Pressure cookers are one of the most versatile cooking gadgets you can have in your kitchen today. However, if a pressure cooker cannot build up enough pressure to properly cook the meals inside it, you’re going to have undercooked food and hungry family members. If your pressure cooker is not building up pressure, it’s got an issue with steam production or retention, a critical element needed for properly cooking the food inside.
Some of the most common reasons why pressure cookers have steam issues are that there is not enough liquid in the pot, something inside is creating circulation issues so steam cannot build, or steam is leaking out of one of the mechanisms around the pressure cooker.
Keep reading to explore how a pressure cooker works, how things like inadequate liquid, overfilling and mechanical issues can cause your pressure cooker not to build up pressure, and how you can maintain adequate pressure every time.
How a Pressure Cooker Works
A pressure cooker works by utilizing water or water-based liquids within a sealed vessel to create high-pressure steam. The boiling water inside the pressure cooker traps the steam inside, allowing for much higher temperatures than traditional cooking methods. These high temperatures, coupled with the intense pressure created within the vessel, allow the pressure cooker to cook food quickly.
A pressure cooker cannot function without a liquid base. Attempting to use a pressure cooker to complete cooking techniques that don’t require much liquid, such as pan-frying or roasting, will cause your pressure cooker to overheat and burn the food inside. This is because the liquid is essential to the cooking process – through the process of vaporization, it transfers liquids into a gaseous state to build up pressure.
These devices allow you to get a more regulated, precise boiling point than traditional stovetop cooking methods. When boiling water on a stovetop in an uncovered pot, the boiling point is 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius). When boiling water in a pressure cooker, the pressure increases as the water temperature does, which creates a superheated effect.
Pressure cookers come with a built-in regulator, which allows the precise temperatures. Once a specific temperature is reached, the pot’s temperature can be reduced to prevent more steam from being created, which saves energy.
There Isn’t Enough Liquid in the Pot
All pressure cooker recipes will require some form of liquid – whether it’s water, milk, broth, etc. to create the steam needed to build enough pressure for the device to work. If you’re converting a recipe from a standard method to a pressure cooker version, this may be easy to forget, but it will spare you a lot of headaches in the future.
A general rule of thumb is that you should only need to add enough liquid to cover the bottom of the pressure cooker pot. However, if you’re cooking things like beans, grains, or pasta, you’ll want to ensure there is enough liquid to cover the ingredients plus one inch, ensuring the total contents don’t exceed two-thirds of the pressure cooker vessel.
How to Fix This
If you’ve followed your recipe, added all of your ingredients, and closed up your pressure cooker, but you’re still not seeing enough pressure build, try adding ½ to 1 cup extra water directly into the center of the pot.
Once you’ve done this, promptly replace the lid and seal it up to begin the process of re-pressuring your pressure cooker. You should not stir the contents of the pressure cooker with the added water, as this will prevent the water from circulating properly, only continuing your issue with steam production.
Food Is Stuck on the Bottom of the Pot
The liquids within the pressure cooker need to be able to circulate properly to be converted to steam. Sometimes, bits of food will get stuck and block the circulation from taking place, which results in a reduced amount of steam from being produced.
This can happen for several reasons. There was not enough liquid in the pot, so some of the ingredients adhered to the bottom, or you were using the browning feature and some of the food crisped up, leaving a residue.
How to Fix This
Carefully remove the lid from your pressure cooker and set it aside. Use a non-stick or wooden spoon to carefully remove the bits of stuck food from the bottom of the pressure cooker, and then replace the food into the pot.
During the pressurization process, what water you added previously could be dissipated by now. You should add some water or other liquid to ensure the food won’t get stuck again during cooking. Additionally, the addition of the water will help pressure build up quickly, so you don’t lose too much cooking time. Once you’ve done this, replace the lid and lock it down to begin re-pressuring your pressure cooker.
The Ingredients Are Too Thick
Sometimes, the ingredients in a recipe are too thick for the pressure cooker to handle on its own. Things like potatoes or sauces can prevent the pressure cooker from being able to circulate the liquid enough to create steam.
How to Fix This
If you’re sure that you added the recommended amount of liquid, and that nothing is potentially sticking to the bottom of your pressure cooker, the food you’ve placed inside is likely too thick, and you’ll need to thin it out to continue cooking.
To thin out a thick sauce, or ensure that enough steam can be produced for any recipe, add enough liquid to cover the top layer of your ingredients, much like when adding additional fluids when there are not enough, you must resist the urge to stir the contents of the pressure cooker. This will result in a continuation of reduced steam, which is the opposite of what you want.
You’ll likely need to reduce the cooking time if this is the reason your pressure is not building up because the thinned liquid will pressurize almost immediately.
The Pressure Cooker Isn’t Sealing Properly
Another reason that your pressure cooker is not producing enough pressure is that the lid may not be sealing properly. In most pressure cookers, there is a silicon or rubber gasket that helps create a seal around the opening of the device, locking in all moisture so the proper steam level can be produced.
Sometimes, food or debris can get stuck on the gasket, causing it to misalign with the outside of the pot. Alternatively, if you’ve just replaced the gasket after cleaning it, it could get stuck out of alignment without being realized. If the ring is missing altogether, that will also create a problem for pressure creation.
Additionally, because the gasket is made out of rubber or silicon, it expands when heated. If you’ve been opening and closing your pressure cooker a few times in an attempt to troubleshoot pressure issues, it’s very likely that this gasket has expanded and won’t properly seal.
The most common indicator that your pressure cooker is not sealing properly is that steam will be leaking out of the sides, rather than from the pressure release valve.
How to Fix This
The gasket around your pressure cooker lid should be cleaned after every use to prevent food and oil build-up around it. When you go to replace the gasket in the lid, push it all the way down into the ring rack and ensure that you can spin it freely – this is how you’ll know it’s been reinserted correctly. If the ring is missing completely, you’ll need to replace it before using the pressure cooker again.
If the gasket has expanded too far, remove the ring from the pressure cooker and run it under cold water to bring down the temperature so that it contracts back to its normal shape. Insert the gasket back into the ring holder and attempt to repressurize again.
The gaskets on a pressure cooker should be replaced annually at a minimum to ensure that the seal remains tight each time you use your pressure cooker.
The Pressure Valve Is Leaking
If the pressure valve is set to venting instead of sealing, this will cause steam to dissipate out through the valve, resulting in no build-up of pressure within the pot itself. The only time you’d need to set the valve to venting is if you’re doing a slow cooker meal. Otherwise, the sealing position should always be employed when the pressure cooker is in use.
How to Fix This
Open the lid of the pressure cooker and check the liquid level. If too much steam has evaporated during the cooking process, add enough water to cover the bottom of the basin and replace the lid. Switch the pressure valve to sealing and ensure it’s fastened securely.
If you’ve noticed that the valve seems to be in the correct place, try taking a utensil and pushing it slightly further toward the sealing side of the mechanism. You can also try to switch the handle back and forth a few times to flush out any water or debris that may have been caught inside.
If that won’t work, try removing the valve handle completely, giving it a good wipe down, and repeating the steps above.
There’s Too Much Food Inside
If you’re overfilling your pressure cooker, you won’t be able to produce enough steam to fully cook the food. For a pressure cooker to produce enough steam accurately, there needs to be room within the basin of the cooker for the steam to reside. Additionally, if you’re overfilling your pressure cooker, you could cause too much pressure to build up, which can cause a mess when you go to unlock the lid.
How to Fix This
To ensure that there is enough room for steam to build and that you won’t have any surprises when you release the pressure on your pressure cooker, be sure not to fill the pot beyond the two-thirds mark. If you’re cooking things like rice, pasta, or other grains, you’ll want to be sure not to fill the pressure cooker beyond the halfway point.
The Lid Isn’t Properly Closed
There needs to be a complete seal for the pressure in a pressure cooker to build properly. If the lid itself isn’t closed properly, steam can vent out of the sides as a result. This can be dangerous, as the steam in a pressure cooker can reach temperatures higher than 200 degrees Fahrenheit (93.3 degrees Celsius). This can cause a lack of pressure inside, not to mention painful burns!
How to Fix This
To ensure your pressure cooker lid is sealed all the way, push down firmly on the lid when you close it. You should hear a clicking or other audible noise signifying that the lid is locked in place.
The Pressure Cooker Wasn’t Cooked on High Enough Heat
On a traditional cooktop with a pan of boiling water, the temperature at which boiling water reaches is 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius). In a pressure cooker, the temperature of boiling water reaches 250 degrees Fahrenheit (121 degrees Celsius). It is this temperature that allows pressure cookers to heat food more quickly than conventional methods.
If you use a stovetop pressure cooker, you’ll need to provide sufficient heat so the water inside the basin can create steam efficiently. If you’re not using high enough heat, you could potentially burn off all the liquid inside the pressure cooker without allowing the pressure to build up to where it needs to be.
If you use an electric pressure cooker, this same problem can occur if you don’t set the temperature according to the recipe’s instructions. Much like with a stovetop pressure cooker, setting the temperature too low on an electric one can cause steam to build slowly, evaporating all of the liquid without building enough pressure for the cooker to function properly.
How to Fix This
Whether you’re using an electric pressure cooker or one that sits over the stove, the best way to know how much pressure you need is to follow the recipe’s instructions. This will ensure sufficient steam can be produced.
If you do suspect a low-temperature issue is causing your pressure cooker not to build up pressure, open the lid and check the liquid level. As mentioned above, although the pressure did not build up high enough to reach a sufficient level for cooking, more than likely, some evaporation took place, causing some of the water to dissipate.
There’s Too Much Liquid Inside the Pressure Cooker
Believe it or not, there is such a thing as too much liquid in a pressure cooker. As mentioned previously, there needs to be adequate room in a pressure cooker for steam to be created to build pressure. If too much liquid is poured into the pressure cooker, it can throw off the amount of pressure created, much like if too much food was added.
Even if too much liquid is added to a pressure cooker, the pressure will eventually build to the appropriate level, but you might end up with a lot less for eating than you thought.
How to Fix This
To be sure you don’t overfill your pressure cooker with liquid, follow the same guidelines as you would when filling it with food – not over two-thirds of the way full.
If you do find yourself in a situation where you’ve overfilled your pressure cooker and you’ve evaporated half your meal, add additional water, broth, milk, etc. until you reach the two-thirds line. Reseal the top and repressurize the pot to continue cooking.
The Float Valve May Be Blocked
In an electric pressure cooker, there is a small piece of silicon called a float valve for safety purposes. This valve, different from the pressure valve, is another sealing component that helps keep the lid airtight when used. As your pressure cooker comes up to the correct pressure, this float valve pushes itself up against the top of the lid, completely sealing it.
For the sealing mechanism to work properly, the float valve needs to be able to fit snugly into the top of the pot. Otherwise, the steam will be able to escape.
How to Fix This
Sometimes food can get stuck around the float valve, especially when cooking smaller particles like rice or quinoa. You should be sure to remove the float valve and clean it after each use to ensure no food remains stuck to it unless otherwise stated in the instruction manual.
You may need to use a small cleaning tool, such as a toothbrush, to ensure that all particles or debris are cleared away from the valve. Before replacing the lid, clean the hole that the float valve goes into with a small brush to ensure a proper seal.
The Wrong Inner Pot Is Being Used or Is Misaligned
If you’re using an electric pressure cooker, you will have an inner pot that goes inside the base of the unit. There are many different sizes of electric pressure cookers, and you may have the wrong sized inner pot. This piece of the pressure cooker is integral in the production of steam because it helps create the airtight seal around the top of the device.
If you have the correct size inner pot for your electric pressure cooker, there is also a chance it could be sitting incorrectly inside the base. This would also cause a break in the airtight seal, releasing steam out the sides or top of the pressure cooker incorrectly.
How to Fix It
To be sure you’re using the correct sized inner pot, only use the one provided during the original purchase. This will ensure the seal will be airtight when you close the lid and begin to bring your pressure cooker to the correct pressure.
If the inner pot is sitting incorrectly in the base, remove it completely and check for any obstructions. If there are none, replace the pot and ensure it locks into place, allowing the seal to be formed.
The Food You’re Trying to Cook Is Frozen
When frozen food is placed inside a pressure cooker, it will take longer than normal for enough pressure to form inside the device so that it can be cooked properly. This is the case because the food inside the pressure cooker helps to increase the temperature, which allows for steam to form and pressure to build.
How to Fix This
Try to thaw all food before inserting it inside the pressure cooker. This will allow the food to heat properly once you power on the device. Much like many of the other issues described in this article, the longer it takes the pressure cooker to pressurize, the more evaporation will take place. This will mean you’ll need to add additional liquid to the base of the pot to continue cooking your meal as it thaws.
Benefits of a Pressure Cooker
Pressure cookers are a very versatile kitchen tool and offer a wide range of benefits. From the range of recipes, you can use a pressure cooker to create, to the way it locks in nutrients due to the way it cooks food, it truly is an instrument every home chef should have in their kitchen.
It’s an All-Purpose Kitchen Tool
Pressure cookers can do everything from steaming rice to steam-roasting meat to preserving fruits and vegetables all in one single gadget. They can tenderize meat in minutes, and can even be used to bake deliciously decadent cakes! The cooking possibilities of this tool are endless.
When using a pressure cooker to prepare a meal, be sure to follow the instructions specific to pressure-cooking that dish. Cooking temperatures and steam requirements are going to be different for each meal, so adding the proper amount of liquid, and allowing steam to build up to the correct temperature will be integral to your success.
Most recipes can be adapted for use with a pressure cooker. The key to successfully recreating your favorite traditional recipes in your pressure cooker is to add about ½ to 1 cup of water (118 – 237 mL) and reduce the cooking time by about one-third.
It Cooks Food Faster
Preparing foods in a pressure cooker can result in meals that are ready up to 70% faster than traditional cooking methods. The steam method of cooking allows temperatures to get much higher quicker than a traditional oven or stovetop methods, which is how pressure cookers can reduce cooking times so drastically.
Pressure cookers are great for meal prepping ahead of time, or on days when you want something nutritious without spending hours to prepare it.
It Keeps Your Kitchen Cool
There is nothing worse than coming home after a long, hot day at work and having to turn on the oven or stovetop in order to prepare dinner for yourself or your family. With a pressure cooker, all of the heat needed to cook a meal is trapped inside the chamber of the device, keeping your kitchen much cooler.
Many recipes developed for pressure cookers are one-pot recipes, so you can simply throw everything in, add the necessary water requirements, let the pressure build, and then set it and forget it. These recipes are all based on the different cook times of the ingredients you’re adding, so be sure to track everything out before adding them in to avoid burnt elements of your dish.
Steam Cooking Locks in Nutrients
The steaming method used in pressure cookers has been proven to lock in some nutrients lost in foods during normal cooking processes. Scientists found that the macronutrients found in grains and legumes were more easily consumed when they were pressure-cooked. It also makes these types of foods easier to digest, which is good news for many people. These types of food are not easily digestible for everyone and can be problematic for some people.
When using the pressure cooker to steam-roast meats, it has been proven that saturated fat levels are drastically reduced, another added benefit of the high temperature and pressure combination.
Less Clean Up
Pressure cookers are a lot like crockpots. They can handle a wide variety of meals more quickly than traditional cooking methods. Because many of the recipes out there today for pressure cookers don’t require more than just the use of the one device, you won’t be left with a sink full of dishes at the end of your meal.
Now that you understand how pressure cookers work and some of the great benefits they can provide, you likely have an idea why your pressure cooker is not building up pressure.
The first thing you should check when dealing with a pressure issue is the liquid level inside your pressure cooker. If you’ve got enough liquid to cover the base of the device, check to see if something is obstructing the circulation of steam from happening. Check the mechanics like the inner pot, the sealing valve, and the float valve to ensure they are not causing the pressure issues.
Finally, verifying you don’t have too much liquid and frozen food, or you are cooking at the correct temperature will help ensure you don’t run into pressure issues with your pressure cooker in the future.