A few years ago, the Instant Pot entered my life and—just like you and your sister-in-law and your yoga buddy and pretty much everyone else in the world—I was immediately obsessed. I joined the Facebook group (current membership: 1,994,065 and counting). I learned the term "dump dinner" (and then kinda wished I hadn't). I churned out pot roast and ribs and enough Sunday sauce to feed every bachelor in Naples. I even wrote a cover feature for a national newspaper about cooking recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking....in the Instant Pot. But then, almost as quickly as it began, my infatuation fizzled. Blame it on gadget fatigue or a ragu overdose—for months, my Instant Pot moldered on my pantry shelf, gathering dust.
And it might be sitting there still if it weren't for one thing: Last year, my family decided to double down on our efforts to reduce our household waste, especially in the kitchen. Not long into that journey, I realized that we were discarding a tower of plastic yogurt containers every week. "If only we had a yogurt maker, we could ditch them entirely," I moaned. And then—duh—I remembered the Instant Pot.
Because, of course, yogurt is one of the seven modes that makes the Instant Pot not just a gussied-up pressure cooker but a true multi-cooker. Looking back, I realized that my prior experiments with the machine had been so focused on stunt cooking—Nonna's braciole in 20 minutes! Cheesecake without an oven!—that I'd neglected to appreciate some of its less sexy, more utilitarian uses.
Over the past twelve months, however, all that's changed—and the Instant Pot has emerged as our family's secret weapon for more sustainable living. There’s hardly a day that its chubby little R2D2 body is not on our counter. I started by trying a simple yogurt recipe—but now I use it to prep low-waste breakfasts and lunches and dinners. In other words, the first time around, the Instant Pot and I had an affair. But now we've built a marriage.
Is there an Instant Pot lurking, underutilized, at the back of your cabinet? Do you want to reduce your food waste? Or maybe just save a few bucks? Here are a few stupid-easy, genuinely delicious places to start:
As I’ve mentioned, homemade yogurt was my family's entry point into the world of low waste cooking in the Instant Pot—and if I had to pick one change that’s made the most day-to-day impact on our consumer habits, this one would be it.
I'd always associated homemade yogurt with bean sprout-loving hippie chicks—a kind of virtue signaling in food form. Also, I’m pretty lazy, and the process (all that heating and cooling) seemed like kind of a hassle. But all that's required to make yogurt in an Instant Pot is a half gallon of whole milk and a couple tablespoons of yogurt—both of which cost about a third of the cash I used to drop on packaged yogurt each week. (And once you get in a routine, you can just use a few spoonfuls from your last batch of yogurt to culture the next one.)
The way I time it, most of the "work" happens when I’m sleeping. Isn’t that the best kind of work? In the morning, I spoon the finished yogurt into these glass Weck jars with reusable plastic lids—not tubs destined for the garbage bin. Also: turns out homemade yogurt is damn delicious. Seriously, virtue never tasted so good.
In our freezer, we keep a big plastic bag labeled with the words ODD BITS. I throw in all the scraps of veggies (onion skins, carrot tops, celery nubbins) and bony bits from rotisserie chickens or pork chops or whatever else we happen to run through during a week or two of meal preps and dinners. When the bag gets full, I dump it into the Instant Pot. (A new kind of Dump Dinner?) I add enough water to cover the scraps, a spoonful of peppercorns, and a sprinkle of salt. Seal up the lid and set the gizmo to cook on pressure for 75 minutes. Then strain it and pour it into jars and there you go: using what would otherwise be “garbage,” I’ve built a cache of stock that can do a thousand things. Sometimes I warm it on the stove and whisk some eggs into it with spinach and lemon zest and parm for a comforting stracciatella-style desk lunch. Or use it to deglaze garlicky pan fried chicken cutlets with capers for weeknight dinner. Or stir it into risotto for a leisurely Sunday family supper. And, when I have a sniffle, I just drink it straight from a teacup.
I've learned this year that when you're tired and cranky and hungry and broke, beans will save you. With the help of an egg or two, a bit of toast, and some odds and ends from the pantry or crisper drawer, a stash of creamy, brothy cooked beans can be a building block for so many quick-and-tasty meals, they've probably kept 50 takeout containers out of our recycling bin this year. And I have the Instant Pot to thank for that. Why? I never doubted that real beans—tender morsels that have soaked overnight before simmering in bath of aromatics and broth—were an altogether different animal than the cans of Goya I'd grab at the bodega. But in the 30+ years that I've been cooking, I've proven myself incapable of remembering to soak beans. But now, with the barest materials tossed into the Instant Pot—a few cups of dried beans, some water, an onion or clove or two of garlic, salt and pepper and a glug of olive oil—I can have a vat of perfectly creamy, fat beans swimming in a rich broth in less than an hour, no soaking required. A big batch made on Sunday lasts our family through the week—and any that are leftover can be packed away in jars and kept in the freezer.
4. Flavored Syrups
Because no one in my household has ever refused a drink, we've also gotten into a habit of using the Instant Pot to experiment with flavoring simple syrups using scraps. Instead of tossing out orange rinds, apple peels, scraped vanilla beans, or whatever surplus of herbs is wilting at the back of the crisper, we cook them into syrups that jazz up our beverages.
The how-to is less of a formal recipe than a riff. We usually start with about two cups of water in the Instant Pot, add a half-cup or full cup of scraps, and seal and cook on manual high pressure for about seven minutes. Then we quick-release the pressure, open the top, and pour through a mesh strainer to remove any solids. Return the liquid to the pot along with about 1 1/2 cups sugar and set to sauté, stirring until the sugar dissolves. At that point the syrup goes into a glass jar to cool before storing, well-sealed, in the fridge. Syrups like these are perfect for mixing with bubbly for an easy Tuesday evening tipple—or for "seltzer cocktails" or flavored lemonade or iced tea for anyone who isn't drinking booze.
I used to turn up my nose at oatmeal. It was bland. It was gloppy. It made me think of orphans and institutions. But then, I had a kid, and that kid started to go to school, and I realized I had to find a way to feed him a fortifying breakfast in the approximately nine minutes between getting dressed and catching the bus.
Enter Instant Pot oats. Learning how to make steel cut oats in the pressure cooker has completely transformed by opinion of the stuff. Don't ask me to explain exactly how it happens. All I know is that a dish that used to seem gluey and dull is, thanks to the magic of this machine, rendered silky and plush.
There are tons of recipes out there—including this brown butter situation on Epi—but my favorite riff uses coconut milk and brown sugar and calls for a mere 10 minutes of cook time. When it's done, I ladle the oatmeal into bowls and swirl in a spoonful of blueberry jam. The whole family agrees it's heaven—and we don't agree on much.
Will a stash of frozen steel cut oatmeal save the world? Maybe not. But it can certainly save your Monday morning. And that's a good start.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious