How to Use an Instant Pot: A First-Timer’s Guide

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Got a new Instant Pot but not sure where to begin? We’ve got you covered! Think of this as your driver’s ed. You’ll be pressure cooking easy dinners, pantry basics, and desserts (yes, desserts!) in no time.

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So you just got a new Instant Pot. Congratulations!

Now what? We’ll take you from a just-opened box to the basics. It’s not as complicated as it seems.

What’s the big deal with Instant Pots, anyway?

Instant Pots are multifunction, programmable electric pressure cookers. Think of them as little cooking robots.

If you’re not familiar with pressure cooking, the entire point of an Instant Pot can be confusing.

The big sell here is pressure cooking is up to 70 percent faster than other ways of cooking.  Pressure cookers reach higher temperatures because their lids lock into place without steam escaping, which creates a pressurized environment inside the pot. In this environment, the cooker reaches 250°F (as opposed to boiling water, which is only 212°F).

With pressure cooking on a stove, you have to keep a close eye on the cooker because you regulate the heat source. If you let the burner get too hot, the pressure builds up too much and the cooker spews out angry jets of steam (and yes, could eventually explode).

But with an electric Instant Pot, the cooker regulates its own heat via sensors. That’s the other win. No need to carefully monitor it as your food cooks. Program the Instant Pot and once it’s going, you’re free to go for a walk, vacuum the living room, check your email—you get the idea.

Instant Pots can do other things besides pressure cook, too. With the lid off, you can sauté ingredients before pressure cooking. You can also use it as a slow cooker or make yogurt in your Instant Pot. We’re not going to worry about doing those things here, though. This guide is all about pressure cooking.

Pressure Cooker Guinness Beef Stew

Instant Pot Guinness Beef Stew

Is this thing safe?

It’s actually safer than conventional cooking or stovetop pressure cooking. Everyone has heard stories about old-time pressure cookers exploding. Your Instant Pot won’t do that because the temperature and pressure inside the pots is carefully monitored and regulated through its internal programming.

Remember: It’s your trusty cooking robot.

What foods are best for a pressure cooker?

Pressure cooking uses wet heat only. You gotta have liquid in the cooker—the steam creates the pressure. No liquid, no steam, no pressure.

Pressure cooking is for boiling, steaming, and braising. For example, you wouldn’t cook French fries or make a crusty loaf of bread from start to finish by pressure cooking.

But anything boiled (beans, soups, pasta, grains, stocks and broths) or steamed (vegetables, seafood, custards) or simmered (meaty stews) is ace in your Instant Pot.

Sous Vide Egg Bites Recipe

Pressure Cooker Egg Bites

This sounds too good to be true.

I wouldn’t lie to you. “Instant Pot” is a misnomer. It’s not a miracle, and it does not cook food in an instant. Nothing does, unless you live on Cup Noodles.

Here’s the catch: It takes time for the Instant Pot to come to pressure.

Typically, the time it takes the cooker to get to pressure is not part of that cooking time. For instance, if a pot roast cooks for 30 minutes at pressure, the total time from start to finish for a recipe like this might be more like 45 minutes or more. An Instant Pot’s heating element has less juice than the burners on your range, so it takes longer to heat food enough to get to pressure.

BUT! The ease of use frees you up to do other things. With most recipes, Instant Pots truly are “set it and forget it.” Let’s say you’re making a stir-fry, and you’d like brown rice to go with it. Before you start prepping the stir-fry, put the rice and water in the Instant Pot, program it to cook for 22 minutes at pressure, then go about your business.

By the time you’ve chopped and stir-fried everything (and even set that table), your rice will have finished its cooking cycle, the pressure will have come down naturally, and the cooker will automatically switch to its “Keep Warm” function—so your perfectly cooked rice is waiting patiently for you at the ideal serving temperature.

Easy Peel Hard Boiled Eggs in the Pressure Cooker

What comes in the box?

Depending on your specific model of Instant Pot, in the box you should generally find:

  • An owner’s manual, for one. It’s boring and confusing, which is why you are reading this. But don’t get rid of it!
  • A recipe booklet. Some of these recipes are good, some aren’t so hot, but they all work. Still, hang onto this, too.
  • A big ol’ lid.
  • A silicone gasket that fits in a ring under the lid.
  • The cooker itself (the outer body of the Instant Pot).
  • A detachable power cord.
  • The metal insert, a.k.a. the stainless steel pot that actually holds the food.
  • A small translucent plastic drip catcher to collect condensation. (The Lux model is an exception; it was designed not to need one).
  • A rice paddle. If you love rice and grains, you’ll find yourself cooking these often in your Instant Pot, and these plastic doohickeys work better than serving spoons.
  • A dinky plastic ladle.
  • A small plastic measuring cup. I gave this to my kid to play with in the tub.
  • A metal steaming rack. You may or may not use this a lot, but hang onto it anyway.

Guide to the Instant Pot - How to insert the inner pot

Let’s put this thing together!

First, wash and dry the lid, gasket, and metal insert. Now you’re ready.

On the back of the cooker, you’ll see a spot where the drip catcher goes. Slide it right in. It’s made to remove easily, so you can empty it. Without the catcher, you’d wind up with small puddles on your counter. (Note: Not all models have this drip catcher.)

Pop the insert in the cooker. Now insert the power cord into the cooker’s socket. Plug it in. The digital display on the front should now read “OFF.” Your cooker is now in standby mode.

Slide the rubbery gasket ring under the lid; there’s a bracket where it will snap into place. The gasket helps seal the pot, allowing it to come to pressure.

Guide to the Instant Pot - Check the gasket

On the underside of the lid is also a small metal cage. It will be round or rectangular, depending on your Instant Pot model, and it helps keep the valve from getting clogged with bits of food. It’s removable so you can clean it out if necessary, but you probably won’t need to do this very often.

Guide to the Instant Pot - check the cage around the vent

Look for arrows on the top of the lid and side of the cooker. Line these up to get the lid on and off. The first dozen or so times you use your IP, this whole “getting-the-lid-on-and-off” will feel unnatural, because your cooker is new and so are you. It’ll eventually become second nature. If the cooker is plugged in, it bleeps cheerfully when you open and close it.

On the lid, there’s a little black knob sticking up. This is the steam release valve. It comes on and off for cleaning purposes, but you’ll have it on your cooker 99.9 percent of the time. This is what you use to release the pressure. If you toggle it back and forth a few times, you’ll find that this knob feels a little loose; that is correct and how it should feel.

Next to the steam release is the pressure indicator. This is a little metal cylinder that the steam pushes up; it’s a manual indicator that the unit has attained pressure.

Your Instant Pot is now all clean and fully assembled. Time for a test drive.

Pressure Cooked Shredded Chicken pressure cook the chicken

Easy Peel Hard Boiled Eggs in the Pressure Cooker

The display on the Instant Pot Ultra (top) and the Instant Pot Duo (bottom)

What’s up with all those knobs and buttons?

I know, there are so many. Good news! You can ignore most of them. I use my Instant Pot nearly every day, and I’ve never touched the Rice, Porridge, or Soup buttons. I do, however, make rice, porridge and soup in my IP all the time, just by programming it manually—which you need to know in any case.

For now, we’re focusing on the buttons you need for most pressure cooking recipes. If it helps, just get masking tape and cover up those other buttons so that you only focus on the buttons needed for our test drive:

  • On the Instant Pot Duo: the Low Pressure and High Pressure buttons, the +/- Cooking Time buttons, the Manual button, and the Keep Warm/Cancel button.
  • On the Instant Pot Ultra: Cancel and Start buttons and the central knob

Guide to the Instant Pot - Practice pressure cooking water

Ready? Let’s cook some water!

The first time you use your Instant Pot, make water—not food. This way, you can familiarize yourself with simply operating it—no anxiety over ruining dinner. I’ve been pressure cooking for over a decade, and I still do the water test every time I try out a new cooker.

Here’s what to do:

First, check the gasket. Make sure it’s snugly in the ring in the lid; 99 percent of the time, if your Instant Pot isn’t coming to pressure, it’s a simple issue of the gasket not sitting in the ring quite right.

Next, put 3 cups of water in the insert. When following recipes, you should still measure liquids, but note that the insert has hash marks to give you a rough idea of the volume.

Now, lock on the lid. Use the arrows on the lid and the cooker to guide you.

Check the steam release valve to see it’s in “Sealing” position. If the valve is in “Venting” position, the cooker won’t come to pressure.

Press “Manual” on the Duo or select “Pressure Cook” on the Ultra. The display will say to 30:00. Its programming initially defaults to 30 minutes cook time of high pressure, which we can toggle up or down depending on how much time the recipe calls for. For our water test, we’ll leave it at 30 minutes.

Now…do nothing. In a few seconds, the cooker will beep three times, and the display will read “On.” That means it’s heating, but not at pressure yet.

Time to wait. A watched pot never boils, right? It will seem like it takes forever for your cooker to come to pressure. When I timed mine with its 3 cups of water, it took 10 minutes to get there. This in-between time passes a lot faster if you are doing other things, like prepping other foods or washing dishes.

Eventually you’ll hear the cooker hissing, interspersed with some clicking. Don’t freak—this is normal. Like a pet dog, your Instant Pot sometimes makes snorting or wheezing noises for short periods.

Then, all of a sudden, the hissing will stop. The pressure indicator will go up, the cooker will beep three times, and presto! You’re pressure cooking.

But wait, the digital readout still says “On.” Is it timing yet? It’ll take about a minute after reaching pressure for the readout to reflect this. Don’t worry; it won’t screw up your cooking time. The readout will say “30” and count down. When you are pressure cooking, the Instant Pot tells you how much time you have remaining in the programmed time.

Once the time is up, the cooker will beep three times and then readout will switch to “LO:00.” This means that the Instant Pot has switch to its “Keep Warm” setting, which it does automatically at the end of the cook time. This is useful if you’re not right there when the cook time ends or if you want your food to stay warm for dinner. On “Keep Warm,” the timer counts up.

If you are cooking something tender like snap peas, however, you don’t want them to overcook, so you can press “Cancel” once the cook time ends. See how the readout switches to “OFF”? Alternately, you can just unplug the cooker.

Easy Peel Hard Boiled Eggs in the Pressure Cooker

How do I get into this thing when it’s at pressure?

Now you need to release the pressure. There are two ways:

  • Natural release: That means you do nothing but wait. The more food in the Instant Pot, the longer it takes for the pressure to come down—as long as 30 minutes if you have, say, a big batch of chili. In a lot of recipes, this time is actually part of the cooking time, and the recipe will specify “natural release” in the instructions. Think of it as carryover cooking. You’ll use natural release with dried beans, a lot of soups and stews, most meats, steamed desserts, and long-cooking vegetables.
  • Quick release: With this method, you use the quick release valve (the knob on the top of the lid) and steam shoots up out of it. Once again, the more food in your Instant Pot, the longer it takes for the steam to release. You’ll use quick release for quick-cooking foods like tender vegetables and seafoods.

Safety time! Steam is HOT

Steam is hotter than boiling water, and it can burn you badly. Keep your hand clear of the steam release valve when you do a quick release. Sometimes I even use the handle of a spoon to push it open instead. (Some Instant Pot models, unlike the Duo or the Ultra, have a button that triggers the valve for you.)

If you have your Instant Pot near cabinets, be mindful when you do a quick release—it can get a lot of condensation on your cabinets, which can damage them over time. To keep the steam at bay somewhat, you can tent the valve with a kitchen towel during a quick release. Foods like oatmeal, beans, and porridges can sputter goop through the steam valve—the towel trick is handy for those times, too.

Let’s try the quick release

Back to our pot of water: Push the steam release valve to the venting position using a long-handled spoon or (if you’re daring) your finger. Just keep your fingers to the side and away from the top of the knob where the steam vents.

This valve should stay open on its own once you nudge it. The steam will come shooting up and be a little noisy.

Releasing all of the steam can take a minute or more. The more liquid in the cooker, the longer the release will take. With the 3 cups of water, it took mine 45 seconds.

Creamy White Chicken Chili serve the chili

Instant Pot White Chicken Chili

Open up the cooker

ALWAYS open the cooker with the lid facing away from you and other people. Once you see the steam that comes roiling from the open cooker, you’ll know why!

By the way, the Duo and the Ultra have a nifty feature where you can rest the lid in an open position using notches on the sides of the cooker.

Want more practice? Bring it back to pressure!

Try it again with the same hot water. This time, press “Manual” and then adjust the 30 minute default time by pressing the “—” button, then press the “+” button to go up. Let’s do 10 minutes.

You may notice how, if you press “Manual” and take too long before pressing the other buttons, the cooker will just beep on its own and proceed for 30 a minute pressure cooking time. If you need to re-start, just press “Cancel/Keep Warm” and start over.

Since the water is in your cooker is already almost boiling to begin with, the cooker will come to pressure a lot faster than it did the first time—within a minute or so. It’ll hiss, then the hissing will abruptly stop as the pressure indicator button goes up. If the hissing just keeps on going, it’s probably because you left the valve in the venting position instead of sealed. Just use your spoon handle to nudge it back.

What next? Same as before: the cooker beeps, the readout will say “10,” and then it will switch to “LO:00.” You can do quick or natural release, whichever floats your boat.

Instant Pot Weeknight Paella

A quick note on high and low pressure

Most of the time, you’ll cook with high pressure, like we just did. It’s faster.

Low pressure is good to use for delicate foods like eggs and custards. Low pressure is also useful for steaming soft and tender vegetables, fruits, and, seafoods because it minimizes the risk of overcooking.

Wow, that was no big deal. Which recipes to make now?

Great job! Take the tape off the front of the cooker and read the owner’s manual.

Here’s the scope of what’s possible in your Instant Pot, and eventually you’ll hone in on what makes sense for you: You might cook primarily beans and grains, shaving minutes off cooking components of other recipes. You might steam vegetables most often (it’s amazing for whole artichokes). You might lean toward multicomponent one-pot meals. You’re the boss of this thing, so have fun!

  • Hard-boiled eggs in the Instant Pot are actually steamed. The plus with them? So easy to peel!
  • Do you love cooking dry beans from scratch? In the Instant Pot, they are fast and plump in the pressure cooker. A game-changer.
  • Regular steamed rice in an Instant Pot frees you to focus on cooking the rest of the meal. An IP is essentially a rice cooker on steroids.
  • Chicken soup from scratch, ready in 60 minutes.
  • Classic chili is weeknight-compatible in an Instant Pot.
  • Need cooked butternut squash or other winter squash? Steam it in a pressure cooker!
  • Cheesecake is a breeze in an Instant Pot, because you steam it—no messing with tipsy water baths and multiple pans like you would in an oven.
  • Steel-cut oats are an everyday luxury if you program it to cook right when you wake up. Your oatmeal is ready once your coffee’s brewed and you’re dressed!

Want more recipe ideas? Check out our full list of Instant Pot recipes!

Guide to the Instant Pot - How to store the instant pt

How to Store Your Instant Pot

Store your cooker like this, with the lid upside down and the gasket loose. Condensation builds up in the gasket, which can become moldy if you lock a damp lid on the cooker.

This method allows for lots of air circulation. It’s not so pretty on a countertop, I know. If nothing else, make sure you at least never store your cooker with a damp lid.

One last thing: What’s the lowdown with those other Instant Pot models?

  • Duo Plus: Like the Duo, but with a blue LCD display and few more settings (including sterilize and egg/cake, though you don’t need special settings to do any of those things). You can toggle to sound off or on.
  • Smart WiFi: Generally like the Duo, but you can pair it with an app and use your smartphone to control some of its functions.
  • Lux: No yogurt making setting. Does not need a drip catcher. Each setting will remember the cook time you programmed most recently.
  • Ultra: Has a central control knob, not as many buttons, and a few more special settings. Has a feature to automatically adjust for pressure cooking at altitude. Quick release button keeps fingers away from the steam release valve. Each setting will remember the cook time you programmed most recently.
  • Max: This has a touch screen, a sous-vide function, heats faster, can be programmed to automatically release steam, and offers an altitude adjustment option.

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Sara Bir

Sara Bir a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America and the author of two cookbooks: The Fruit Forager’s Companion and Tasting Ohio. Past gigs include leading chocolate factory tours, slinging street cart sausages, and writing pop music criticism. Sara skates with her local roller derby team as Carrion the Librarian.

More from Sara

43 Comments

No ImageHow to Use an Instant Pot: A First-Timer’s Guide

  1. Mollie

    Because the lid is hollow, how do you clean inside the lid?

    Show Replies (1)
  2. Patsy

    Oh the Dear Lord, tried mine today for the first time (Santa came Early) love love it. Now to get some Recipes.

    Show Replies (1)
  3. Deana

    I’ve been considering getting an instant pot for awhile but wasn’t really sure what to expect. Thank you for this awesome article. You spoke to all of my questions and concerns.

  4. Trine J

    This was so helpful! I just bought an InstaPot yesterday and I am eager to use it, but had no clue where to start. After reading your post, I feel confident enough that I can try making my first recipe. I can’t wait!

    Show Replies (1)
  5. Carol

    How do you set the timer?

    Show Replies (1)
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Guide to the Instant Pot - How to insert the inner potHow to Use an Instant Pot: A First-Timer’s Guide