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pressure cookerThe World of Pressure Cookery: Enter at Your Own Risk
by Marjorie Dorfman

Pressure cookers create healthier, tastier meals and yet have remained an enigma to American cuisine and cooks. Why has using them become an adventure and more times than not, a misadventure? Read on for some facts and a chuckle or two.

Green peas on the ceiling, way up I can see.
Oh, carry my vacuum safely to thee…
– The Dorfman Archives

My very first experience with a pressure cooker came after I was given one for a housewarming present too many years ago for me to feel comfortable discussing honestly. I tried it out and boy, did I learn the wrong way to use it fast! I followed the directions (famous last words, n’est ce pas?) and to this day I do not know exactly what went wrong. I can say, however, without any doubt, that the green peas I was preparing didn’t have any answers either and they got the shock of their lives (if peas have lives and the capacity to be shocked, that is).

My story begins one night when I was seated in my living room watching television and awaiting dinner. I suddenly heard a loud "popping" noise from the kitchen. I ran inside and found the cooker still on the stove with water dripping everywhere, and the lid rocking and rolling mysteriously on the floor. The peas, however, were like the crew of that ill-fated schooner, The Mary Celeste, nowhere to be seen. This situation was only alleviated when I dared to look up instead of everywhere else. There they were, those green little darlings, plastered all over my white ceiling in a design that not destined to become the newest rage in kitchen design.

I never used the pressure cooker again and it ended up in a Salvation Army thrift store waiting for some poor unsuspecting family to take their chances with it. This has been the fate of many a pressure cooker, even though today they are made in a much safer fashion. Believe it or not, these old cookers keep popping up, like bad acting in an old horror movie. They can often be found at garage sales, on E-Bay and even at estate sales. According to experts, if you run across one of these and feel that you must own one, at least decide that you will never cook anything in it. Pot a plant, hang it on the wall, hit your IRS representative with it or use it as a door stop, but whatever you do, don’t ever USE it. There’s a reason why you got it so cheaply and also why no one else wanted it. Sometimes things are too good to be true simply because they are!

Steam digester?But how did these cookers begin their journey up popularity’s fickle path? A gentleman named Denis Papin, who referred to his creation as a "steam digester", invented the very first pressure cooker known to man in 1679. It was a large cast iron vessel with a lid that locked. It successfully raised cooking temperatures by 15% over boiling, and accordingly, reduced cooking time. Unfortunately, it also reduced the life span of some of the cooks who got in the way of the steam and building temperatures and became as one with the incurring explosions. (This may or may not have also been the time when insurance for cooks was first invented, but historians in the know dispute this theory.)

humor cooking old chefOne hundred and twenty years later, Napoleon Bonaparte offered twelve thousand francs to anyone who could find a way to preserve food for his hungry troops. In 1809, the prize went to Parisian Nicholas Appert who utilized an early version of the pressure cooker to vacuum seal foods in clean jars. This led to the eventual development of the canning industry. His nephew, Raymond Chevallier-Appert (no relation to Maurice or to the American made car), improved upon the design by inventing and patenting a sterilizer that provided more consistent results.

Early pressure cookers were huge industrial-size canners. In 1905 they were known as "canner retorts," and were manufactured by National Presto, then called Northwestern Iron and Steel Works. Soon fifty-gallon capacity pressure vessels for industrial use were developed and subsequently, thirty-gallon canners for hotel use. Soon thereafter, the ten-gallon models, more suitable for home canning, were also developed. In 1915 the term "pressure cooker" first appeared in print and National Presto installed an aluminum foundry for the specific purpose of manufacturing large-size pressure canners for home use.

pressure cookingLightweight aluminum was used in manufacturing the canners for home use to promote canning as a means of preserving food in the days before refrigeration. In 1917, the United States Department of Agriculture determined that pressure canning was the only safe method of preserving low-acid foods without risk of food poisoning. In 1938 at a New York City Trade Show, Alfred Vischler introduced his Flex-Seal Speed Cooker, the very first pressure cooker designed for home use. His creation was so successful that it wasn’t long before other manufacturers in America and Europe were producing many brands of pressure cookers in order to keep up with their growing popularity.

As people migrated from the country and a farming life-style to the cities and suburban living they craved all the comfort foods that Mom used to make in the big pressure canner back home. Housewives wanted a smaller, more convenient size and so the new pressure saucepan was developed. Smaller than the big farm-sized canning kettles, the new cookers were perfect for smaller families and the modern kitchen of the time.

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"Technology has enabled man to gain control over everything except technology."

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Don't miss this excellent book

Pressure Cookers for Dummies

by Tom Lacalamita

Pressure Cookers for Dummies

No more fear! Make great food fast with today's pressure cookers. This book gives you tips for using today's safe, versatile models and 85 foolproof recipes for otherwise long-cooking classics.

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