The Pressure Cooker: An Overlooked Preparedness Tool, by N.J.

Monday, May 25, 2009

[Introductory note from JWR: I have made some changes to the following text, regarding safety issues. ]

Storing food is an important part of preparing for disasters, natural or man-made. Much has been written about survival foodstuffs: what to store, how long it can be stored, and what foods are needed to form a balanced diet to aid in living through a TEOTWAWKI scenario. How to prepare food is almost as important as what sorts of food to store. In a disaster scenario, circumstances will change radically from the every day life of today, and food preparation and consumption will also change.

One common characteristic of many crisis scenarios is this: fuel shortages. In any significant societal collapse, economic breakdown, or military conflict, re-supply of fuels will be difficult or even impossible. Grid power and piped-in gas might be intermittent or unavailable. All cooking will be done using wood fires, wood stoves, camp stoves, solar ovens, and other “non traditional” (for 21st century first world individuals) methods. Unfortunately, the staple foods of survivalists, which are beans and rice to that make a complete protein source, usually require long cooking times. These long cooking times mean that large quantities of scarce fuels would be needed to prepare them.
This is where a handy and mostly unconsidered item is most useful: a pressure cooker.

Water boils at 212 degrees F (100∞ degrees C) at sea level. When the air pressure is higher than it is at sea level, water boils at a higher temperature. The pressure lowers the boiling point, but enables higher temperatures. (Liquids won't generally go above their boiling point because they turn to vapor.) This creates superheated steam that forces heat through the food to be cooked. A pressure cooker at usually has fifteen pounds of pressure inside it when in use; at these pressures, water boils at 257 degrees F at sea level. This super heated, steam filled, environment inside the pressure cooker quickly cooks the food.

Pressure cookers have the following characteristics: A four-, six-, eight-quart, or larger saucepan has a clamp down lid; it may, or may not, have a rubber gasket used to generate a seal between the lid and the saucepan body; a ‘vent pipe,’ a small weight known as a pressure regulator [or "bobbler']; and a special plug that serves as an over-pressure valve.

A small amount of water is placed in the cooker, along with the food to be cooked. For foods that can ‘foam,’ such as rice and beans, they may be placed in a small bowl inside the cooker. Food and liquid will be placed in the bowl, and additional water placed outside the bowl, to a depth of at least half the height of the bowl. Be sure to use a metal bowl, or a glass bowl that can easily handle the thermal shock of cooking, such as Pyrex or pre-1999 Corningware dish. Before sealing the lid on the cooker, look through the vent pipe and be sure it is clear. This step is extremely important; if the vent pipe is not clear, pressure can build up dangerously. This will cause the overpressure valve to release, spewing the hot contents of the pressure cooker over the walls, ceiling, people, stove, and anything else in its range. The lid should be sealed on the cooker, the pressure regulator placed on the vent pipe, and the cooker set on a heat source. The heat source may be a stove, a camp-stove, a barbeque grill, or a wood fire.

As the liquid heats, it boils and then makes steam. The steam fills the cooker, and pressure builds in the pot. When it reaches a level where it is equal to the force needed to ‘rock’ the pressure regulator, it will start to do so. A steady (but not fast) rocking of the pressure regulator indicates that the cooker is up to temperature, and so timing of the recipe may begin.
The pressure regulator should have a steady rocking motion. If the regulator stops rocking, and the heat under the pressure cooker is constant, immediately turn off the heat and leave it alone until it cools. The vent pipe may be clogged. Once the cooker cools, it should be opened and checked. If the vent pipe is clogged, clean it with a threaded sewing needle; pass the needle through the vent pipe and remove the clog.

After the cooking time is finished, the pressure cooker must be removed from the heat and cooled so that it may be opened. The only safe way to cool the cooker is to set it aside, where it will cool slowly. [DO NOT it in cold water or under a running cold water faucet, which could cause a dangerous rupture.] Typically, items such as green vegetables, which need only to cook for 1-2 minutes, should be cooled quickly. Root vegetables, such as beets, may cool slowly. If you are using a pressure canner, it should be cooled slowly. If it is cooled quickly, the contents of the jars in the canner might be drawn -out by the rapid change in pressure inside the canner. The cooker is cool when the pressure gauge bottoms or when no pressure is indicated by the bobbler.

This article is not an article about canning and much more information is needed before you can pressure can safely. Please consult other reference material that will explain the process for pressure canning in detail, including the precautions needed to do it safely.

A pressure cooker is useful in a survival situation because it saves a huge amount of fuel and may be used with ‘canned heat’ sources that were mentioned previously. If you are trying to maintain a low profile, you want to avoid much smoke from a cooking fire, the odor of cooking food, and cooking fumes, and other byproducts of every day life.

Rice and beans are considered a staple food for survival situations, as together they supply a complete protein. To cook rice and beans in a pressure cooker is straightforward:
Take a small bowl of the type described above, and place 1 cup of white rice and 1 1/2 cups of water in it. Add salt as desired. Place the bowl in the pressure cooker, add water around the bowl, seal, and place on the heat. When the pressure regulator begins rocking, start to time for four minutes. At the end of this time, remove the cooker from the heat, and place to one side, allowing the pressure to drop naturally. To cook beans such as navy beans or cranberry beans, soak one cup of beans in 4 cups of water overnight. Place in the same metal bowl, cover with 1-1/2 inches of water, place in the pressure cooker, seal, and heat. When the pressure regulator starts rocking, cook for ten minutes. Let the pressure release slowly. It is possible to cook beans without pre-soaking them, but presoaking them yields much better results. If you do not pre-soak the beans, they may not soften properly no matter how long you cook them. An additional tip: do not salt the beans and rice until after they are cooked. Adding salt to cooking beans makes the skins tough.

If not using a bowl to contain the beans, do not fill the pressure cooker more than half full, and add 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil per cup of beans to prevent frothing and subsequent clogging of the vent pipe.

It is possible to use bowls that will nest, to cook the beans and rice at the same time. Experiment with this, to discover what tastes best to you, as it is easy to end up overcooked rice or undercooked beans.

Total time required for cooking when cooking rice and beans separately: 14 minutes, with time required to allow the cooker to cool.
Brown rice and navy beans both take ten minutes to cook – but as brown rice gas a shorter shelf life than white rice, many people concentrate on white rice in their long-term food storage setup.

The fuel savings in using a pressure cooker is huge: It takes 20 minutes to cook rice, and several hours to cook beans with a ‘conventional’ stove and pot. But by using a pressure cooker, you can both the beans and the rice in less time, using less fuel, than conventional cooking of the rice alone.

Additional Resources:

Numerous pressure cooker cookbooks may be found in your local library, or at an online bookseller such as Popular cookbooks such as Joy of Cooking (Rombauer, Becker, and Becker) often have sections on pressure-cooking.

Note: Most pressure cookers come with recipe leaflets when you buy them. If you find a pressure cooker second hand, such as at a Goodwill store, then contact the manufacturer and they will more than likely send you all instructional material free of charge.[JWR Adds: Many of these manuals are now also available in PDF, and can be found with web searches.]

Food Preservation:
Greene, Janet, Hertzberg, Ruth, and Vaughan, Beatrice. 1992 (Fourth Revised Edition).Putting Food By. Plume Books: This is the best reference that this author has seen on the topic of food preservation. It covers many types of food preservation, including boiling water bath canning; pressure canning of meats, vegetables, and seafood; freezing; curing with salt and smoke; drying; root-cellaring. .

Hupping, Carol. 1990 (Revised Updated Edition). Stocking Up: The Third Edition of America's Classic Preserving Guide Fireside Books: Another invaluable reference to home preserving of foods. More recipes that use honey, rather than white sugar to sweeten canned items. Not my favorite flavor, but others may like it. Very complete work, covering canning, freezing, juicing, drying, root cellaring, and preserving dairy products.

The Ball Blue Book of Preserving may be found where canning jars are sold. This book is another ‘bible’ of home preservation.

Internet Resources: This web site has many pressure cooker recipes, and ‘Beginner Basics.’ It is an excellent resource.
There are many other useful canning and cooking web sites, too numerous to list! Use your favorite search engine to seek them out.

Available Brands of Pressure Cookers:
Two classic US companies, Presto and Mirror, have made Pressure Cookers for many years. In researching this article, I discovered that both companies have moved their manufacturing to Asia.
The All American company makes a pressure canner that may also be used as a pressure cooker, in sizes from 10 to 41 quarts. Their web site indicates that they are still made in the USA., and "[u]nlike other cooker/canners, these do not have rubber gaskets that will eventually wear out, but instead are machined to have a metal-to-metal seal and a positive action clamp to lock the cover to the base."
Disclaimer: I have no commercial interest in any of these companies or suppliers.

JWR Adds: Used pressure cookers and pressure canners are often available quite inexpensively, or even free, through Craigslist and Freecycle. One important proviso: Make sure that your pressure cooker's "bobbler" (weighted pressure release valve) is working properly. Without it, you essentially have a bomb on your stove. If your cooker has a pressure gauge, make sure that os functional.

It also bears mentioning that a pressure cooker is particularly useful in extending the life of stored dried beans. Once beans have been stored in excess of six years, they become so hard that even days of soaking beans will not soften them. But two viable solutions to this problem are grinding them, or cooking them in a pressure cooker.

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