The Instant Pot is having a moment. Friends, family, and many, many of my co-workers can’t stop talking about the electric pressure cooker that ostensibly lets you do a lot more than cook stews and beans quickly. However, the Instant Pot is a brand, not a specific kind of cooker. There are a lot of other electric pressure cookers that can sear and make cakes and stews. So the question is: is the Instant Pot really the best, or does it just have the best name?
Pressure cookers have been around for decades, but they’re traditionally used on a stove top, where they need to be watched and carefully heated. This new kind of cooker promises none of the hassle but all the rewards—chiefly the ability to cook stuff that usually takes hours in minutes.
To figure out which was the best, we gathered a group of electric pressure cookers. All hold about six quarts of stuff and all sell for under $100.
First, there’s the Instant Pot Duo which retails for $100 and is one of the most popular Instant Pots the company is making. It seems like the perfect pot to compare all the none Instant Pots to. Next, is the Insignia 6-Quart Multi-Function Pressure Cooker. It’s also $100, and it looks so much like the Instant Pot that many people who saw it assumed it was the real deal. However it’s made by Insignia, which is Best Buy’s budget house brand, and it can be found for super steep discounted rates if you’re lucky. At one point I saw it going for just $30.
Crock-Pot, who used to be the countertop pot that made home cooks swoon, also has an electronic pressure cooker now. The company is known for its slow cookers that can stay on for hours and hours to keep queso warm or to turn stews tender, so theoretically working as a pressure cooker should be something it can do decently. At $70, the Crock Pot Express is also the cheapest of the cookers tested.
Finally there’s the T-Fal Electric Pressure Cooker. T-Fal has been making pressure cookers for the stove top for years, so it certainly knows pressure cooking. But cooking on a stove is a much different task than pressing on a button on a countertop appliance and walking away.
We wanted to see three things: How well could they sear, how quickly do they get to pressure, and how easy are they to actually use.
The difference between the Instant Pot and earlier pressure cookers is the Instant Pot promises to do more than cook quickly. It’s supposed to be able to sear stuff too. That means you should be able to get a nice brown crust on your stew meat without using the stove or another pan.
The browning comes from something called the Maillard Reaction. It’s a chemical reaction that occurs when certain proteins turn brown, and it’s why steaks and breads and French onion soup all taste so good.
Typically, the reaction occurs around 285 degrees Fahrenheit (though that’s a guide, not a hard fast rule). You can get this reaction by slowly cooking onions for hours or bread doughs in an oven, but the easiest way to get it with meats and veggies is by searing it in a screaming hot pan.
However, in our experience all four cookers completely failed. They got hot enough technically—each created a surface temperature well over 300-degrees Fahrenheit. But creating a good sear isn’t just about the surface temperature of a pan. It depends on the heating element, the material of the pan, the shape of the pan, and even the temperature and humidity of the room.
All four pots use really thin pans. So they can get hot quickly, but they can’t actually hold that heat. That means when the cold beef hits the hot pan it cools the pan faster than the heating element can heat it back up. In our tests, that resulted in four grey and greasy pieces of meat. The Crock-Pot happened to get the hottest, and it technically provided a slightly better sear. So, again technically, it’s the winner. But if you want your stew or braised meats to actually be good, you’re better off searing in a skillet and transferring to the pot afterwards.
Winner: Crock Pot Express
Honestly, you don’t buy one of these pots to sear. You buy these pots to cook stuff fast, and all four pots cooked a pound of beans in well under and hour. Typically the same amount of beans take three hours or more on the stove, or they have to be soaked for 24 hours. But while all four cookers did their most important job of cooking competently, some of them did it better than others.
The key part of the cooking equation was how quickly each pot came up to pressure. The beans may cook in 30 minutes once the pot is pressurized, but what’s the point if the pot takes forever to get to pressure?
The Crock-Pot Express was the fastest to pressurize. Getting up to pressure in well under 10 minutes. However, it’s also the only one of the four to fail. The first attempt resulted in the pot not creating a proper seal so instead of pressurizing, it just rapidly boiled off its water ejecting plumes of steam out from under the lid. This could have be dangerous if it had been left unattended. Meanwhile, the other pots won’t let you even start cooking, if the seal isn’t properly set.
However, the T-Fal and Insignia both took their time getting up to pressure. The T-Fal did it in 14 minutes and the Insignia in 15 minutes. That means the Instant Pot Duo, which got up to pressure in 12 minutes, ends up being the safest and fastest to get to pressure.
Winner: Instant Pot Duo
It doesn’t matter if a pot takes minutes to cook a meal, if it’s so difficult to use that it’s not going to be a regular tool in your meal prep toolkit. So besides testing how well each pot cooked, we also tested how easy they are to use, paying partciular attention to their interface and to the method they use to relieve pressure.
After your food has gotten up to pressure and cooked, you have to release the pressure in the form of very hot—and potentially dangerous—steam. The T-Fal initially stood out for us because it had the slickest pressure release valve. Instead of manipulating the valve itself, there’s a button on the top of the device that you can press. It’s safer and easier than any other option, but you actually also have to stand there and hold it the entire time. As the process can take a couple of minutes, that’s not fun. Which means while we were impressed by the button, and so, we can’t quite call the T-Fal the winner.
The same can be said for the Crock-Pot. It’s a great-looking device with an easy-to-read display and a valve that’s not outright terrifying to manipulate. But there’s no easy way to set pressure cooking mode, as it lacks the fine control one would need to follow a lot of recipes. That’s another instant fail for the Crock-Pot.
The Insignia didn’t have any problems that immediately disqualified it, but it was the one that made me burn myself. Its pressure release valve is small and spits boiling water as you manipulate it. Meanwhile, the labeling for which direction to push the valve is also hard to read and requires you to lean over the valve to read it... which is just asking for a face full of burning steam at some point.
Again, the Instant Pot Duo proves itself to be useful, where the other pots fell short. While the Instant Pot doesn’t have the slick button up top like the T-Fa, it’s still fairly easy to release pressure without burning yourself, and the Instant Pot also has the easiest-to-read panel. This makes me think, there’s a big reason the Instant Pot in particular has caught on. This success lies in the design of the thing and these tiny touches.
Winner: Instant Pot
So at the end of the day is there a better pressure cooker than the Instant Pot?
Not really. The Crock-Pot might cook faster and provide a marginally better sear, but it also has some big red flags (like all the steam it spewed out when I first tried to cook with it, and the lack of finer tuned controls). Meanwhile, the T-Fal and Insignia are perfectly capable, but they’re just not as well designed or as quick to cook as the Instant Pot
If you’re looking to spend less than $100 on an electronic pressure cooker there really is no better choice than the Instant Pot. It’s a good, durable machine, just don’t ask it to sear any meat.