There’s no shortage of literature out there praising the Instant Pot for its pressure cooking capabilities. Make stock in 45 minutes. Turn short ribs into a quick, weeknight meal instead of an all-day affair. Cook dried beans without having to remember to soak them the night before.
The Instant Pot’s slow cooker setting doesn’t get as much love, however. Maybe it’s because shaving off five hours from the cook time for short ribs is more dramatic than cooking them low and slow, but the pressure cooking setting definitely gets most of the attention.
After a cookbook’s worth of testing (no really—we’ve got a cookbook of Instant Pot recipes coming out soon!), the kitchen here at Milk Street has concluded that inclination to be misguided. The Instant Pot’s slow cooker setting is a great feature, as long as you know how to use it.
I admit, I was slow to be convinced. I had largely stayed away from slow-cooking after a bad experience with my regular slow cooker that had me serving tough, dry brisket to a large table of hungry family members. I never heard the end of it. (Though I will admit that it was squarely my fault, not the slow cooker’s.)
But eventually, the folks in Milk Street’s kitchen persuaded me to give it a go. I knew they wouldn’t lead me astray. They’ve spent hundreds of hours testing recipes for a cookbook that allows you to cook fast or slow, depending on the speed you need, and they knew the trick to mastering the Instant Pot’s slow cooker. Brisket redemption could be mine
Turns out, the trick to getting the Instant Pot’s slow cooker function to shine is to use it in conjunction with the sauté setting. Bring everything to a boil on the sauté setting first, then let the slow cooking setting take over. This seemed too simple...
So l picked out a comforting stew recipe to try out the Milk Street method: Beef and Chickpea Stew with Cilantro and Warm Spices. Per the instructions, I first used the sauté setting to soften carrots and onions (more on that later), to bloom spices and brown the tomato paste. All of that took about 6 minutes.
Then, following the book’s baseline instruction for slow cooking in the Instant Pot, I brought the stew to a boil, hit “cancel” and secured the lid for slow cooking. With the valve set to “venting” and the temperature set to “high” (or “more” depending on your device), I set the timer to seven hours and walked away. I took my kids on a playdate, took the car for a wash, ran some errands and even snuck in a nap. Okay, the nap was only in my dreams, but I was fully able to “set it and forget it,” as they say. When it was time for the big reveal, the meat was super tender and the sauce thoroughly infused with flavor, just in time for dinner. What was it that people were saying about the slow cooker setting again?
Using the sauté mode in conjunction with the slow cooker, I was able to soften the carrots and onions, bloom the spices and brown the tomato paste in the same place where I cooked the meat low and slow—no extra pan required. A conventional slow cooker requires two pans if you’re going to bloom spices or do something like sear meat ahead of time. The sauté mode isn’t just good for browning and blooming while saving you an extra dish to wash, however. The Instant Pot tends to take longer to come to temperature than traditional slow cookers, which can extend total cook time. Bringing food to a boil on the sauté setting speeds cooking time along considerably.
The beauty of using the slow cooker was that I could leave it unattended practically all day. What’s more, though the pressure cooker can’t be beat when it comes to cooking tender hunks of meat in record time, the slow cooker makes meat that’s just as tender but also has the added benefit of building deep flavor in the sauce.
As most Milk Street recipes do, this particular recipe had another great tip: For added sweetness, grate carrots instead of slicing them. A finishing touch of lemon juice and garnish of cilantro added brightness to the otherwise warm, savory dish—another Milk Street hallmark. The recipe was so good that I tried another slow cooker recipe in the Instant Pot later that week: butter chicken, an Instant Pot favorite that works just was well slow as it does fast. Again, I brought the mixture to a boil on the sauté function before starting the slow cooker, and the results were deeply flavorful and perfectly cooked.
For my next act, I’ll be making brisket that my family can’t stop talking about, but this time for a different reason.
For a host of great Instant Pot recipes, check out our newest book: Milk Street Fast and Slow: Instant Pot Cooking at the Speed You Need.
Read about the unexpected way Madhur Jaffrey uses her Instant Pot.