The Great Debate (Part 3 – Usage)

This is the third part of a discussion comparing Induction Cooktops (IC) versus Multi-Function Electric Pressure Cookers (MEFC).

Cooking pots

The IC can heat many different size pots, including tea kettles.  Since the induction cookers works off a magnetic-induction field, all pots must be ferrous metal – steel, cast iron, or a pot with a steel plate embedded in the base.  Aluminum and stainless steel will not work.  The basic way to test whether a pot will work is to try and stick a magnet to the base.  If it sticks, it works.  If it falls off, the pot is not suitable for an IC.  Note that the IC will not produce power until it senses a valid pot on the cooking surface. 

Each MEPC includes one custom cooking container (the standard MEPC is described as “6-quart,” but 3- and 8-quart models are available). Additional pots (of the same size) are available as accessories.

It is easier to cook a multi-pot meal on the IC since you just switch pots – wrapping one in a cloth to keep it warm while the other cooks.  Doing this on the MEPC would require moving the first dish to a different container, cleaning out the cooking pot and then cooking the second dish (or buying a second custom pot).

Learning Curve

The IC is very intuitive, despite being an electric gadget with push-buttons instead of three stones and some wood.  You put a pot on it and turn on the power, adjusting the level appropriately. The IC has a timer, which is especially handy since you can set it to turn off after a specific cooking time and don’t have to worry about burning food in the pot. 

The MEPC can be very simple (put the food in the pot, choose manual pressure, set the time and put the lid on, press a button) but can also be more complex, especially trying to choose between different modes.  There are also rules about how high the pot in the IP can be filled, especially for pressure cooking.  The MEPC has a “Keep Warm” mode which means that food can be cooked ahead of time and kept at serving temperature until needed.  This function might come in handy if you are trying to optimize direct use of the solar energy during the day but serve the meal later in the afternoon. 

The IP also has a steeper learning curve in the case of adapting existing recipes.  This is described in more detail in the next section.

Recipe Versatility and Adaptability

The IC is a direct replacement for any “single-burner” cooktop, so it can be used to cook pretty much anything that can be cooked in a (reasonable-sized) pot without modifying the recipe.  The IP advertises many different cooking modes, but it will take many adjustments to adapt recipes to this appliance.  For example, the ratio of water to dry rice is different for an MEPC since none of the water is lost through evaporation.  For dishes such as stews, the lid stays on the pot the whole time, making it difficult to monitor cooking progress.  For dishes which use pressure cooking, the MEPC manual states that the recipe must include at least 1 cup (250 ml) of water for the pressure cooking to develop properly.

In many parts of Africa a “stiff porridge” (ugali / nshima / fufu) is a staple food.  The MEPC has a “porridge” mode, but this is for dishes such as oatmeal.  We have not yet tried cooking stiff porridge in an MEPC so we are not sure how would work, but the traditional method includes lots of stirring so it does not look promising.  Simply heating water for tea is a less convenient with the MEPC than with a tea kettle on the IC.  There are recipes for pressure cooking pasta/noodles in the MEPC, but I am highly skeptical.  Boiled eggs are easy with an MEPC, but fried eggs will be difficult just due to the steep sides of the pot.  Scrambled eggs are possible on sauté mode and there are plenty of recipes for egg-based frittatas.  Fried meats (hamburgers, steaks, chops), stir-fired meats and vegetables, deep-fried foods, creamy sauces (or sauces that are too thick), pancakes, and similar foods are difficult or impossible with an MEPC, but easy to do with an IC and a cast iron skillet or Dutch oven.  There are many recipes for MEPC cakes and other desserts – it is left to the reader to evaluate whether these are worth it.  Steamed breads can be made with both devices, but anything with a crispy crust is going to require an IC or an oven.

Safety

The IC is much safer than a traditional or improved biomass stove since there are no open flames or extremely hot surfaces.  The cooking surface will get hot through reverse conduction from the heat in the cooking pot, but even this is a much lower temperature than the cooking surface of a charcoal, gas or traditional electric coil stove.  The cooking pots themselves can get very hot (up to 460F/238C), and any pot with boiling water in it can cause scalding if touched or spilled.  No maintenance is required for the IC except to ensure that the cooling fan openings are clean and free from obstruction.

The MEPC is self-contained during cooking and the insulation which improves cooking efficiency also keeps the outside of the pot relatively cool to the touch.  The top of the pot tends to get much warmer (almost too hot to touch).  The inner pot can still cause burns if it is removed improperly from the MEPC after the cooking time is complete.

The most serious safety concern with the MEPC is with the pressure-cooking function, especially release of the high pressure superheated steam.  It would be easy for a curious child (or a careless adult) to nudge the release valve, resulting in a large jet of superheated steam above the valve.  Covering the valve is NOT an option since it serves as an emergency pressure release to protect the pot for extreme pressures.  There are other issues with pressure cooking.  Filling the instant pot too full when using pressure can clog the release valve which would let pressure get too high.  Finally, the lid has a silicone sealing gasket that can become moldy if not cleaned and dried properly.  If damaged, this gasket will cause the pot to leak pressure and not function properly.  These issues indicate that training should be provided for users of MEPC technology.

Finally, there are inherent concerns associated with electricity.  The appliances must not be immersed in water during cleaning, must be protected from spills, and cords must be inspected periodically for damage (such as animals chewing on the cords) which could cause shocks.  It is easy to get distracted and pour water into the MEPC without the inner pot in place.  This water leaks through to the electric circuits at the bottom of the pot.  If this happens, the recommendation is to let the unit dry for 72 hours (three days!) to prevent damage.  The IC is more resistant to spills, which can typically be wiped up even with power applied.

Summary

There is no winner.  The Multi-function Electric Pressure Cooker is better for some meals (rice and beans, meat stew) but the induction cooktop is much more versatile provided the user has the proper cooking utensils.  The decision on which one to use would be based largely on the types of dishes commonly cooked by the user.

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