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Mel Melcon, MCT
New electric models are bringing pressure cooking back to the home kitchen and recipes such as apple sauce are easy in them.

A quick look at my home kitchen and you might think I was an avowed minimalist. One pot, a few saucepans and a cherished cast-iron skillet. A cupboard of bakeware and bowls and counter space for just a few appliances. All the gadgets that can fit in one small drawer. A few chosen knives.

Noble? I wish. A would-be cookware junkie, I'm saved from bingeing on tools and equipment only by the postage-stamp size of my cooking space. To make it in my kitchen, an item has to be essential. Which is why I can't stop thinking about getting an electric pressure cooker.

In addition to cooking foods in a fraction of the normal time with just the push of a few buttons, electric pressure cookers promise so much more. Completely self-contained, there are models that offer automatic timers and multiple functions, so you can brown meats and saute vegetables before pressure cooking, perhaps simmer in-between steps, and keep a dish warm after it's done. Some models double as rice cookers, steamers and even slow cookers to seal the deal.

I've never owned a pressure cooker. With all the horror stories I'd heard growing up about exploding cookers and dinners ending up on the ceiling, I never seriously considered buying one. But more friends are getting them, and I seem to be noticing them everywhere lately, not just in stores, but on TV too. No, I'm not talking "Fear Factor" but popular cooking shows, where chefs brandish pressure cookers to make quick work of slow-cooked dishes for competition shows such as "Top Chef" and "Iron Chef."

So, is it all hype? And what about the electric models — are they too good to be true? Curious, the L.A. Times Test Kitchen tested five popular electric cookers, along with a highly regarded stove-top model for comparison.

The results? Pleasantly surprising.

At first glance, there's no confusing an electric pressure cooker for a traditional stove-top model. These babies are nothing like your mother's pressure cooker. While many stove-top models look like a sturdy saucepan with an extra handle attached to the lid, the electric models are bigger and bulkier — picture a slow cooker on steroids — bedazzled with buttons and digital displays. They're big enough to demand prime counter-top real estate; you'd be hard-pressed to fit one in a normal cabinet. The stainless steel All-Clad in particular reminded me of a mini bank vault; it was heavier than the other models we tested, and its substantial lid transformed at the touch of a button to lock and unlock (I'm convinced food — anything — would be safe in it even in the event of a nuclear holocaust).

What's good about the electric models is that they do so many things automatically: plug in the cooker, press a few buttons and go. You don't have to hover over the stove adjusting the burner to regulate pressure or watch the clock to time when a dish is done. The electric models switch off automatically — often beeping when done — slowly releasing pressure and keeping the dishes warm until needed.

The digital displays can be extremely helpful in giving up-to-the-minute details on how a dish is progressing. Some displays are very simple, others much more colorful, even entertaining (the Deni had me momentarily mesmerized). But there can be too much information. At first, the Cuisinart's display was a little confusing; even after reading the manual, we still had to look up a video on YouTube to figure it out.

All the models we tested had "browning" and/or "sauteing" functions, a convenient feature allowing you to sear meats and brown vegetables in the same pot before cooking. While most of the electric models were round, our Deni test model was oval — much like a heavy-duty stove-top casserole — and not as deep as the others, but it had more surface area on the bottom of the insert, perfect for browning larger batches of food.

Four of the five electric models had inserts with nonstick surfaces, making them easy to clean. That said, as with nonstick pans in general, the coating limits the amount of flavor that builds up on the surface of the insert as the food browns, reducing the depth of flavor. The All-Clad had a stainless steel insert; perhaps not as easy to clean, but it made a noticeable difference in flavor.

While I love the time the pressure cookers save in cooking many dishes (typically one-third to one-half the time it might take to cook a dish in the oven or on the stove), note that it still takes time for the cookers to come up to pressure before they can really work their magic. Depending on the recipe and heat of the burner, a stove-top model can take 10 to 15 minutes to come up to pressure; the electric models take longer, sometimes up to 20 minutes or more — longer than it may take to actually pressure-cook the meal once the timer starts counting.

While you can't run an electric cooker under cold water to quickly bring down the pressure after cooking, the models we tested come with quick-release pressure valves. Easy as they are to operate — flipping the knob to open — the short handle on many of the models makes it almost impossible to keep your fingers clear of the hot steam as it escapes. This is easily remedied by using a pot-holder or a long-handled utensil, but it can be a little alarming — and extremely hot — if you're not ready for it. The Fagor, Nesco and All-Clad test models had slightly longer handles, which was immediately appreciated.

So what about some of those other functions? Can they cook rice? The Fagor includes a specific rice setting in the display, and all the models except the All-Clad give some sort of instruction on cooking rice in their manuals (the Fagor and Cuisinart are very specific; the Nesco and Deni are much more vague). The results were hit or miss. The Fagor and Cuisinart made great rice the first time out; coaxing better results out of the others might just depend on getting more of a feel for the cooker.

And slow cooking? Sort of the opposite of pressure cooking, which involves cooking quickly under pressure, slow cooking involves heating a food over very low heat for hours on end, no pressure involved. The Nesco, Deni and Fagor doubled as slow cookers with pretty impressive results. The Fagor even offers high and low slow cooking options. We tested the models using a general slow cooker recipe for pulled pork; after several hours, the pulled pork came out moist and wonderfully flavorful; only the batch from the Fagor was a little dry.

The most important thing is getting to know each pressure cooker, and getting a feel for how each one works. One pressure cooker may heat more or less quickly than another, and moisture loss can vary between models. All of this can affect cooking time, consistency and flavor. Start by trying recipes that come with the unit; generally, they've been tested for that particular machine. Then experiment.

BRANDIED APPLESAUCE

Total time: 40 minutes, plus cooling and chilling time

Servings: Makes about 5 cups

4 pounds Granny Smith apples, or other cooking apples

¾ cup dark brown sugar

1/2 cup apple cider

1/3 cup brandy, preferably applejack

2 cinnamon sticks

Pinch nutmeg

Pinch ground cloves

Pinch dried ginger

Zest and juice of 1/2 lemon

1. Peel, core and quarter the apples.

2. In a pressure cooker, combine the apples, brown sugar, cider, brandy, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, lemon zest and juice. Lock the pressure cooker and cook at high pressure for 2 minutes.

3. Allow the cooker to release pressure naturally (10 to 20 minutes), then carefully remove the lid. Remove the cinnamon sticks and coarsely chop the apples for a coarse sauce, or puree them in a blender or food processor for a smoother texture. Taste the applesauce and adjust the sweetness and flavorings if desired.

4. Set the applesauce aside to cool, then cover and refrigerate until chilled. Taste the applesauce once more (the flavorings will mute a little as the sauce chills) and adjust if desired. This makes about 5 cups applesauce. The applesauce will keep up to 10 days, covered and refrigerated.

Each one-half cup sauce: 160 calories; 0 protein; 38 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 0 fat; 0 cholesterol; 33 grms sugar; 5 mg sodium.

BOLOGNESE SAUCE

Total time: About 1 hour, 15 minutes.

Servings: This makes about 3 quarts of Bolognese sauce.

3 tablespoons butter, divided

4 ounces prosciutto, finely diced

2 onions, finely diced

2 stalks celery, finely diced

2 carrots, finely diced

4 teaspoons dried oregano

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

3 cloves garlic, crushed

8 ounces lean ground beef

8 ounces ground pork (or pork shoulder, cut into small dice)

8 ounces ground veal (or veal stew meat, cut into small dice)

1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste

1/3 cup dry red wine or beef broth

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 cup beef broth

2 large (28- or 32-ounce) cans pureed San Marzano tomatoes

1 cup heavy cream, more if desired

1/2 cup minced fresh parsley

1. Heat the pressure cooker insert and melt 1 tablespoon butter. Add the prosciutto and brown, stirring frequently.

2. Add the onion, celery and carrot, oregano and fennel and continue to cook until lightly caramelized, stirring frequently. Add the garlic and cook until aromatic. Strain the vegetables to a bowl, leaving the fat in the insert.

3. Add the remaining butter and brown the ground beef, pork and veal, stirring frequently and breaking up any lumps. Stir in the tomato paste.

4. Add the red wine or beef broth, stirring to scrape up any flavorings from the bottom of the pan. Bring to a simmer, then stir back in the vegetables.

5. Stir in the salt, black pepper, then stir in the beef broth. Stir in the tomatoes and cream. Seal the pressure cooker and bring to high pressure. Cook at high pressure for 8 minutes.

6. Release pressure naturally (about 10 minutes, depending on the cooker) and carefully remove the lid. Skim the fat if desired and stir. Taste and adjust the seasonings if needed, and add a little extra cream, if desired. This makes about 3 quarts Bolognese sauce. Stir in the parsley before serving.

Each one-half cup sauce: 157 calories; 9 grams protein; 10 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 10 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 42 mg cholesterol; 5 grams sugar; 630 mg sodium.

PUMPKIN RISOTTO

Total time: 30 minutes

Servings: 6 to 8

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, cut into ¼-inch dice

1 large clove garlic, minced

1 1/2 cups Vialone Nano or Arborio rice

1/3 cup dry white wine or more vegetable broth

1 1/2 teaspoons minced rosemary

1 cup pumpkin puree

3 1/2 to 4 cups vegetable broth

Salt and pepper

1/3 cup chopped toasted walnuts

Walnut oil

Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1. Heat the pressure cooker insert. Add the butter and oil, stirring until the butter is melted. Add the onion and cook until softened but not browned. Stir in the garlic and cook until aromatic, about 1 minute.

2. Stir in rice, coating the grains with the fat and toasting for a minute or so.

3. Stir in the white wine or broth and rosemary; the wine should quickly come to a simmer.

4. Add the pumpkin puree and 3 1/2 cups broth and stir to combine. Seal the pressure cooker and set the timer to cook at high pressure for 6 minutes.

5. Quick release the pressure, carefully uncover, and stir in additional broth if desired. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and a pinch of pepper. The rice should be almost al dente; if necessary, continue to simmer for 1 to 2 minutes until the rice is cooked and the liquid is thickened (timing will vary slightly depending on the pressure cooker).

6. When the rice is al dente, stir in the chopped walnuts and 2 tablespoons walnut oil. Stir in additional broth if desired to adjust the consistency.

7. Plate the risotto, topping each serving with a drizzle of walnut oil and a sprinkling of fresh grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Each of 8 servings: 252 calories; 4 grams protein; 29 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 12 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 12 mg cholesterol; 3 grams sugar; 396 mg sodium.

Comparing popular models

Shopping for an electric pressure cooker should not be that complicated, but with the ever increasing variety of makes and models, the whole process can seem a bit overwhelming. For those looking to upgrade the antiquated model inherited from Grandma or for those who've finally decided to take the plunge, we've tested several of the more popular pressure cooker models to help you find your perfect match. All the models are widely available online. In-store availability for certain models may be limited, but you can contact the manufacturer to find a retailer in your area.

— Noelle Carter

Cuisinart Electric Pressure Cooker (CPC-600)

Cuisinart's 6-quart pressure cooker comes with an LED display and push-button controls, settings for high (15 psi) and low (10 psi) pressure cooking, plus browning, simmering, sauteing and warming. The brushed stainless-steel cooker comes with a nonstick insert for easy cleanup. Natural and quick pressure release options.

What we thought: Despite being a bit confusing to operate at first, we found the cooker to be consistent and reliable. It was the only cooker we tested with a specific simmer setting, which can be helpful for certain recipes.

How much: About $100.

Deni 6.5-Quart Oval Pressure Cooker (Model No. 9760)

The only oval model we tested, the brushed stainless-steel cooker comes with an extremely colorful push-button digital control panel. It browns, steams and warms, and pressure cooks at three settings (high: 15 psi; medium 7.5 psi; low 2.5 psi). The unit is programmable and includes delayed start of up to eight hours. It also includes a slow-cooker setting. Natural and quick pressure release options.

What we thought: We loved the large surface area — great when browning larger batches of food. Reliable in all settings. The display cover, while very informative and extremely colorful, physically seemed a bit flimsy.

How much: About $140 (this was average online price, it officially retails for $229.99).

Fagor Electric Multi-Cooker

A dedicated multi-cooker, the brushed stainless-steel Fagor has specific settings for pressure cooking, slow cooking and rice. The unit features high (9 psi) and low (5 psi) pressure settings, plus it browns and keeps food warm. It has an easy-to-clean nonstick cooking insert. The unit is programmable and includes a delayed start of up to eight hours (though I don't know why anyone would leave their food at room temperature for that long). Natural and quick pressure release options.

What we thought: We really liked this model. The unit is wonderfully versatile, working well in all settings. Easy to use and reliable.

How much: About $90.

All-Clad Pressure Cooker

This 4-quart pressure cooker is the only model we tested with a stainless-steel insert. It browns, sautes and cooks at both high (10.2 psi) and low (5.8 psi) pressure settings. The display includes a progress arrow that shows when the system is pressurizing, as well as the remaining cooking time. When the countdown is complete, the unit automatically switches to warm and alerts you with three beeps. Natural and quick pressure release options.

What we thought: 25 pounds of pure holiday joy. Given its size, this beauty probably wouldn't fit in a cupboard; given its looks, I might forget the kitchen counter and display it on the coffee table in the living room. Easy to use, with a very simple display. The unit heats up quickly and maintains great even heating for sauteing and browning, all while staying as quiet as a Prius. The seal is great (we noticed very little moisture loss in our testing), and the lid stays on like a vise grip until it's absolutely safe.

How much: About $300 from Sur La Table.

Nesco PC6-25P 6-Quart Electric Programmable Pressure Cooker

Easy to clean with a nonstick insert, Nesco's brushed stainless-steel pressure cooker has an LED display with soft touch buttons. It browns, pressure-cooks at high (10 psi) and low (5 psi) settings, steams and warms. The unit is programmable, with presets and a delayed start of up to eight hours. When the countdown is complete, the unit automatically switches to warm. The unit also includes a slow-cooker setting. Natural and quick pressure release options.

What we thought: Easy to use and efficient; it was one of the three pressure cookers we tested that also doubled as a slow cooker. We noticed very little moisture loss in our testing, also a plus. No sound indicators (it doesn't beep) when cooking is complete, though it will keep the food warm.

How much: About $80.

Creston Baker, Yelena Burnett, Sho Chang, Susan Silverberg and Skyler Spitz contributed to this report.