Not so very long ago, a pressure cooker was an old-fashioned curiosity you rarely saw in anyone’s kitchen. Then came the Instant Pot and its horde of imitators, and suddenly, electric pressure cookers were the hottest new kitchen tool. If you’ve got one and you’re looking to expand your culinary repertoire, consider its potential for cooking pasta. Whether you want just a quick batch of Instant Pot noodles or a more elaborate one-pot meal, it’s an easy and fuss-free way to put dinner on the table.
Why Even Bother?
If you normally cook pasta on the stovetop, you might legitimately wonder whether it’s even worth cooking pasta in your pressure cooker. It’s quick and easy to cook pasta the traditional way, after all, and you’re already familiar with the technique.
In practice, pressure cooker pasta makes sense for a lot of reasons. For one, you’ll use less water, which is a concern in drought-prone areas. You’ll also put a lot less heat and steam into the air in your kitchen, which can be a real factor on hot, muggy mid-summer days. Depending on how you heat your water, an electric pressure cooker also may require less energy.
Mostly, though, it’s about convenience and safety. When you use an electric pressure cooker to prepare your pasta, you enjoy a number of benefits: You won’t have to keep your stovetop free from spatters and splatters; you won’t have to worry about your pot boiling over; and you won’t have to tote a big pot of boiling water from the stove to the sink to drain it. That means less cleaning up and minimal risk to any kids or pets who might be underfoot while you’re cooking.
Downsides of Pressure Cooker Pasta
Nothing in life is ever perfect, of course, and there are a couple of minor downsides to preparing your pasta in a pressure cooker. One is that you’re limited to relatively small batches, so if you plan to make enough to feed all of your friends and family, you’ll have to go back to a big pot on the stove. Most pressure cooker recipes also call for relatively precise amounts of pasta and water, so you can’t just wing it as you might when cooking pasta in a pot.
The starch cooking out of your pasta is what makes it foam up on the stovetop, and that can affect you in pressure cooking as well. It won’t boil over, as it might on the stovetop, but if you use too much water, there’s a risk you might clog your safety valve and pressure release valve. You’ll also have to be selective about which pasta you cook, because not all shapes and styles of noodles work well in a pressure cooker.
Choosing Your Pasta
The most versatile pasta shapes for pressure cooking are short and relatively sturdy, like fusilli, penne and farfalle. Though their shapes are very different, all three cook well without sticking together. That’s a concern in the pressure cooker, where you’re working with relatively little water. Cup-shaped pasta, including shells and orecchiette, are risky choices because they’re prone to nestling inside each other and sticking together.
Fresh pasta cooks very quickly, so it will usually turn to mush in a pressure cooker. Pasta-like gnocchi will do the same, leaving you with a sticky mess to clean up. Small shapes like alphabet pasta and soup noodles don’t do well either. In general, anything with a conventional cooking time of less than 7 minutes will probably be too fragile for the pressure cooker.
Other common pastas, including filled shapes such as ravioli and tortellini, and long noodles such as spaghetti, are also iffy. If you try to cook them on their own, they’ll stick or fall apart, but some recipes successfully cook them right in their sauce.
Adjusting Your Cooking Time
Once you’ve chosen your pasta, you’ll need to calculate an appropriate cooking time. If your pressure cooker has both high and low pressure settings, the math is pretty simple. Use the low pressure setting on your pressure cooker, and you cut your cooking time in half. If the package says to boil for 10 to 12 minutes, for example, you’d take the 10 minutes and cut that in half to get 5. If it’s an odd number, like 7 to 9 minutes, round down to the next lowest even number, and take half of that.
If your pressure cooker doesn’t have a low pressure setting, you’ll have to make additional allowances. If you’d cut your cooking time down to 5 minutes, for example, you might need to take off another 1 or 2 minutes to keep it from overcooking. It’s always best to be conservative and err on the side of keeping your cooking time short. If it’s not quite al dente, you can use the saute function to boil it a little longer, but once it’s overcooked, you can’t do anything to salvage it.
If you tend to buy the same brands and shapes of pasta repeatedly, you should learn pretty quickly how long each shape takes to cook. If you frequently try new things, follow the “less is more” rule and start with the shortest cooking time you think might work.
Cooking Plain Pasta
Once you’ve worked out your cooking time, measure the pasta and water into your pressure cooker along with a pinch of salt. Pressure cooker recipes often call for a dollop of oil or butter in the pot as well to help keep the water from foaming. Seal the lid to the pot, set your chosen cooking time and bring it up to pressure according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Bear in mind that your cooker will probably take 10 minutes or so to come up to pressure, so even if your cooking time is only 3 or 4 minutes, you’re probably looking at 10 to 15 minutes’ cooking time in total.
When the time is up, most recipes call for quick release to stop the cooking immediately. If you find that starchy water tries to shoot out the valve when you open it, close it again and wait a few seconds. Then, use a pair of tongs to quickly open and close the valve a few times, until the pressure is low enough that the water stops spattering. Then you can release pressure the rest of the way.
Check your pasta for doneness. If it’s ready, you can drain it. If not, boil it for a few more minutes with the saute function, or just let it sit for a few minutes on “keep warm” until it’s absorbed a bit more water.
Cooking Pasta in Sauce
Part of the reason for the Instant Pot’s turbocharged rise to popularity is the convenience of making one-pot meals. You can certainly use the pressure cooker as an alternative to boiling pasta, but preparing your entire meal in it is a much more appealing option.
Most Instant Pot pasta recipes start with sauce in the Instant Pot, either by using the saute function to make something from scratch or by layering in meats and vegetables with a prepared sauce. Then add your pasta – broken-up long noodles, such as spaghetti, or the sort of shapes you’d cook on their own – and extra water or other cooking liquid, as called for in your recipe.
If you’re making a recipe for the first time, follow it closely. Pressure cooker macaroni and cheese, for example, can easily stick and burn onto your pot if you aren’t careful. Once you’ve made a few different recipes and repeated your favorites a few times, you’ll have a better handle on what works and what doesn’t. At that point, you can start tweaking the recipes to make them your own.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.