So you now own an Instant Pot and you’d like to use it more, but your favorite recipes are written for the stove-top? Are you scared to wreck your dinner when using your new appliance? Worry not! In this post, I will explain in detail how to convert a recipe from stove-top to Instant Pot (electric pressure cooker). This is an exhaustive guide, but don’t let that intimidate you: once you have cooked a couple of your favorite stove-top soup or stew recipes in the Instant Pot, you’ll feel comfortable with any and all of them.
Understand how the Instant Pot works
Instant Pots are (primarily) electric pressure cookers. It helps to think of pressure cooking as turbo-boosted steam cooking. Water (or some form of liquid that can evaporate fast, like broth) is the critical element.
Here is how Instant Pots (and other electric pressure cookers) work:
- You twist the lid to the locked position (with the gasket in place), set the valve to sealing, and hit the “pressure cook” button (setting it for a certain number of minutes).
- A heating element located under the pot liner makes the temperature rise.
- Soon enough, water boils and turns into steam. Steam fills the space between your food and the lid. With the lid locked and the valve set to “sealing”, there is nowhere for the steam to escape.
- Pressure builds and builds inside. The float valve (often red or silver) goes up when the pot is at its max, making it impossible to open the lid.
- The countdown timer starts.
- Temperature and pressure sensors ensure that the inside of the pot stays at the appropriate temperature and pressure level, turning the heating element on and off as needed.
- After the countdown timer reaches 00:00, your Instant Pot stops applying heat to the food.
- As the temperature decreases, the pressure also goes down.
- Eventually, after 15 minutes or more, the pressure indicator button goes down and you can unlock the lid. In some cases, it is appropriate to manually release some or all of the pressure, something you should always do extra cautiously (see below).
- After cooking, the default mode for the Instant Pot is to switch to “keep warm,” which means that if you do not attend your pot right away the heater will be turned back on and off on a regular basis to keep the food at a safe temperature to prevent harmful bacteria growth.
During cooking, the higher pressure in the pot increases the temperature at which water boils by a few degrees. That is what accelerates the process somewhat. However, as I explained in another blog post, the total cooking time is not really decreased.
The true benefit of the Instant Pot, in my opinion, is that it creates a safe “set it and forget it” cooking process: you do not need to constantly watch the pot and stir the food to prevent it from sticking. And, at the end of the cooking time, the element automatically stops (or transitions to the lower-temperature “keep warm” setting), so you won’t burn down the kitchen if you have to step out to walk the dog. (Some people would never leave their home with any appliance plugged in and functioning. Whether you leave your IP on when leaving your home is up to you.)
What recipes can be converted from stove-top to Instant Pot?
Now that you know how your Instant Pot works, you realize that not every recipe that can be made on the stove-top can easily be converted to an Instant Pot recipe successfully. Because all electric pressure cooking is water-based (as opposed to oil-based), they aren’t a good way to get crunchy or crusted bits. However, soups and stews using vegetables, beans, and/or grains are perfectly suited to the high-pressure environment. I will now explain to you in detail how to convert a recipe from stove-top to Instant Pot. I also included a selection of inspiring recipes from all-vegan bloggers that include directions for the electric pressure cooker and for stove-top cooking so you can see some examples.
Sauté first to build flavor
Yes, in many cases, you could dump all ingredients in the inner pot, lock the lid, set the timer for a suitable number of minutes, and walk away. I have done it, and the results were edible. However, the key to a truly delicious dish is to start by sautéing the most flavorful ingredients as you would in a skillet. Hit the “sauté” button, make sure it’s set on “medium” (see your manual to find out how), and wait a couple of minutes to give the inner pot time to warm up while you dice your veggies.
Most soup or stew recipes start with some version of a mirepoix or soffrito: diced onion (always), celery and/or carrot, and garlic. You can cook them using a little oil, but it’s not required. If you don’t use oil, make sure to have a little water or broth at hand, adding a tablespoon or two as you go to prevent burning and sticking. Start with the onion and let it cook for at least 5 minutes, stirring regularly (but not all the time). It will turn golden brown as its sugars caramelize. Yum! If using celery and/or carrot, add next, and cook a little more. If the recipe has other vegetables, you can add them at this stage too, starting with the most robust and dense ones (e.g., diced sweet potato) and ending with the more delicate ones (e.g., broccoli), giving each vegetable a few minutes to cook and caramelize a bit before adding the next one. But if you’re in a rush you can just put them in, give the pot one good stir, and move on.
The last vegetable you should add is garlic. It is very delicate and thus should not be cooked for too long to prevent burning.
Spices and herbs should also be added at this stage. Many will benefit from a brief “toasting” before the other ingredients of your soup or stew are added – but make sure to be prepared to move on quickly. Charred oregano will not add anything to your chili.
To get out of “sauté” mode, you’ll have to hit “cancel.” This will turn off the element so you can prepare for pressure cooking.
You should deglaze your inner pot immediately, while it is still hot.
Deglazing means pouring a small amount (1/4 to 1/2 cup) of cold liquid into your pot and scraping the bottom to detach caramelized bits. Your original stove-top soup or stew recipe likely included broth, vinegar, wine, or juice. Use a little bit of that. (Do NOT use coconut milk for deglazing. Juice from tomatoes is OK to use, too.) When the cold liquid hits the hot pot, it quickly sizzles and steams off, making it easy to scrape off small pieces of food that have may have stuck during the sautéing process. Those golden bits are sweet and flavorful: they belong in your tummy, not in the dishwater.
Deglazing also matters when cooking in the Instant Pot because it “cleans” the bottom of your inner pot, creating an even surface that will conduct heat evenly. If there are too many chunks of burnt food at the bottom of your pot, some of the pot’s safety mechanisms may be triggered and you’ll get an error code.
Add the rest of the ingredients, while keeping an eye on the fill line
After turning off “sauté” mode and deglazing your pot, it is time to add the rest of the ingredients of your recipe. That’s usually when remaining veggies (if any), beans or lentils, and grains (rice, barley, etc.) get added, along with the liquid component. Make sure your food does not go above the “max fill” line, or doesn’t otherwise fill more than two-thirds of the pot. As the temperature and pressure increase, your food’s volume will expand and some ingredients may foam a bit; there needs to remain enough space for the steam to build up, without interfering with the operation of the valve. Do not overlook this step.
If you estimate that all ingredients will not fit in the pot below the fill line, remove about half of what you have in the pot and set it aside so you can proceed in batches. Keep that in mind as you add the rest of the ingredients to the pot.
Beginners: use pre-cooked beans and peas (but dry lentils are fine)
If you are converting an existing recipe from stove-top to Instant Pot, you should probably be using canned or pre-cooked beans or peas. Those pulses take a long time to cook. Using dry would require increasing the volume of liquid used in your recipe and increasing the cooking time, which will turn the rest of your ingredients to mush and impact the flavor.
However, if the recipe calls for canned or pre-cooked lentils, you can probably get away with throwing them dry into the pot. (Do rinse them first as they are often dusty.) Make sure to add about 1 cup broth for each 1/2 cup of dry lentils, and adjust the cooking time accordingly (see below).
If you are an experienced Instant Pot user, and in a situation such that you must start from dry beans using a recipe that’s written with canned beans in mind, you have options. If you can’t pre-soak for 2-8 hours, try at least to quick-soak your pulses in boiling water while you chop and sauté the rest of the ingredients. When the time comes to add the beans to the pot, drain the soaking water and add extra liquid to the recipe. About 1 cup of broth per 1/3 cup of quick-soaked dry beans will probably be about right – but be prepared for a learning experience. 🙂
Pay attention to the liquid
Different liquid ingredients are common in vegan soup and stew recipes: water, broth, crushed tomatoes, and coconut milk. Not all do as good a job inside a pressure cooker.
Vegetable broth is the perfect companion to cook in the Instant Pot. Water molecules easily separate from the seasonings within to create steam. Water would work just as well, of course, but would be far more bland. If using water, you’ll probably need to increase the amount of spices and herbs.
For broth and water, when converting a recipe from the stove-top to the Instant Pot, you can likely reduce the volume of liquid by 20 to 25%. The pressure cooker environment is closed, and very little water vapor floats away. This said, soup and stew recipes are very forgiving: in the end, your flavors will be a little more, or a little less, concentrated – that’s all.
When converting your recipe from stove-top to Instant Pot, I recommend making sure there is at least 1 cup of broth, and adding it to the pot last. That way, more of it sits on top of the food and it doesn’t have to travel quite as far to steam off and build pressure inside the pot.
If your recipe has only coconut milk, I recommend cooking with broth instead and adding coconut milk before serving for extra creaminess. Or adding a handful of unsweetened shredded coconut at the same time as the spices.
If your recipe has mostly crushed or diced tomatoes, read on.
Special precautions when cooking with tomatoes in the Instant Pot
Many of my favorite stew recipes use one or two big cans of diced or crushed tomatoes, like my favorite bolo sauce. On the stove-top, the tomatoes serve as both a tasty addition and as a cooking liquid, thanks to their abundant juice. In the Instant Pot, however, they can be a treacherous ingredient. Why?
Because the water molecules have a hard time breaking free from the tomatoes, and often cannot steam up as fast as required to build up pressure and lock the pot before the bottom burns.
In my experience, the solution here is two-fold:
First, choose diced tomatoes instead of crushed. Crushed tomatoes are basically a tomato smoothie, forming a thick, viscuous liquid that does not evaporate well. Diced tomatoes still have separate chunks of tomatoes and “tomato water,” so they come to a boil faster.
Second, make sure to add at least 1 cup of vegetable broth on top of the rest of your ingredients and not to stir it in. Just leave it sitting there and lock the lid.
If the recipe uses more than one big can (28-oz, 796-mL) of tomatoes, use only one (plus the broth as described above) during pressure cooking. Add the other one after cooking and let it simmer (on sauté mode) for an extra 15-20 minutes.
What about noodles?
Call me a noodle purist, but I always cook my noodles separately. I was never interested in trying those “one-pot pasta” recipes that were so popular in food videos recently. The whole point of noodles, for me, is to add a contrasting texture and taste to the dish, but unfortunately when they are cooked along with everything else they lose their personality. (My only exception to this rule would be lasagna soup but it’s a story for another day.) This said, if you have only an Instant Pot (and no stove-top or other pot) OR you are in a pickle OR you love your noodles cooked in with everything else, rest assured: you can add the noodles to your Instant Pot and nothing absolutely terrible will happen. Unless your mother-in-law is Italian. The recipe below provides an example of how to proceed.
Choosing your cooking time
I warmly recommend that you invest $5 to buy the “Best Vegan Pressure Cooker Timing Charts” compiled by Jill Nussinow. It is more reliable than that provided in the Instant Pot manual, and Jill has worked tremendously hard to build it – please don’t try to get a free copy (bad karma may ensue).
This said, for making soups or stews, you’ll find that timing can be quite forgiving, especially if using pre-cooked beans and lentils. If all you have in the pot is vegetables diced small and cooked chickpeas, 3-5 minutes on high pressure will suffice. Bigger chunks of hard vegetables might require more like 6-10 minutes.
You should set the cooking time based on the requirements of the densest, longest-cooking ingredient in your soup or stew. For example, if you are making a vegetable and pearl barley soup, you’ll want to use the barley’s timing (around 20 minutes).
If using dry lentils or soaked beans, refer to a reliable cooking chart. If in doubt, err on the side of adding 1 or 2 minutes, rather than decreasing the cooking time. For most stews and soups, it is far better to have slightly overcooked lentils or grains than undercooked ones. Who wants to eat gritty rice soup?
Releasing the pressure
When the cooking time has elapsed, your Instant Pot will beep 10 times. (It’s quite annoying but useful I guess. I don’t know what other brands do.) You now have two options, but only one choice.
You could, technically, do a “quick release” of the pressure. That entails carefully opening the pressure valve for a few seconds, and closing it again, a few times, to quickly release the steam trapped in the pot. That steam is HOT so keep your lovely fingers and faces away. (It is not recommended to cover the valve with a cloth, as it can cause the valve to plug up.)
Quick-release is useful when steaming vegetables with only water. However, for soups and stews, it is not advised: it can cause your pot to sputter, or the valve to get plugged up, plus your food can benefit from a little more simmering so what’s the rush?
For soups and stews, I recommend only the “natural pressure release” approach instead. Let the pot rest for at least 10 minutes, preferably 15. Then, if the float valve has not yet gone down, carefully release the pressure by flipping the valve to “release” and let any remaining steam escape. After that is done, carefully twist the lid to the open position and tilt it away from your face and body as you lift, to avoid hot-steam exposure. Stir with a long-handled wooden spoon and taste. Adjust seasoning!
What if it’s not fully cooked yet?
Well, that sucks. When your family is hungry and the lentils are hard as pebbles, you know you have a problem. At least, you’ve learned something! But what to do?
Chin up! Fixing the problem will take less time than ordering a vegan pad thai from the delivery place across the street.
Putting the lid back on and adding 1-5 minutes of cooking time under pressure is the reasonable next step in many cases. However, you may discover that the lid does not seamlessly twist and lock as you’d expect it to. That is because the silicone gasket has puffed up under pressure, and hasn’t yet had a chance to return to normal.
The right thing to do is NOT to force it on. Your pot may not seal properly, or cause you to get the dreaded “burn” message.
Instead, here is what you can try:
- Keep cooking your food: set your pot to “sauté” and stir occasionally while you deal with the lid.
- Carefully handle the lid (the metal parts will be HOT) and bring it under running lukewarm water (not ice cold to avoid thermal shock).
- Progressively turn the water to cold.
- Remove the silicone gasket and rinse under cold water. Put it back into place, making sure it is seated where it should be.
- Try putting the lid on your pot again.
- Hit “cancel” to stop the “sauté” mode and set the pot to cooking on high pressure again for 1-5 minutes depending on the situation.
- Remember to close the valve to “sealing.”
- After the cooking time has elapsed, wait 10 minutes for normal pressure release and proceed with caution.
Add the finishing touches
If your recipe includes delicate ingredients like fresh greens and herbs, add them just before serving. They will wilt immediately and conserve more vitamins than if they had been submitted to high heat.
Bon appétit! If you tried converting a recipe from stove-top to Instant Pot, let me know how it went in the comments below.
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