Once upon a time (about 300 years ago), a French mathematician named Denis Papin was living and working in London. Papin was a tinkerer. After putting in long days as an assistant to a physicist, the Frenchman worked on his own inventions — the most enduring of which was something he called a “steam digester”: a cast iron container with a tight-sealing, screw-top lid and a release valve that could be heated over red-hot coals. The purpose of the device? To cook and tenderize food in a flash.
Papin’s steam digester was a closed environment that was designed to heat water under intense pressure, pushing its boiling point far above the normal 212°F. When the device was heated, the pressure from the steam would raise the internal temperature up to 257°F, forcing the steam — a fantastically efficient heat conductor — through foods, thus shortening the cooking time by as much as two-thirds. What’s more, with all the liquids retained in the pot, the resulting dishes were moist and bursting with concentrated flavors.
Papin was excited about his invention, and unveiled his new “engine for softening bones” before the Royal Society of London — the oldest and most prestigious geek squad known to man. He proudly noted that “the hardest cow-beef may be made as tender and savoury as young and choice meat,” making the steam digester ideal for speedy, cost-effective cooking — as well as for the “making of drinks, chemistry, and dyeing.”
But Papin’s steam digester wasn’t quite ready for prime time. It required a specially-built furnace, and despite the addition of a safety valve, pressurized explosions weren’t uncommon. The steam digester never really caught on. Dejected after years of fruitless attempts to turn people onto pressure cooking, Papin never even bothered to patent his invention, and he died penniless in 1712.
This may be three centuries too late, but Denis Papin: I salute you.
As the inventor of the pressure cooker, you’ve saved me countless hours in the kitchen, and helped me produce dish after dish of ridiculously tender and flavorful meats and vegetables. I’m sorry those stick-in-the-muds in 17th century London thought you were a goober and laughed at your newfangled explosion-prone kitchen appliance. Those jerks didn’t recognize your genius, but I do.
Denis Papin would’ve been proud to witness the booming popularity of pressure cooking these days. Modern pressure cookers are a whole lot more safe and easy to use, with locking, airtight lids and a valve system that regulates the internal pressure. But the basic concept is unchanged: Pressure cookers raise the temperature of boiling water under pressure, thereby cooking food faster — and concentrating and intensifying flavors, too.
For home cooks with hectic schedules (like me), pressure cooking is a godsend. It allows us to turn out dishes in minutes instead of hours, all while retaining the nutrients that ordinarily get lost in the cooking process. When I’m looking to make dishes that would typically take forever to make — bone broth, collagen-filled tough cuts of meat, braised veggies — I turn to my pressure cooker.
Interested in learning more about the modern-day steam digester? Then take a gander at these two must-read resources:
- Hip Pressure Cooking – My friend Laura Pazzaglia is THE authority. Just as I’ve devoted myself to Paleo cooking, Laura’s 100% committed to pressure cooking. When I asked her how I should respond to readers with questions about pressure cookers, SHE WROTE AN ENTIRE POST DEBUNKING PRESSURE COOKING MYTHS. Laura’s not Paleo, but is awesome nonetheless. (Yes, it’s okay to have non-Paleo friends.) Visit her site and check out her reviews and recipes!
- Food Renegade – For years, many in the traditional food movement were wary of pressure cooking, but recently, Kristen Michaelis of Food Renegade took an in-depth look at pressure cooking and gave it a big thumbs-up. Read her write-up here (and check out my guest post about pressure cooker bone broth, too).
Currently, I use two pressure cookers: A basic 6-quart pressure cooker by Fagor and an 8-quart pressure cooker by Kuhn Rikon (a.k.a. “Bubba”). Believe it or not, there are many days when I have both of my pressure cookers going at the same time; if I had a third one, I’d put it to good use, too.
Here’s one of my favorite pressure cooker dishes: Indian Curry Lamb Spareribs. It’s an adaptation of my pal Noopur’s recipe. Noopur is one of my inspirations in the gym: She’s smaller than me, but always lifts heavier. She can crank out dead-hang pull-ups and all sorts of other super-cool stuff that I can’t (yet) do, but is never, ever “look-at-me / in-yo-face” about it. She’s humble but super-awesome, just like this recipe.
What’s your favorite pressure cooker recipe?
Looking for more recipe ideas? Head on over to my Recipe Index. You’ll also find exclusive recipes on my iPad® app, and in my cookbook, Nom Nom Paleo: Food for Humans (Andrews McMeel, December 2013)!