Cooking Battle

Home Cooking Battle

Instant Pot vs. Dutch oven vs. microwave

These days, a  home cook has plenty of choices when it comes to the ways to make a meal.

It can be prepared instantly in a microwave or pressure cooked in the electric Instant Pot or cooked on a stovetop or in the oven. The flavors vary with each method and so does the mess and fuss level. 

The Post-Gazette food team is here to help, by weighing in with the easiest methods and those that offer the best flavors: Gretchen McKay lobbies for the Instant Pot, the gadget with a cult following for its press-of-a-button versatility and its of-the-moment stylishness. Arthi Subramaniam gets behind the time immemorial method of stovetop cooking with the most practical of all pots, the Dutch oven. And Melissa McCart visits microwave cooking that gets the side-eye from chefs and foodies, but is a fixture in most office break rooms.

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By Gretchen McKay | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

I’m a late and reluctant adopter to the Instant Pot. In fact, I doubt I ever would have cooked in one had I not bought one as a joke for my husband last year for Christmas.

He works out of town during the week, and I was tired of packing up meals for him to reheat in his bachelor pad. If you believed the hype — and it was hard not to when the multipurpose cooker became an Amazon darling in 2017  — he would be able to cook everything from barbecued chicken to pad Thai to yogurt and chocolate cake in just a few minutes. And all with minimal cleanup!

He immediately fell in love with his Black Friday gift. Ever since, he’s constantly crowing about how quickly he’s able to get rice, vegetables and Asian dishes onto the dinner table after work. But I maintained a healthy skepticism about the gadget and the obsessed Instant Pot community it spawned. I mean, I tend to cook a lot of stir fries and like my chicken crunchy and vegetables crispy. You can’t do that in a pressure cooker. 

Chicken cacciatore with mushrooms cooked with the Instant Pot, the popular two-in-one device that combines pressure cooking with the slow cooker. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)

Marriage, though, so often is about compromise, and eventually, I agree to give the multipot a try. And wouldn’t you know it, I had to agree with my husband it’s a runaway hit for good reason. 

Just how insanely popular is the Instant Pot? I currently have nine cookbooks on my desk devoted to the cooker, with recipes that embrace everything from vegetarian Indian to paleo to sous vide and “cooking from frozen.” It’s a trend that seems to only be growing. 

Is it the end-all, be-all? Nope. You’re never going to make a creamy or crispy dish in it, and forget about using it for burgers or steak. But it is convenient, and it does a pretty good job for soups, stews, rice, and meat dishes that usually have to be cooked for a very long time to become tender. It’s also extremely versatile. Along with saute and slow cooker functions, it serves as a rice cooker, steamer and food warmer. 

It’s fast, but not as instantaneous as the name suggests: You have to wait for the pot to come to pressure before you can cook in it, a process that can take a frustrating 15 or 20 minutes. But once you throw everything into the machine, it’s pretty much hands off. You can toss in a load of laundry or go for a quick run, or maybe just unwind with your favorite IPA. 

Over the past month, I’ve made everything from Indian butter chicken, beans and bolognese sauce to spaghetti and meatballs, chipotle mac ‘n cheese and pork for tacos in the Instant Pot. It all turned out great and it’s going to be hard giving the thing back to my husband.

The Instant Pot. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)

What won me over, I think, was following New York Times food writer Melissa Clark’s very good advice in her very good new cookbook, “Comfort in an Instant” (Clarkson Potter, October 2018).

“The key to pressure-cooker success is choosing recipes in which softness and succulence is the goal,” she writes, “and which traditionally can take hours to get there ... If you don’t ask it to do what it can’t, you won’t be disappointed.”

The first recipe that caught my eye was for chicken cacciatore with mushrooms. Provided I don’t have to give the Instant Pot back just yet, I also can’t wait to try her risotto carbonara, spicy Asian chicken wings and sticky toffee pudding. 

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Chicken Cacciatore With Mushrooms

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This classic Italian dish features bone-in chicken in tomato sauce spiked with peppers and garlic. The thighs are browned, skin-side down, using the Instant Pot’s saute function, and then pressure cooked with the veggies. For a crisper dish, you may want to cheat a little and fry the thighs in a skillet before adding them to the multipot. Serve over noodles, orzo or polenta.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed, divided

2 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, patted dry

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 ounces cremini or white button mushrooms, thinly sliced

1 small yellow onion, thinly sliced

1 small red bell pepper, thinly sliced

2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

¾ cup canned diced tomatoes and their liquid

¼ cup dry white or red wine

2 large sprigs rosemary

2 tablespoons drained capers

Chopped fresh basil or parsley, for garnish

Cooked polenta, egg noodles or orzo, for serving

Using the saute function (set on high, if possible), heat 1 tablespoon oil in pressure cooker pot. Season chicken with 1 teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper and arrange thighs in a single layer, skin-side down, on bottom of pot. Cook, without moving, until well browned, about 8 minutes. Transfer chicken to a plate as it browns. (You only have to brown one side.)

Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil to pot along with mushrooms, onion, bell pepper, garlic and a pinch of salt. Saute until vegetables are tender and golden, about 5 minutes.

Add tomatoes, wine and rosemary and bring to a simmer, using a wooden spoon to scrape up any brown bits on bottom of pot. Let simmer 1 minute. Place chicken, browned side up, in pot and pour in any accumulated juices.

Lock lid into place and cook on high pressure for 13 minutes. Let pressure release naturally for 10 minutes, then manually release the remaining pressure.

Transfer chicken to serving plates; keep loosely tented with foil. Add capers to pot. Using saute function, bring sauce to a simmer and cook until thickened slightly, 5 to 7 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Remove rosemary stems, Spoon sauce over chicken and top with chopped basil or parsley, if desired.

Serves 3 to 4.

— “Comfort in an Instant: 75 Comfort Food Recipes for Your Pressure Cooker, Multicooker, and Instant Pot” by Melissa Clark (Clarkson Potter; October 2018)



Microwaves are for more than reheating leftovers and making popcorn
By Melissa McCart | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Microwaves are the end of humankind,” said do-gooder world-famous chef Jose Andres.

He was responding to his daughter’s tweet, Eater reported, when she joined a Twitter-wide prank around Thanksgiving in which millennials asked parents how to cook a 25-pound turkey in the microwave. “She almost gave me a heart attack,” Mr. Andres said once he was in on the joke.

Microwaving a turkey is a terrible idea. But it’s more than just the bird: Talk to a restaurant chef and a good handful of home cooks, and they, too, are suspicious of microwave cooking.

Breakfast salad with poached eggs and bacon that are cooked in a microwave. (Melissa McCart/Post-Gazette)

But I’m betting that a silent majority of people regularly use their microwaves as a go-to cooking method. One of them happens to be my mother, who has recently adopted the microwave to cook dry pasta in boiling water or to heat then froth milk for morning coffee. She’s included among the 90 percent of Americans who have a microwave in their homes, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers. I am not.

It’s a new year, however, and I’m inspired to cut back on dining out, which, with my restaurant-critic job, means bringing lunch to the office more often. Rather than making meals ahead, since the office has a couple microwaves, I’m going to take my cues from people who actually microwave real food that does not come in a box,  such as David Greene, host of NPR Morning Edition, who several years ago professed to microwaving scrambled eggs in his office mug. At one point he even expanded his repertoire to include “mac and cheese with mushrooms in an office mug,” as well as “brownie in an office mug.”

Poach an egg in a half cup of water for about a minute on high. Then take a slotted spoon or fork and guide the egg out of the cup onto your dressed salad greens. Toss to finish. (Melissa McCart/Post-Gazette)

I’ll look for guidance from former food writer for the Post-Gazette, Woodene Merriman, who touted the utility of the microwave and even compiled a book in 1988 she called “Zap It: Adventures in Microwave Cooking,” with a fantastic cover with a microwave flying in outer space. It is a collection of her relevant columns, “to help readers who are ready to use their microwaves for something more than reheating coffee.”

While I couldn’t find a copy to peruse entries like “Zap with a gourmet touch,” or “Corn on the cob — five ways,” I searched the PG archives to unearth topical recipes here.

In the spirit of bistro fare that’s everywhere, I’m suggesting a frisee salad: And when it comes to the bacon and the poached egg, I’ll take Ms. Merriman’s advice and zap it.

“Tasting Paris: 100 Recipes to Eat Like a Local” is by blogger Clotilde DuSoulier of Chocolate & Zucchini. It’s one of a handful of cookbooks that have come out in the past couple of years that highlight bistronomy, the reinvention of the French bistro. If you can’t find frisee — it’s a hard find at Market District, for example — sub in arugula and consider this a breakfast salad. 

Melissa McCart: mmccart@post-gazette.com.

Breakfast Salad With Bacon and Eggs

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Here’s one version of what to do with your bacon and eggs — poached for this recipe — though you can just as easily make scrambled eggs or hard-boiled eggs in the microwave, too. For the vinaigrette, I am a fan of combining good olive oil with the juice of half a lemon or 2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar.

3 to 4 slices thickly cut bacon

4 cups arugula, frisee lettuce, dandelion greens or escarole

¼ cup of vinaigrette of your choice

Salt for taste

2 eggs

1 cup toasted croutons

2 tablespoons chopped chives

Place 1 bacon slice on a plate covered with 2 or more paper towels. Place more paper towels on top and zap 1 minute per strip. Let cool. Slice across the grain into matchsticks.

Dress frisee with vinaigrette in a large bowl. The leaves should be dressed but not too wet. Season with salt.

Plate the greens.

Fill 2 bowls with water. Gently crack egg into water — 1 egg per bowl — making sure it's completely submerged. Cover bowl with a saucer and microwave on high for about 1 minute, or until the white is set but yolk is still runny.

Transfer egg to salad with a slotted spoon.

Garnish salad with croutons, bacon and chives.

Serves 2.

— Adapted from “Tasting Paris: 100 Recipes to Eat Like a Local” by Clotilde Dusoulier (Clarkson Potter; March 2018)



Dutch ovens can do it all. That includes a chocolate lava cake for a crowd
By Arthi Subramaniam | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

I take delight in one-pot cooking, especially if the pot is a good-quality indoor cast-iron Dutch oven. And if it has an enamel coating that doesn’t chip off, a tight lid and a light interior so I can keep an eye on the browning, it becomes my BFF.

Anyone who calls the Dutch oven a cold-weather pot is plain ignorant, or says it’s an old-fashioned way of cooking, probably lives in a cave. It is an all-weather pot that comes in handy even on a hot summer day for cold foods and can be used for the trendiest of recipes.

A moist and fudgy chocolate lava cake that can feed at least 12 is baked in a 5.5-quart enamel-coated Dutch oven. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

I use my versatile Dutch ovens on the stovetop, in the oven and sometimes both by starting off the preparation at one place and finishing it in another. The pot can pull in double duty when it comes to mulled apple cider by acting as a slow cooker for mulling the cider while the tight and heavy lid keeps it warm. It does triple duty when it comes to coq au vin, from reducing the wine flavored with thyme and bay leaves, to crisping the bacon and browning the chicken, to baking the bird with carrots and mushrooms in the oven.

It is true that it is not a pot you would lug to a potluck because it is heavy, like 11 pounds for 5.5-quart heavy, and for a good reason — it’s almost impossible to burn anything in it. Sometimes you might have to stand by the pot to stir the contents or watch them boil, and so what? That’s part of the joy of cooking. So don’t be a wuss and consider the advantages instead.

The Dutch oven is a given for making soups, stews, chilis and gumbos. In addition, I use it for cooking layered biryanis and casseroles; popping popcorn; searing salmon; poaching meatballs; browning, braising and roasting meats and potatoes; and frying rice wafers, onion rings, fries and chicken.

Bittersweet chocolate, cocoa and brewed coffee are used in this lava cake. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

On warmer days, I toss pasta, potato and fruit salads in the pot, close with the tight lid and leave them to chill in the refrigerator, and on occasion I have used my bright red Dutch oven as a punch bowl because the lid helps to retain the shape of the ice cubes.

But it was only when I received the cookbook, “Cook it in Your Dutch Oven” by America’s Test Kitchen (America’s Test Kitchen; December 2018), it hit me that I had never used my Dutch ovens to make desserts. And why not? As the book says, it’s perfect for an apple pandowdy as it can be used as a mixing bowl to toss the wedged apples with sugar, cinnamon and salt and then to cook the fruits until they release their juices. The pot’s heavy bottom also can cook soft fruits like blueberries for a grunt without burning them and the heavy lid can hold in the steam nicely to cook the drop biscuit dough.

What really got my attention was the recipe for the Chocolate Lava Cake for a Crowd. Instead of fussing to make individual-size lava cakes, I used my Dutch oven to turn out a large-scale cake that is moist, fudgy, delicious and feeds at least 12 people.

The cookbook has inspired me to bake artisan-style breads next and I can’t wait to try the seeded seven grain or the fig and fennel recipes. And, it got me thinking that the Dutch oven is probably the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Arthi Subramaniam: asubramaniam@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1494.

Chocolate Lava Cake for a Crowd

PG tested

Just like in individual-size lava cakes, this large-scale version made in the Dutch oven has a fudgy molten center that is all gooey and acts like a sauce when the warm cake is cut open.

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces

4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped coarse

1⅓ cups unsweetened cocoa powder, divided

⅔ cup packed light brown sugar

2 cups granulated sugar, divided

1½ cups brewed coffee

1½ cups water

⅔ cup whole milk

2 tablespoons vanilla extract

2 large egg yolks

4 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

1½ cups all-purpose flour

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees.

Melt butter, chocolate and ⅔ cup cocoa powder in Dutch oven over low heat, stirring frequently, 2 to 4 minutes. Remove pot from heat and let cool slightly.

In a bowl, whisk brown sugar, ⅔ cup granulated sugar and remaining ⅔ cup cocoa together, breaking up large clumps of brown sugar with fingers.

In another bowl, combine coffee and water.

Whisk milk, vanilla, egg yolks, baking powder, salt and remaining 1⅓ cups granulated sugar into cooled chocolate mixture.

Whisk in flour until just combined. Sprinkle brown sugar mixture evenly over top, covering entire surface of batter. Pour water mixture gently over brown sugar mixture.

Transfer pot to oven. Bake, uncovered, until cake begins to pull away from sides of pot and top is just firm to touch, 1¼ to 1½ hours, rotating pot halfway through baking.

Remove pot from oven and transfer to wire rack. Let cake cool for 15 minutes before serving.

Serves 12.

— “Cook it in Your Dutch Oven” by America’s Test Kitchen (America’s Test Kitchen; December 2018)



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