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

Got a new Instant Pot and 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 in no time.

Guide to the Instant Pot for Beginners

Alison Conklin

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. But with an electric Instant Pot, the cooker regulates its own heat via sensors. That’s the other win. Program the Instant Pot and once it’s going, you’re free to go for a walk, vacuum the living room—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 for making yogurt. 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.

Coco Morante

Is This Thing Safe?

Instant Pots are safer than 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 pot is carefully monitored and regulated through its programming.

Remember: It’s your trusty cooking robot.

What Foods Are Best for a Pressure Cooker?

Pressure cooking uses wet heat. 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 couldn’t cook French fries 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 a pressure cooker.

Sous Vide Egg Bites Recipe
Pressure Cooker Egg Bites.

Coco Morante

How "Instant" is an Instant Pot?

I wouldn’t lie to you. “Instant Pot” is a misnomer. It does not cook food in an instant.

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

If a pot roast cooks for 30 minutes at pressure, the total time from start to finish 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

Emma Christensen

What Comes in the Box?

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

  • Owner’s manual. It’s boring and confusing, which is why you are reading this.
  • Lid
  • Silicone gasket that fits in a ring under the lid. Some models come with a spare gasket: one for milder foods, and one for strongly spiced foods like chili or curry. You can switch gaskets to keep the smell from carrying over into your next recipe.
  • Pressure cooker (outer body of the Instant Pot)
  • Detachable power cord
  • Metal insert (stainless steel pot that holds the food)
  • Plastic drip catcher to collect condensation
  • Metal steaming rack
Guide to the Instant Pot - How to insert the inner pot

Alison Conklin

Let’s Put This Thing Together!

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 put 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

Alison Conklin

On the underside of the lid is also a small metal cage. 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

Alison Conklin

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. This knob feels a little loose, but don't worry; that's correct how it's supposed to be.

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.

Easy Peel Hard Boiled Eggs in the Pressure Cooker
The display on an early-model Instant Pot Duo.

Emma Christensen

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: Cancel, Start, Pressure Cook, and the knob or +/- buttons used to adjust the heat setting and time.

Guide to the Instant Pot - Practice pressure cooking water

Alison Conklin

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.

  1. Check the gasket

    Make sure it’s snug; 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Lock on the lid

    Use the arrows on the lid and the cooker to guide you.

  4. Check the steam release valve

    It should be in the “Sealing” position. A lot of models are set to seal automatically, but if the valve is in “Venting” position, the cooker won’t come to pressure.

  5. Press or select "Pressure Cook"

    The display will automatically show the time of the last thing you cooked...but since this is the first thing you've cooked, it'll show a default time. Use the +/- buttons (or dial) to set the time to 10 minutes. It should default to High pressure, but if not, select High pressure. Press Start.

    Simple Tip!

    Wait! What if you messed up?! Just press Cancel and start over again. No biggie.

  6. Wait for the pot to come to pressure

    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.

    Some models have a digital progress display to let you know at a glance where you are in the heating process.

    Simple Tip!

    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, and presto! You’re pressure cooking.

  7. Listen for the cooker to beep

    Once the time is up, the cooker will beep and the readout will switch to “LO:00.” This means that the Instant Pot has switched 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 and you want your food to stay warm for dinner. On “Keep Warm,” the timer counts up.

    Simple Tip!

    If you are cooking something tender like snap peas, you don’t want them to overcook, so you can press “Cancel” once the cook time ends to stop the keep warm setting. Alternately, you can just unplug the 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.
Easy Peel Hard Boiled Eggs in the Pressure Cooker

Emma Christensen

Safety Time! Steam Is HOT

Steam is hotter than boiling water, and it can burn you badly. Keep your hands and face clear of the steam release valve when you do a quick release. Current Instant Pot models have a button that triggers the valve for you, keeping your hands at a safe distance from the valve.

Releasing all of the steam can take a minute or more. The more liquid in the cooker, the longer the release will take.

Simple Tip!

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.

Creamy White Chicken Chili serve the chili
Instant Pot White Chicken Chili.

Coco Morante

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.

Simple Tip!

You did it! Great job. Try it all over again with the same hot water, if you like. This time, the timing on the cooker should default to 10 minutes, since that's the last time you programmed in. Do the same steps as before but program the cooker to pressure cook for just 1 minute.

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.

Instant Pot Weeknight Paella
Instant Pot Weeknight Paella.

Coco Morante

When to Use 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.

How to Store Your Instant Pot

Store your cooker 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 sealed with a damp lid.

Guide to the Instant Pot - How to store the instant pot
What's wrong with this photo? The gasket is tucked into the ring. For storage, it should be gently pulled loose form the ring to prevent mildew growth (eww, right?).

Alison Conklin

Instant Pot Recipes to Make Next

Here’s the scope of what’s possible in your Instant Pot. Eventually you’ll hone in on what makes sense for you. 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.
  • 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!
instant pot duo 7 in 1

Simply Recipes / Fran Sales

Comparing Instant Pot Models

For the most current version, just look at our Instant Pot recommendations.

  • Duo: The classic basic Instant Pot. You really can't go wrong with a Duo. I've been using my Duo for nearly 8 years, and it's still my go-to. There's an air fryer lid available separately.
  • Duo Plus: Like the Duo, but with more pressure cooking programs and few more settings. The Duo Plus has a handy digital cooking status display that lets you know at a glance that the cooker is heating, at pressure, or cooling. An air fryer lid is available separately.
  • Pro: Preheats faster than the Duo models, and has a control knob with fewer buttons. The insert has easy-grip handles for safer handling after cooking.
  • Pro Plus: Author and longtime Simply Recipes contributor Coco Morante is fond of this model. "If you’re looking to purchase a higher-end model with more bells and whistles, the 6-quart Pro Plus is my favorite. The inner pot has a flat bottom and handles, improvements from earlier models. The lid automatically seals when you put it on, and the pressure release function is automated. As far as the tech side of things goes, it has every extra feature you could possibly want or use. In addition to the typical basic Instant Pot cooking programs, this pot will do sous vide, canning, and even has a 'Nutriboost' function for extracting the maximum amount of flavor out of bone broths. And beyond all of that, it connects to the Instant Brands app via wi-fi, so you can operate it from your mobile phone when you follow along with the app’s recipes." 
  • Max: This has a touch screen, a sous-vide function, and offers an altitude adjustment option. Instant Pot expert and Simply Recipes contributor Laurel Randolph is a fan. "The Max has completely automated pressure release. It offers quick release, no release, as well as a controlled released, which spits out bits of steam every few seconds, slowly bringing down the pressure. In addition to high and low pressure, it also has a Max setting, which brings it up to the same level of pressure as a stovetop pressure cooker. This is handy for shrinking especially long cook times."