When I was four years old, my father brought home a pressure cooker. It was one of those “modern” devices aimed at taking some pressure off domestic life (excuse the pun or don’t) by cooking food faster.
|This pressure cooker was made from cast aluminum by National Presto Industries, a company that also manufactures adult incontinence products. Notice the steam regulator cap sitting on top of the vent pipe at the centre of the lid. I cooked delicious Boston baked beans in this vessel in 45 minutes.|
Cooking with pressure cookers is different from cooking with regular saucepans. A small amount of liquid – water or broth for example – must be heated to a boil in a sealed container. As the pressure builds up inside the vessel, the heat is turned down to let the food simmer while maintaining enough steam.
When the food is nearly cooked, the heat is turned off and cooking continues as pressure gradually abates. The pressure regulator capping the steam vent should not be removed while the pot is under pressure.
Also, if the cooker is overfilled, the steam vent over which sits the pressure regulator might become obstructed, causing the pressure to build up inside the cooker and force out the content through the pressure valve.
That’s what my father learned to his dismay when he first cooked a three-pound ham using too much beer as a cooking liquid. The whole ham escaped through the tiny pressure valve and splattered on the kitchen ceiling, making my mother very angry at the mess he created and fearful of using the apparatus.
Even though pressure cooking seemed modern in the early 60’s, it certainly was not a recent invention. Denis Papin (1647-1712), a French Huguenot, discovered it.
Tired of being picked on for his religious beliefs by the powers that be in France, he moved to England in 1675. In London, he met Robert Boyle (1627-1691), an Irish-English chemist who was experimenting with air pressure.
At the time, England was undergoing a tremendous scientific revolution. Francis Bacon’s scientific method was the rage amongst “natural philosophers” who were experimenting with practically anything. This led to a radical new way of looking at the causes and effects in the natural world which, people were discovering, was not what they thought it was.
We are not exactly sure how Denis Papin came to experiment with steam. However, I can certainly imagine him sitting in a pub, drinking cheap Spanish wine and listening to Robert Boyle pompously lecturing about air pressure. While Boyle was going on and on about his views on pneumatics, Papin was probably thinking that it was a bunch of hot air.
After all, air is immaterial, it cannot be seen or touched. Of course one can feel it as the wind blows but Papin perhaps thought scientists should focus on something more concrete.
At that moment, the innkeeper might have been preparing tea on the stove, a new beverage that was becoming popular in England. Taking a sip of his wine, looking at the saucepan of water on the stove, Denis Papin maybe thought ahead of Benjamin Franklin that “a watched pot never boils.” Boil.
Boyle was explaining that the volume of a gas is inversely proportional to its pressure. Crazy Boyle. Boyle. Boil. Wait a minute! When water boils it turns to steam. Steam is a gas and unlike air, it can be seen!
This may not be what really happened but I do know that inspiration sometimes comes in strange ways.
Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge on the subject of a new invention he was creating: the “steam digester” which was the ancestor of the modern pressure cooker. Two years later, according to the legend, when Papin cooked a delicious stew to demonstrate the prototype he was presenting, the Royal Society was so impressed that it invited him to become a member.
In the 17th century the line between gastronomy and science was very thin.
After a few years, Papin moved to Germany and invented the piston steam engine. He returned to England many years later and unsuccessfully asked the Royal Society to reinstate him.
|Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was the head of the Royal Society of London when Denis Papin tried to be reinstated. Newton probably refused deciding that fine cooking was an art rather than a science.|
Given that so many inventors suffer the same ungrateful fate, it is surprising that anybody attempts to discover new things.
My father was not discouraged by his first experiment with a pressure cooker. Actually he cooked with it all his life, as I have. Used properly, a pressure cooker will produce tasty meals quickly, giving you more time to focus on other endeavours, like blogging.