Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Alton Brown's Pressure Cooker Chili

We've had our Fagor Duo pressure cooker(s) for about two weeks now, and Alton Brown's chili recipe is the third thing I've made in it. I haven't posted about any of my previous attempts at pressure cooking since I was still getting a feel for the process... what constituted a "steady gentle stream of steam" wasn't exactly clear to me in the beginning, and that uncertainty led to some disintegrated cauliflower mush... so I thought maybe I ought to figure that out before I led anyone astray with my musings.

The basic physics of a pressure cooker are pretty simple... higher pressure makes the boiling point of water higher, which cooks your food faster, since... under normal pressure... no matter how vigorously you're boiling that water, it can't get hotter than 212... while at 15 psi it's something like 257 degrees. The steam trapped inside also helps with heat conduction compared to a higher temperature oven, but it's been too many years since physics class for me to effectively explain that angle. In the end, it suffices to say that it's a fast way to cook... but unlike a microwave, it's not functionally different than steaming or simmering... just much, much faster... so it's something professional chefs use, especially when time is of the essence.

I'm still figuring the thing out, but the problem would seem to be when you are looking for a very precise level of done-ness. It takes several minutes to come up to pressure (for the chili, I timed it as 3 minutes for the "at pressure button" to pop up and 3 more minutes for pressure to get high enough to vent steam)... and even the "quick release" pressure drop takes a minute or two... so there is not really an efficient way to check on what you are cooking. Presumably you get a feel for that sort of thing with a little practice... and if a dish is slightly undercooked, you could just finish it on the stove top without returning to high pressure... but I do wonder about the real utility of cooking vegetables in a pressure cooker. Maybe I'm just gun shy after disintegrating that cauliflower, but vegetables cook so fast under normal conditions and are so easy to overcook... it just doesn't make a whole lot of sense to pressure cook them to me. However, I must admit that more testing is needed.

Now, on to the chili recipe. It's explained quite well over at Food Network, so I won't transcribe it here... but I do have a couple of notes. It's not terribly spicy by default... I went for 3 chipotles and a medium-hot habenero salsa and still could have stood a fair bit more heat. I used an ancho chile powder to add some complexity, but obviously not everyone can find that easily. Dried chiles are pretty ubiquitous, however, and homemade chili powder is not hard to make... it something that can be done well in advance, and well worth it in my opinion.

The 2 teaspoons of oil to brown the meat seemed like a typo, but it worked out fine... with a pretty intense deglaze. Lots of bits to scrape up, but they weren't burned by any means.

I wasn't sure what was going to happen with the tortilla chips, but they completely disintegrated... which makes sense when you realize they are a substitute for the thickening power of corn meal used in more traditional recipes.

I say it compares quite favorably to those "more traditional recipes" I've made before, and it would be even impressive if I'd had some homemade chili powder on hand.

So that's that. Not sure I'd buy a pressure cooker just to make this chili... but if you've got one, I wouldn't skip making it.