In her new cookbook, Dinner in an Instant, Melissa Clark wants to help you get to dinner faster without cutting out any of the color or crunch.
In this age—the dawn of the Instant Pot, let’s call it—you may be wondering what the hell an Instant Pot is and why you need one if you already have a slow cooker or a pressure cooker. And you may be wondering why you would buy a countertop cooking device at all, when a gloriously analog frying pan or Dutch oven is all you need to caramelize some carrots or cook some osso buco.
Cookbook author Melissa Clark used to share this skepticism. After a few lackluster experiences with stovetop pressure cookers, she started to experiment with the Instant Pot for a January piece for the New York Times. She noticed that the $99 device brought spontaneity into her cooking that a slow cooker never could. She was suddenly able to whip up soups, stews, and braises that had previously required lots of planning and waiting. She could cook juicy short ribs in 30 minutes and tender lamb shanks in 40 minutes.
Even so, she remained a bit of a skeptic, lamenting a few of the device’s shortcomings.The Instant Pot was great for proteins like meat, beans, and lentils, but it left most vegetables “limp and unappealing.” It was great for bone broths and steel-cut oats, but didn’t really perform terribly well outside of the texture spectrum of liquids and mushes. “Don’t expect anything crisp or crunchy taken directly from the pot. It just doesn’t do that,” she says.
So when she began to write her newest book, Dinner in an Instant, she approached the project with a healthy dose of realism. “In this book, I focus on the machine’s strengths, writing not about what you can make in it, but what you should make because the electric pressure cooker does it better—faster, or more flavorfully, or with less mess and/or stress,” she writes in the introduction.
This discerning attitude gives every recipe in the book a sense of purpose. Do you need an Instant Pot to make soft-boiled eggs? You really don’t. And Clark is forthright about this. But if you hate peeling eggs, it might come as a revelation to learn that pressure-cooked eggshells slip right off without sticking to the egg whites. Do you need an Instant Pot to pull off a perfect pot of polenta? Definitely not! But when you cook it in the Instant Pot, Clark points out, you don’t have to babysit the pot with constant stirs, so you’re free to wander off and focus on other parts of the meal.
The recipes that couldn’t quite be perfected within the confines of Instant Pot settings didn’t make it into the book. As a pasta enthusiast, Clark was excited about the new possibilities that an Instant Pot might offer—but soon learned that it “goes from al dente to mush in seconds.” As a result, the only pasta recipe in the book is a creamy macaroni and cheese. “I know it can be done well, but it’s tricky,” she says. “But I’m still working on this category because I love pasta! Maybe there will be more in the next book.”
The book highlights the strengths of the machine, revisiting classic dishes like butternut squash soup, mushroom risotto, and lamb tagine—dishes that traditionally benefit from low-and-slow cooking. In instances when the dishes might become a bit monochromatically brown, or a bit homogenous in texture, she finds simple fixes—a moment in the broiler to crisp the skin on a duck confit, or a sprinkle of a bright gremolata. “Garnishes are your friends!” she says, echoing fellow author Alison Roman. “That’s where crunch comes in.” In a recipe for tahdig, a Persian rice dish, the cooked rice and herbs spend a few minutes at the “sauté” setting to create a crispy golden crust that looks like it came out of a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet.
Small extra steps like these can make a meal a little less “instant,” but they make a difference. “This book is for when Instant Pot cooks want to stretch themselves a little,” Clark says. “The recipes are faster than traditional cooking methods but without any sacrifice to quality. It’s not for those times when you need to just throw a bunch of stuff into the pot to get dinner on the table, which we all do sometimes. This book is for when you want to get an excellent dinner on the table fast—with interesting flavors and ingredient combinations.”