Multicookers (Electric Pressure Cookers)
How We Tested
Have you heard the joke about vegans? “How do you know when someone’s a vegan? Don’t worry—they’ll tell you.” These days you could replace “vegan” with “Instant Pot user” and the joke would still stand. People are downright fanatical about Instant Pot, a brand of multipurpose electric pressure cookers that’s taking the internet by storm. There are countless blogs dedicated to these appliances. The most popular Instant Pot Facebook group (of many) has more than 725,000 members and grows by thousands each week. Amazon’s 2017 Prime Day was the biggest sales day in the website’s history; the top-selling product in both the United States and Canada, after Amazon devices? The Instant Pot.
Part of the genius is the name. Instant Pot sounds convenient and approachable, so even though it’s really just an electric pressure cooker with additional features, it doesn’t tend to come with the connotation of dangerous explosions like regular pressure cookers do (though they’re quite safe these days). The company’s other brilliant move: eschewing traditional advertising in favor of handing out Instant Pots to bloggers and letting them and social media do the rest. Personal stories and word of mouth are powerful, and they’ve created a community that people want in on.
When we tested the Instant Pot and other multicookers last year, we weren’t impressed. While they promise to replace a slew of appliances—a pressure cooker, a slow cooker, a rice cooker, and more—we found that they don’t stack up against said equipment and require lots of recipe rejiggering to get food that isn’t egregiously under- or overcooked. But the appeal is undeniable: One appliance to buy, store, and understand versus multiple. So we went back into the test kitchen and spent a year studying multicookers and developing recipes dialed in to their specific functionality for our forthcoming cookbook, Multicooker Perfection (April 2018).
Armed with these new recipes, we tested multicookers again, selecting five models priced from about $90.00 to just under $200.00, including the best-selling Instant Pot model and our previous winner, the Fagor LUX, which we had recommended with reservations. All have an 8-quart capacity—a larger size that we like for the broader cooking surface (better for browning) and roomy interior (easier for maneuvering food), especially since these machines can’t be filled to the top. After nearly 100 pounds of meat, 20 pounds of beans, and five weeks of testing, would we like them any better?
Pressure Cooking in a Multicooker
We started by evaluating the pressure‑cooking function on each machine. Pressure cookers are essentially just extremely tightly sealed pots. The boiling point of water is higher in a closed environment because the pressure makes it harder for the water to turn to steam; this is why pressure cookers can cook food faster. And because the pot stays closed and loses hardly any moisture, you can use less liquid and the flavors become more concentrated.
Let’s start with the (mostly) good news. All the machines except for one made great pressure-cooked food. Beef was meltingly tender after just 25 minutes, bone-in chicken breasts were juicy and fully cooked in 17 minutes, and presoaked dried beans were creamy but intact in 50 minutes. The one model that failed, from Aobosi, had a droopy gasket that repeatedly prevented it from sealing correctly; a second copy of the same model performed similarly, and even though it’s a top seller on Amazon, the company was incommunicado when we reached out to customer service.
To understand what was going on inside the multicookers while they cooked under pressure, we filled each with a precise amount of water and used a wireless temperature tracker to see how hot they got on both their low and high pressure settings; the hotter the temperature, the higher the pressure. None of them got as hot as a good stovetop pressure cooker, which reaches about 250 degrees, or 15 psi (pounds per square inch), on high, compared to 212 degrees, the boiling point of water in a regular pot. This means multicookers will cook slightly slower than stovetop pressure cookers, though still much faster than other cooking methods.
On low, after coming up to pressure, all the multicookers performed similarly. But we use high pressure 99 percent of the time because it’s more efficient. Here we saw a bigger spread. There was an 8.4‑degree, or 3.9-psi, difference between the lowest- and highest-pressured models. The Instant Pot was the outlier. It takes longer to come up to pressure, and once it’s at pressure, it cooks slightly hotter, at 246.48 degrees, compared to 238 to 240 degrees for the others. This wasn’t a deal breaker, though. It really mattered only for delicate foods such as chicken breasts, and if you tweak cooking times, you can get good pressure-cooked food out of the Instant Pot. In Multicooker Perfection, we’ve added instructions for how to adjust recipes, reducing cooking times slightly for the Instant Pot where necessary.
What About Rice in a Multicooker?
Multicookers also promise to replace rice cookers. Typically we cook rice on the stove, in the oven, or in a rice cooker. In all these methods, some of the water gets absorbed and the rest evaporates. But the multicookers pressure-cook the rice, with very little evaporation, so all the water gets concentrated and absorbed. This made for a stickier final product; however, all the models except the one with the sealing issue made acceptable white and brown rice, though we had to tweak manufacturers’ recipes (if they even had them) to get optimal results.
Searing Lessons Learned
It’s nice not to have to dirty an additional pot if you want to sauté onions or cook down wine to kick off your dish, so we examined how well multicookers handle such tasks. The Instant Pot has three specific sauté settings (low, medium, and high), while most other models have a single “sauté” button. When we first started testing multicookers, we sautéed onions on high in the Instant Pot, and it did fairly well. But for the other models, we waited. And waited some more. Some of the machines took upwards of an hour to cook one measly onion. After playing with multicookers for a year in the test kitchen, we learned that many of them have a second setting that functions like a skillet, typically labeled “brown.” Intended to sear meat, this setting is hotter and gave us better results, allowing us to sauté and sear in a more timely manner.
Slow Cooking in a Multicooker
We were feeling pretty optimistic—until we tried to slow-cook. Here, we encountered two problems. The first has to do with multicookers in general: They work very differently than traditional slow cookers. Namely, they heat up really fast, while a slow cooker gently warms to its target temperature.
This is a problem with more delicate foods such as chicken breasts, because if you try to use a general slow-cooker recipe, one that isn’t specifically designed for a multicooker’s more aggressive heating, those foods will overcook. But we found that we could solve this problem, namely by reducing cooking times. For example, a chicken dish made using the multicooker’s slow‑cooking function typically takes about an hour less than the same recipe made in our winning traditional slow cooker. When we used adapted recipes as opposed to slow cooker–specific ones, all the multicookers we tested were able to produce nicely juicy chicken.
Our second slow-cooking problem, however, proved more challenging. Uneven cooking happened to an extent in all the multicookers during our slow‑cooking tests. The food on the bottom of the inserts tended to cook faster than the food at the top. The location of the heating elements and the shape of the inserts played a role here.
In a multicooker, the heating element is set below the insert (like a pot sitting on a stove), while in some slow cookers, such as our favorite, the heating element wraps around the perimeter of the pot like a belt. All the multicookers had taller pots (6 to 7 inches tall) with narrower cooking surfaces (8 to 8.5 inches in diameter), compared to our winning slow cooker, which is shallower (only 4.5 inches tall) with a broader, oval-shaped cooking surface (10.9 by 6.8 inches). In a taller, narrower multicooker, the food is piled higher, so the heat has to travel farther, 6 to 7 inches upward, to get through all the food. In a slow cooker’s broader pot, the food is shallower and the heat encircles it, so the heat has to travel only 3 inches or so at most to penetrate the food.
To understand all the machines’ heating patterns during slow cooking, we heated precisely 5 pounds of water in each for 5 hours. On low, the Instant Pot was drastically cooler. It topped out at 186.7 degrees, compared to 198 to 207.9 degrees in the others—an 11.3- to 21.2‑degree difference.
To give it the best possible chance for success, we slow-cooked everything on high in the Instant Pot during testing. But even then, it lagged behind the rest. During the water test, it maxed out at 206.2 degrees, compared to 207.9 to 214.1 degrees in the other models, a 1.7- to 7.9‑degree difference. And it’s easier for heat to move through water than denser mediums, like viscous stews. This is why the Instant Pot's low temperature was more of a problem with thicker, large-volume foods such as beef stew and chili con carne. These took upwards of 16 hours in the Instant Pot, meaning you’d have start your machine at 4 a.m. to have dinner ready by 8 p.m. And even after 16 hours, some dishes, such as Chinese-style spareribs, were still not fully cooked.
To figure out why the Instant Pot was slower than the other models, we contacted Dr. Robert A. Heard, professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. He helped us calculate the potential amount of energy, in the form of heat, that ends up in each machine’s insert to cook the food, based on the dimensions of each machine’s base and insert and the amount of watts (or power) it’s equipped with.
Unsurprisingly, the Instant Pot had the least amount of energy reaching the food: 0.19 watts per cubic centimeter, compared to 0.21 to 0.23 watts per cubic centimeter in the other models. While seemingly minuscule, these differences mean that the Instant Pot had 7.6 percent to 18.5 percent less available energy to cook with than the other models did. No wonder it ran slower.
The Best Multicooker on the Market
After weeks of testing with recipes developed specifically for multicookers, we found that we liked these machines much more than before. They aren’t as good as the individual products they promise to replace; a stovetop pressure cooker will cook faster (though these electric models are more hands-off, so this point is debatable), a skillet is still quicker and easier to work in, a slow cooker will cook your food more gently and evenly, and a rice cooker or stovetop rice-cooking method will give you more discrete grains. But if you want just one machine to do all of the above, a multicooker is a good option—if you buy the right one.
The best model we tested was the Fagor LUX LCD Multicooker, an upgraded version of our old winner, the Fagor LUX Multicooker. They produce the same results with food, and we still like the classic LUX, but the new LCD version has a few really useful features. First, an alarm sounds when the lid isn’t fully sealed. All the multicookers we tested have silicone gaskets in their lids that help with sealing, but sometimes they can fall out of place, which prevents the lid from sealing properly. Without an alarm, the multicooker will just forge ahead and try to build pressure. Typically you notice something’s wrong when steam just keeps shooting out of the lid and the machine fails to indicate that the target pressure has been reached within the typical time frame, about 20 minutes. You have to start the cooking time over, but the food has already been heated for several minutes, so it can turn out overcooked. The Fagor LUX LCD’s alarm solves that problem; if the lid isn’t sealed properly, the pot tells you from the get-go.
Two other features we liked: Its clean LCD interface was easy to operate and tells you very clearly what it’s doing, whether it’s preheating, cooking under pressure, warming, done, or doing something else. You also can lock the controls, so you won’t accidentally bump them and cancel or change your settings. We think these improvements are worth $30.00 more, though our old winner remains a good option.
Finally, for any Instant Pot fanatics reading this: Please, put down your pitchforks! While we do think other models are superior because they slow‑cook in a more timely fashion, which makes them more truly multipurpose, if the Instant Pot works for you, if it makes your life easier, if it motivates you to prepare food more at home, then it’s worth every penny you spent on it.
We tested five multicookers priced from about $90.00 to just under $200.00. We made beef stew, braised chicken breasts, and Boston baked beans twice in each machine, first using the pressure‑cooking function and then the slow‑cooking function. We also made white and brown rice, both cooked under pressure. To see how hot the multicookers got when they were slow‑cooking, we tracked their temperatures on both low and high over 5 hours and compared the results to our winning slow cooker, the KitchenAid 6-Quart Slow Cooker with Solid Glass Lid. We also brought each multicooker up to low and high pressure and tracked the internal temperatures to understand how much pressure each was capable of producing. All products were purchased online and appear below in order of preference.
Pressure Cooking: We rated the multicookers on the pressure-cooked food they prepared; models rated highest if they produced even, properly cooked food (tender, juicy meats; richly flavored and reduced sauces and stews; intact and fully cooked beans) within recipe time frames.
Slow Cooking: We rated the multicookers on the slow-cooked food they prepared; models rated highest if they made properly cooked food (tender, juicy meats; richly flavored and reduced sauces and stews; intact and fully cooked beans) within recipe time frames.
Rice: We pressure-cooked brown and white rice in each model and gave high marks to those that produced tender, evenly cooked grains.
Searing/Sautéing: We sautéed in each multicooker on the highest possible heat setting over the course of multiple recipes, browning both chicken and beef, and awarded higher marks to models that sautéed quickly and browned deeply and evenly.
Ease of Use: Throughout testing, we evaluated the multicookers on how easy they were to program. Those with simple, clear, informative interfaces rated highest.
Maneuverability: Throughout testing, we evaluated the multicookers on how easy they were to load and unload with food, cook in, open and close, and move around. Those with removable lids with plastic-coated tops that stayed cool to the touch rated highest.