ETCETERA / Design Dinosaurs: 20 The Pressure Cooker

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The Independent Culture
THE pressure cooker has always had an image problem: if you're not a fan (and few are), then probably you're frightened of them. The fear isn't entirely unjustified. Even on the latest versions, with their sophisticated safety valves and pressure gauges, it takes only moderate incompetence (overfilling, most commonly) to send jets of scalding liquefied food streaming through the burst safety valve.

The first pressure cooker, devised in 1679 by Denis Papin, a French physicist living in London, was certainly potentially lethal. His 'digestor, or engine' was a vast, fire-lit monster, without any form of pressure release valve (although it impressed John Evelyn, who ate a meal cooked in it in 1682). The principle on which it worked (as pressure cookers still do) was that by heating under pressure, cooking tasks which involve water (steaming, stewing, boiling and braising) can be enormously speeded up - by as much as 10 times.

It wasn't until the 1850s, with the appearance of a properly simplified version - including the all-important steam release valve - that the idea in any sense caught on. The heyday of the digestor (the term 'pressure cooker' only became common in the 1950s) was as a wartime fuel-saver, allowing the speedy cooking of complete meals in a single pot.

Pressure cookers suffer from being deeply unglamorous, associated with such tasks as the boiling of bones for stock, the softening of tough meat, the preparation of fruit for bottling or jam-making, the steaming of hefty puddings. Prestige and Pifco still sell pressure cookers (prices start around pounds 60); but who exactly buys them? Their role has been snatched away - by the stock cube, by mass-produced jams, and by cuts of meat which require less cooking. Automatic timers mean that long, slow cooking is no longer inconvenient. And when the pace of cooking does need to be forced, it can be done with the microwave, which is in all senses a worthy successor: time-saving, economical - and vaguely frightening.