How to Use an Instant Pot

Updated: Apr. 05, 2023

An "Instant Pot" (which you may know as an electric pressure cooker) is a great way to prepare delicious meals quickly and conveniently. Here's how to get to know yours and use it like a pro.

We’re obsessed with these recipes you can make in your Instant Pot. But that assumes you know what an “Instant Pot” is and know how to use one. So we’ve created this little Instant Pot manual to get you started.

What is an Instant Pot?

Instant Pot is a brand name for a popular brand of electric pressure cooker, an airtight pot that cooks food quickly using steam pressure—think any meal in under 20 minutes. The term Instant Pot has lately become synonymous with pressure cooking, and specifically, electric pressure cooking. We’ll focus on how to use an electric pressure cooker.

Pick your pot

There are many brands to choose from, including Instant Pot, Fagor, Cuisinart and Power Pressure Cooker XL. In choosing a size, you’ll want to consider how many people you’ll be cooking for. You’ll also want to think about the features various models offer versus what you might be using your cooker for. For example, the Fagor Lux Multicooker has a yogurt-making feature. Dead set on the Instant Pot? The brand offers several models. Here’s how to find the best Instant Pot for you.

Buy the Instant Pot that won our Best Loved Brands test here.

Get to know the design

Electric pressure cookers come with an inner pot (where the food goes) and an outer pot (which contains the control panel, including buttons for various features such as the yogurt-making feature referenced above), as well as a lid that creates an airtight seal.

The airtight seal is what creates the pressure, which will eventually need to be released, and to do so safely, you’ll need to read the directions that come with your pot. But generally speaking, you’ll either use the quick-release method (which involves pressing a handle or a button that your pot’s directions will identify for you), or the natural-release method (which involves simply letting the cooker cool down and release pressure naturally; this can take up to 15 minutes).

Test Kitchen tip: A cool, wet towel placed on the lid can help speed up the release process.

Learn how to boil water (seriously)

Whichever electric pressure cooker you end up with, your first time using it should involve literally learning to boil water. You do this by adding a cup or so of water to the inner pot (giving you a sense of where the fill line is, among other things), sealing the lid, and selecting a short cook time. Within five minutes, the water should heat up and build pressure, at which point the pressure is released via the natural method, or you can use the quick-release method. (Psst! These are the best Instant Pot recipes for beginners).

Don’t get too caught up in what all the buttons mean

For the most part, the buttons on the control panel are there to help you decide on your cooking time. For example, if there is a “fish” button, pressing it will likely mean that your food will cook for a short time (five minutes or so). The “chicken” button will be slightly longer (eight minutes or so). Some electric pressure cookers have a “saute” feature, which comes in handy to pre-caramelize your mirepoix, if you’re making soup or stew (but be sure to use this with the lid OFF). New models have a sterilize function (to sterilize utensils or to can fruits and vegetables), and most come with a “slow cook” option, which means exactly what you think it means: slow cooking without pressure. When it comes to frozen food, learn if you can cook frozen meat in an Instant Pot.

Psst: Here’s why you should trade your slow cooker for an Instant Pot.

Release the pressure safely

When you release the pressure, the escaping steam will be very hot—hot enough to burn you. So make sure the hole on top of the steam release is facing away from you before pressing the release button. Also, the quick-release method is not suitable for soups (anything with a large liquid volume) or cereals (anything with a high starch content), because quick release may cause food to splatter out with the steam.

Find more great recipes in our Instant Pot cookbook.

Keep it clean

Follow the manufacturer’s directions for cleaning your Instant Pot and its various components, and you’ll be cooking with it for years to come.

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