How Does An Instant Pot Work? Cooking Stages + Key Features Explained

In this Instant Pot For Beginners post, we are going to cover some of the basics of how the Instant Pot actually works. We will look at key parts of this multi-function pressure cooker and explain 3 main stages of cooking. For the purpose of this post, we are using Instant Pot Duo Nova (recommended for beginners) as a model to illustrate the key functions but the principles are pretty much the same across all Instant Pot models.


How does an Instant Pot work? 3 Cooking stages + key features explained


In A Nutshell

As we explained in our introductory ‘What Is An Instant Pot?’ post, this magical kitchen appliance is an electric multi-function pressure cooker. 

However, having so many functions and buttons can often confuse a brand new user. We will cover all the buttons and what they do in a separate post (coming up!). The main thing to remember, most of these functions cook the food in a pressurized environment inside the pot – either on HIGH or LOW setting – for a set amount of time.

To put it very simply, when you select one of the functions, the Instant Pot will go through 3 stages of cooking:

  1. First, it will heat up and build up the pressure inside the pot – pre-heating & pressurizing stage.
  2. It will then maintain that heat and pressure for a set number of minutes set by you or by the selected program setting – cooking stage.
  3. Once the timer is done, the heat will cool down and the pressure will start to release naturally if you leave the pot undisturbed (this is called Natural Pressure Release) or you can release the pressure manually (known as Quick Release). This is the depressurizing stage.

Before we discuss each stage in more detail, let’s quickly look at your Instant Pot so you know what we’re talking about when we refer to certain things. Once you read this article, jump to How To Use The Instant Pot For Beginners and to Instant Pot Settings & Buttons Explained to continue learning.

 

How does an Instant Pot work?


INSTANT POT PARTS

You should get a pretty clear idea of different parts of the Instant Pot Duo Nova from the provided manual but in a nutshell, the Instant Pot consists of:

Instant Pot Parts explained

  • Cooker Base pot with a heating element on the inside and a control panel on the front. This part doesn’t go in the dishwasher, just so we’re clear!
  • Inner Pot is where the food goes in. It’s made from stainless steel and comes out; it can be cleaned by hand or in a dishwasher.
  • The lid – which has a sealing ring on the inside that keeps all the pressure and steam in the pot, as well as the following key features on top that you will use on regular basis.

INSTANT POT LID FUNCTIONS EXPLAINED

Instant Pot Lid Featured Explained

Float Valve

This float valve tells you if the Instant Pot is pressurised or depressurized. When it floats up, the pot is pressurized – you will not be able to open the lid. When it floats back down into its inset, you know the pressure is completely released; you will be able to open the lid.

Steam Release Valve

When the cooker releases pressure, steam ejects from the top of this valve. When the pressure releases naturally you won’t really notice the steam coming out but when you use the quick release method (more on this below), a rapid steam jet will shoot out from the valve. This steam is HOT so you have to stand back and keep your hands and face away from the valve.

This is an integral part of Instant Pot’s safety and necessary for pressure cooking. It’s a removable part so you can clean it but it must be installed back in before use.

Quick Release Button

This button – or knob – allows you to control the steam release valve manually. You can use it to release the built-up pressure quickly, as soon as the cooking timer has finished. For some recipes, you might want to leave the pot on natural release for say 10 minutes and then use this button to let off the remaining pressure.

When it’s popped-up, it’s in Seal position and when you press it down, it locks into Vent position and the steam will eject from the steam release valve. You can also press it gradually, allowing the steam to eject in smaller batches. This can be handy with certain dishes that contain a lot of liquid or have some foam built-up (e.g when cooking pasta).

On Classic Duo models: On the original model, there are only two features on the lid: the float valve and the steam release valve, which is also a manual release handle. You can point the handle to Sealing or Venting position. Make sure it’s always in Sealing position before you start cooking, and turn it down to Venting if you want to perform a quick release of the pressure.

Instant Pot Duo steam release handle

Kitchen storage tip: You can store the Instant Pot anywhere you want but pay attention to where it is when you cook in it. As the steam ejects from the lid up in the air and that jet can reach pretty high, you might want to make sure there is plenty of space above the Instant Pot and the steam doesn’t hit anything you don’t want to get wet or moist.

 

3 KEY STAGES OF COOKING IN THE INSTANT POT

Once you’ve plugged the Instant Pot’s into the power unit in the wall, the cooker will come on and the control panel will simply display the OFF status to indicate standby mode.

Let’s say you’re cooking a cup of Basmati rice.

You have added the rice and water, seasoning if you wish, and have secured and locked the lid. You can now choose a manual setting (PRESSURE COOK, or MANUAL on older models), adjust the time (using – or + buttons) and check the pressure level (LOW or HIGH, we want HIGH for rice).

Or, you can use the smart program setting for RICE to initiate the cooking process. Using manual settings often gives you more control and can produce better results than the smart program settings (sorry, Instant Pot creators, but it’s true!), so ideally you want to follow the recommended instructions in a particular recipe.

1. PRE-HEATING & Pressurizing stage

Once you lock the lid and select your desired cooking setting, the Instant pot will kick into the Pre-Heating & Pressurizing Stage. The status symbols on the control panel will show two icons for Element Heating & Pressure Cooking In Progress and it will say ON. It might take 5-10 seconds for these to appear. 

How does Instant Pot pressure cooker work

When heated, the liquid inside the inner pot boils and turns into steam. Without an escape route, the build-up of steam creates pressure. Once the steam inside comes to full pressure, the float valve pops up and locks the lid of the cooker in place for safe pressure cooking. This, in turn, triggers the silicone cap attached to the bottom of the float valve (on the underside of the lid) to seal the steam inside the inner pot and allows the pressure to rise even higher, which means higher cooking temperature. You might see some steam escaping through the float valve during Pre-Heating.

After the float valve pops up, the cooker needs a few minutes to finish building pressure. When the required pressure level is reached, cooking begins. The display switches from ON to the cooking countdown timer you’ve set, displayed in HH:MM (hours : minutes) format.

Important:  Pressure cooking requires liquid. Always. Whether you’re cooking rice, chicken breasts, pot roast, carrots, stew or cheesecake, you will need at least a cup of liquid for the Instant Pot to do its job. This is a total amount of liquid and can be in the form of water, stock, tomato sauce, juice, wine and liquids released from the food while cooking (e.g. from frozen veggies, from mushrooms, meat juices etc), or a combination of such. 

WHAT AFFECTS PRESURRIZING TIME

The pre-heating and pressurizing stage is something many Instant Pot recipes don’t mention in the time required for cooking. The Instant Pot must come to pressure before the timer begins counting down, and the time it takes depends on a few factors.

First, the amount of liquid. For example, cooking food with one cup of water should only take a few minutes to come to pressure. On the other hand, a large pot of soup reaching the maximum fill line may take 20-30 minutes to come to pressure.

Another factor to consider is the temperature of the contents of the pot. If you begin the recipe by sauteing your contents and heating up the liquid, it will come to pressure more quickly than cold water. On average, it will take 10-15 minutes to come to pressure. This is important to know so you can better plan how long your meal will actually take to cook.

While this stage is often thought to precede cooking, it is actually where cooking begins. For example, in the case of delicate items such as broccoli or cauliflower, bringing the pot to pressure is the only cooking that needs to be done.

TROUBLESHOOTING: If during the pressurizing stage you find that your pot is losing pressure or not reaching pressure for longer than is reasonable, it is important to check the valve and make sure it is not turned to ‘vent.’ Your Instant Pot will never reach pressure if the valve isn’t shut. It is also necessary to check the seal before putting the lid on. Old or dirty seals can loosen over time and cause the lid to not seal properly. Simply ensure that it is well-fitted prior to screwing on the lid. The lid itself is easy to screw on. Get accustomed to taking it on and off and the sounds associated with it. This way, you will always recognise when it’s sealed. It is normal to lose some steam, but this should settle rather quickly.

 

2. COOKING UNDER PRESSURE STAGE

This is the hands-off, trust-the-process phase. Once the pot comes to pressure, the timer you initially set will begin counting down and this is considered the cooking time. The status symbol on the control panel will only show P = Pressure Cooking In Progress. The float valve is up. 

The Instant Pot has a clever feedback loop mechanism that maintains a certain of amount of heat to make sure that the pot keeps the same amount of pressure for your specified amount of time (or that set in the program setting). This pressure pushes the steam inside the pot into the food, which enables it to cook at a much faster rate.

In the instance of cooking rice, the grain will be cooked by the hot liquid from and from the steam penetrating it from the top and all directions. This multidirectional steam and pressure cooking really speeds up the process. The liquid will be absorbed into the rice grain as it does with regular rice cookers.

3. Depressurizing phase

Once the timer is up, the cooking stage is complete. The heating stops, which signals the internal mechanisms that any trapped steam and pressure can start escaping through the steam release valve – the depressurization stage begins.

The status symbol on the control panel will change from P to Keep Warm and a new timer will start counting up from 00:00 to indicate the elapsed time up to 10 hours. 

Keep Warm Status Symbol


 

NATURAL PRESSURE RELEASE (NPR)

As the temperature within the inner pot drops, the cooker gradually releases the trapped steam and naturally depressurizes over time. 

Natural pressure release means that you will not manually release this pressure or vent the Instant Pot and instead you will let the pressure come out naturally. This can take anywhere between 10-20 minutes and depends on the volume of contents in the pot and the amount of steam that was built up as a result.

Cooking continues: It’s important to note that while the heating stops, there is still a significant amount of steam and pressure inside the pot during this stage, which means that the food continues to cook at a slower rate. Take this into account so you don’t overcook heat-sensitive foods like pasta, rice and vegetables. 

When the cooker has completely depressurized, the float valve drops into the lid and you can now open the lid.

If a recipe calls for NPR or Natural Pressure Release at the end of cooking, simply leave the Instant pot undisturbed until that float valve drops down but keep an eye on it as you might not notice when it happens. The food will simply stay warm until you press Cancel.

Some recipes might ask for some natural release followed by a quick release. In the case of rice, it’s best to leave the pot for 2-3 minutes on NPR followed by the quick release.

QUICK RELEASE (QR)

In some cases, you might want to perform a quick release method, which will let off the steam in one go and depressurize pot immediately. This will prevent any continued cooking and is useful if you’re in a rush and want to enjoy your meal as soon as possible. 

The quick release scares a lot of people! When you press the quick release button or point the steam release handle on older models to Venting, the steam begins to rise through the top valve and a loud venting or hissing sound occurs.

How to do a quick release on Instant Pot pressure cooker

Yes – that steam is hot, hot, hot so it’s possible to get burnt if you don’t take care. Be quick to remove your hand once you’ve pressed the button (you can hold a towel while doing this) and step away from the cooker. In some cases, you can hover a towel over the steam jet absorbing some of the moisture and reducing the amount of output you’re exposed to.

Quick release benefits

  • It stops the cooking process quickly which can be critical to recipes to avoid overcooking. This is often the case for vegetables, pasta, fish, seafood and rice. 
  • In some recipes, such as cooking many cuts of meat, quick release is essential to prevent it from drying out (e.g chicken breast).
  • You will also want to use this method if you plan to add extra ingredients to cook again for less time than the original foods such as veggies or eggs. Again, the means of depressurization should be clearly stated in a recipe.
 

Low pressure vs. high pressure

What is the difference between low pressure and high pressure on the Instant Pot? Like the pressure in a tire, the difference is in psi or pound-force per square inch.

Lower pressure simply means a lower temperature, which might require longer cooking time. In some ways, it’s a  more gentle way of pressure cooking.

Almost all recipes are designed for high pressure and it will likely be the default setting for you once you get used to manually set your Instant Pot. Low pressure is useful for cooking more delicate foods such as fish, vegetables, or boiled eggs. However, there are still high-pressure recipes adapted for these foods that work just as well. If you are confused, the low-pressure option can be ignored altogether. We rarely use the low-pressure setting. 

Get Instant Pot Duo Nova here.

 

SAVE THIS INSTANT POT FOR BEGINNERS POST TO PINTEREST

By Instant Pot Eats

About us: We are a team of Instant Pot enthusiasts, who love good food and cooking. Our blog is dedicated to delicious recipes you can make using your trusted pressure cooker.

PS. This post may contain Amazon affiliate links, which means we receive a small commission for purchases made through these links. 

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