It’s easy to see the appeal of an Instant Pot, a versatile multicooker appliance that can cook food in record speed, but there is definitely a learning curve when it comes to using one. At its core, the Instant Pot is a pressure cooker, and if you’re unfamiliar with pressure cooking there are a few basic things to know to avoid some major problems, like burning your food to the bottom or causing the pot to overflow.
Whether you’re brand new to cooking with an Instant Pot or still fine-tuning your cooking times and water ratios, you’ve come to the right place. We spoke with experts to learn the most common mistakes people make when using an Instant Pot and how to avoid them. Here’s what you need to know:
Mistake #1: Adding too much water
Water is essential to cooking with an Instant Pot, because you need steam to build pressure inside the pot and cook the food faster. However, too much water can cause issues. “Too much liquid can cause the contents to overflow and spill,” Tracy Fadden, vice president of marketing at Instant Brands, told HuffPost. The key? “Follow the ‘PC Max’ fill line on the inside of the inner pot.”
If you’ve accidentally added too much water, you may still be able to save your dish using the Instant Pot’s sauté function. In her forthcoming cookbook, “Authentic Indian Cooking With Your Instant Pot,” Vasanti Bhadkamkar-Balan explains you can remove the lid and hit the sauté button, which boils the liquid and reduces it. “A key point to remember is to separate the cooked protein (meat, beans, etc.) into another bowl using a slotted spoon before reducing the [liquid], otherwise it can get overcooked in the process,” she said.
Mistake #2: Adding too little water
On the flip side of things, adding too little water will put you at risk for burning your food and getting the dreaded “burn” error on your Instant Pot. This message appears when the bottom of the Instant Pot overheats and the heating element turns off. When this happens, you need to turn the pot off by pressing cancel, release the pressure built up by turning the steam release handle to the venting position, then check the bottom of the pot for any burned bits before restarting the cooking process. It takes … well, forever. Not exactly what you were hoping for from your “Instant” Pot.
“Having to restart the cycle definitely affects both the taste and texture of the food,” said Diana Manalang, chef and owner of Little Chef Little Café in New York City. Since the Instant Pot has built up pressure, your food has already started to cook. She stresses the importance of adjusting your cooking time when you restart the cooking process to avoid mushy, overcooked food.
To prevent having to deal with the burn error in the first place, double check your recipe to ensure you’re adding enough water.
Mistake #3: Forgetting to deglaze the inner pot after sautéing
Speaking of preventing the “burn” error, scraping off the food on the bottom of the pot after sautéing and before pressure cooking is key. “This is something that happens all the time and I made sure to call it out as an important step in the recipes in my cookbook,” Bhadkamkar-Balan said.
If you get the burn error, follow the steps outlined under Mistake No. 2 above, then scrape up and remove any burned food from the inner pot. If you find a large area of the pot with burned food, Bhadkamkar-Balan recommends transferring any food that isn’t burned to another container. “Clean the inner pot thoroughly, and then return the food to the pot to resume the pressure cooking process,” she said. “Add more liquid as needed, up to one cup, but not too much!”
To avoid making this mistake, make sure to properly deglaze the inner pot after sautéing if there’s food stuck to the bottom, or if the bottom of the pot looks lightly browned or burned. To do this, “Add a little liquid (about 1/4 cup of water, stock, or pureed or diced tomatoes with their juice) and scrape the bits of food stuck to the bottom of the inner pot using a wooden spoon,” Bhadkamkar-Balan said.
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Mistake #4: Not accounting for total cook time
Even if your recipe tells you something takes only a few minutes to cook, keep in mind that it takes time for the Instant Pot to build up the pressure needed to start the cooking process, plus additional time to release the pressure after cooking if your recipe requires a natural release.
Take dried beans, for example. Manalang told HuffPost that it takes about 10 minutes for the pressure to build, 30 minutes to cook dried beans that haven’t been soaked, plus 15 to 20 minutes for the natural release. Quick releasing beans is not advised as it “leads to a huge mess, since it will release liquid containing food solids,” she said.
To avoid the temptation of quick releasing foods that should be allowed to depressurize naturally ― which in addition to creating a mess can also result in undercooked food ― make sure you factor the time needed for your Instant Pot to pressurize and depressurize into your dinner plan.
Mistake #5: Cutting meat into tiny pieces
The Instant Pot is great for cooking tough cuts of meat like brisket, as the high pressure tenderizes the meat in a fraction of the time. However if you cut the meat into pieces that are too small, you’ll end up with something more like ground beef or chicken rather than tender chunks, notes Katsuji Tanabe, executive chef of A’Verde Cocina and Tequila Library in Cary, North Carolina. To prevent this from happening, he recommends cutting meat into 2-inch chunks. You can go bigger, but not smaller.