-in-1 cooker seeks to combine many of the innovative features from other models into this latest iteration. Among its notable features are the upgraded EasySeal lid design, as well as a newly designed inner pot that you can use right on your stovetop.
Price: $150, 6-quart (also available in 3-quart and 8-quart capacities)
The Instant Pot Ultra is a 10-in-1 cooker with a new “Ultra” mode, allowing users to customize parameters like altitude, temperature, and time for recipes that require a high degree of precision. The display has a dial selector for customizing settings, and the Ultra also features the new EasySeal lid design with push-button steam release.
Price: $150, 6-quart
If you are looking for an Instant Pot that can help you with home canning, look no further! The Instant Pot Max can sustain high pressure up to 15 psi, making it the first model that can be used for home pressure canning. It also features a touch-screen display (with on-screen pressure release options), as well as a brand new “Sous Vide” function for temperature-controlled water bath cooking.
Price: $180, 8-quart
Can’t decide between getting an Instant Pot or an air fryer? With the Instant Pot Duo Crisp, you don’t have to choose! This model combines the classic pressure cooker capabilities of the popular Duo models with new convection cooking options like Air Fry, Roast, Broil, and even Dehydrate. While you do have to juggle two separate lids for pressure cooking and air frying, having one machine that can do it all should save you some valuable counter space!
Do you currently have an Instant Pot at home?