How to Use an Instant Pot

Make the Most of the Cooker's Best Features

Making Instant Pot coq au vin.
Diana Rattray

The Instant Pot electric pressure cooker has become all the rage and for many good reasons. It's a convenient multicooker that, using the pressure cooker mode, can cook many foods in a fraction of the time it would take on the stovetop or in the oven. The pressure cooker makes it possible to braise tougher, less expensive cuts of meat in minutes instead of several hours or make a basic Bolognese sauce or chili that tastes as if it simmered on the stovetop all day. Dry beans need no lengthy pre-soaking or parboiling—they can be ready in as little as 30 to 45 minutes.

The cooker is also an efficient yogurt maker, steamer, and rice cooker, and it does an excellent job when used in slow cooker mode. Much like a regular slow cooker, you simply set the timer and forget about it until it's time to release the pressure.

Most of the cooking is done right in the pot, from sautéeing and browning meat and aromatics to steaming and reducing sauces.

Aside from the cooking and speed benefits, it's a smart choice if you don't have the counter space for more than one appliance since it can easily take the place of a rice cooker, slow cooker, and pressure cooker.

Is the Instant Pot Safe?

If you've avoided using a pressure cooker because of safety concerns, rest assured: today's electric pressure cookers have many built-in safety features. The Instant Pot pressure release valve automatically releases excess pressure and the locked lid will not open when there is pressure in the pot. And if the valves are clogged or malfunction and cause excess pressure, the pot will automatically shut down.

Pressure release valve.
Diana Rattray

As long as you keep the valves clean and use caution when manually releasing pressure, you should have no problem. Always go over the safety precautions and cleaning instructions in your user manual.

What to Cook in the Instant Pot

There are hundreds of Instant Pot and electric pressure cooker cookbooks on the market and you'll find thousands of great recipes here. If you're new to the Instant Pot, start with tried and true recipes that take advantage of the cooker's best features, such as those for beans, chili, pork shoulder, pot roasts, and briskets

Instant Pot turkey chili
Diana Rattray

As you grow comfortable and more experienced, you might try some new and different dishes. There are loads of accessories available for the Instant Pot, including trivets, pans, egg cookers, and specialty steamers and slings. Plus, just about any pot or dish you can put in the oven can be used in the Instant Pot; it only has to fit inside. Use the Instant Pot for cooking your favorite holiday casserole, perfect mashed potatoes, a stunning cheesecake, or scrumptious crème brûlée.

What You Can't Cook In an Instant Pot

Although the Instant Pot can handle a range of foods, there are some limits. Here are a few examples of dishes you shouldn't attempt to cook in an Instant Pot.

  • Deep-fried foods
  • Crispy and crunchy foods
  • Thick, creamy sauces
  • Yeast breads
  • Cookies
  • Tender steaks
  • Grilled foods

How to Convert Conventional Recipes

You can convert many of your favorite recipes, but be prepared for some trial and error. There are a few things to keep in mind when converting recipes. 

When planning a dish, make sure you factor in the pressure build and release time. The time to reach pressure can take from 5 to 30 minutes, depending on how full the pot is and the amount of liquid used. The same times apply to a natural pressure release. A quick release will take only a few minutes. The float valve will drop when the pressure is completely released. The lid cannot be removed when there is pressure in the pot.

The Instant Pot needs a certain amount of liquid to create enough steam to build pressure. If your original recipe does not include liquid, add enough water, juice, or cooking stock needed to build pressure. You'll find the minimum amount in your pressure cooker manual.

Thick liquids and sauces, such as condensed "cream of" soups and tomato sauces can set off the "burn" notice. Thin liquids should be added first, followed by other ingredients and ending with thicker liquids or sauces. If you do happen to encounter a burn notice, add extra liquid, scrape up any burnt bits stuck on the bottom of the pot, and give it another try.

Instant Pot burn notice display.
Diana Rattray

If your recipe calls for a roux or thickener, such a beurre manié or a slurry of flour or cornstarch, add it after the dish is pressure-cooked. After the pressure is released by either the quick or natural method, choose the sauté function and thicken (uncovered) as needed. 

Liquids do not evaporate like they do when simmered on the stovetop. When a pressure-cooked soup, sauce, or stew is too thin, set the pot on sauté and simmer it uncovered for several minutes to remove excess liquids and/or thicken with a cornstarch or flour slurry.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

  • Don't forget to put the inner pot in the Instant Pot, or you'll have a mess—and possibly damage—when you add liquids.
  • Make sure the sealing ring is in place before you secure the lid.
  • Don't forget to turn the knob (on most models) to the sealing position for pressure cooking. You should watch for the float valve to pop up and pressure cooking to begin. 
Float valve on the Instant Pot lid.
Diana Rattray
  • Don't overfill the pot. The pan in some pots has a line for the pressure cooker at two-thirds level. Some other models show a higher max fill line, which is fine for slow cooking, but too high for pressure cooking. For pressure cooking, don't fill the pot more than two-thirds full. For beans, grains, and other items that expand, fill it no more than half full. A 6-quart pressure cooker should have no more than 4 quarts of ingredients, or 3 quarts if the ingredients will expand.
  • Take care when releasing the pressure quickly. Always protect your hand and use the long handle of a utensil to turn the venting knob.

Which Instant Pot Is Right for You?

There are several models and many of them come in 3, 6, and 8-quart sizes. Prices vary widely, from a few no-frills models under $100 to the higher pressure 6-quart Instant Pot Max, which retails at around $199. The Instant Pot Max cooks with more precision and can maintain a pressure of 15 psi on the max setting. It even offers altitude adjustment and temperature control.

Most models offer both high and low pressure cooking. Most recipes online and in cookbooks are cooked at high pressure, but you might want the low pressure function if you plan to cook delicate foods, such as fish, seafood, and some custards and desserts

The 6-quart Instant Pot is the most commonly used size and you'll find that most online recipes were developed using that size. The 8-quart cookers can be used for most recipes, but will require more liquid and will take a little longer to build pressure. The 3-quart Instant Pot cooks at a slightly lower psi (pounds per square inch); recipes can be scaled down, but will take a bit longer—a few minutes in most cases. The Instant Pot Max, on its max setting, will cook foods from 10 to 20 percent faster at about 15 psi.