If you’re a fan of trendy cookware, there’s a good chance you have an Instant Pot hanging out somewhere in your kitchen. These electric multicookers became smash hits during the pandemic shutdowns, thanks to their ability to easily and efficiently cook everything from meats to vegetables to grains to baked goods.
Instant Pot (and similar brands) markets its product as a wide-ranging kitchen problem solver, and since this tool’s popularity shows no signs of slowing down, we thought it important to chat with professional chefs and recipe developers about both the benefits of the Instant Pot and ― just as important for shoppers ― its limitations.
On that last note, we learned from our expert sources that these nine foods aren’t at their best when cooked in the Instant Pot.
A perfectly cooked steak relies on patience, a high-quality cut of beef and a high level of heat, which allows you to achieve the perfect sear. The Instant Pot, which has limits to its heating potential, isn’t the best choice for this pricey entree.
“The key to a perfectly cooked steak is getting your pan nice and hot! A hot pan leads to a deeply brown crust on both sides of a steak. The searing function on an Instant Pot does not heat the bottom of the pot evenly enough to get a good sear on a steak,” explains chef and sommelier Dana Beninati of Skillr.
While the Instant Pot’s pressure cook setting can effectively tenderize tough cuts of beef, its inability to produce rich and even browning makes it a less-than-ideal choice for steaks and, indeed, for larger roasts.
“While I love my Instant Pot Ultra, my bottom round roast recipe should never be made in an Instant Pot. If you want a perfectly cooked medium-rare roast from edge to edge with a crispy and browned exterior packed with flavor, you can’t use an Instant Pot. This wildly popular cooking device relies primarily on steam and pressure to cook, which results in an overcooked steamed roast with minimal flavor or browning,” says chef and recipe developer Kimberly Grabinski of 730 Sage Street.
Dishes cooked with milk or cream
“An example of a dish that should never be cooked in the Instant Pot is anything using cream or milk,” insists food blogger and cookbook author Carrie Forrest of Clean Eating Kitchen. If you’re using the pressure cook setting (the most popular choice for Instant Pot recipes), “cream or milk products tend to curdle.” If you’re making an Instant Pot dish that requires some heavy cream or cow’s milk, Forrest recommends adding those dairy ingredients after the pressure cooking is complete, which will prevent them from overheating.
Of course, if you’re using your Instant Pot for yogurt-making (using the yogurt setting), then curdled milk is the whole point, so the above advice won’t apply.
Many Instant Pot newbies are surprised to learn that this tool can be used for baking; a quick glance at Instant Pot posts on Instagram will reveal cheesecakes, sponge cakes and any number of other desserts. That said, certain baking projects won’t work in the Instant Pot, due to the particular way in which Instant Pots conduct and transfer heat.
Case in point? Cornbread. “While Instant Pot does a great job with versatility and precision, the pressurized cooking chamber and steam function do not promote solid bread baking,” says executive chef and owner Brian “Jup” Jupiter of Ina Mae Tavern and Frontier in Chicago. “Initially, I believed cornbread would be great in the Instant Pot, because the pressure would amplify the air in the dough and make a lighter final product. Instead, the cornbread came out soggy and dense, proving me wrong.”
Brownies, like cornbread, require a bit of textural contrast to really shine. A slightly crunchy exterior should give way to a soft interior, and that’s why recipe developer, cookbook author and cooking instructor Vasanti Bhadkamkar-Balan chooses to keep her brownies out of the Instant Pot. “Brownies need dry heat to develop their ‘crust,’ and the moist heat of the Instant Pot doesn’t work,” she says.
Aside from the pressure cook setting, most Instant Pot models also feature a slow cook setting, which is meant to replicate the gentle, relaxed cooking pace of a conventional slow cooker. However, head chef Yankel Polak of ButcherBox warns that if you’re making a beef stew or a dish that requires long-braised meat, the Instant Pot’s standard setup includes one major obstacle: a stainless steel pot insert.
“Even though the Instant Pot has a slow-cooking mode, it’s not a great replacement for a proper slow cooker! The main reason for this is that the [Instant Pot’s] heating elements are located at the bottom of the device, and the pot material (stainless steel) is thinner than a classic slow cooker ceramic pot. For low and slow stews, the kind that really come to life after 12-18 hours of gentle heat, the Instant Pot is not the best choice,” Polak says.
Luckily, there’s an easy workaround for Instant Pot owners who want to fully maximize the slow-cooking capabilities of this tool. You can separately purchase a ceramic pot insert for most Instant Pot models, and because said ceramic is thicker and can distribute heat more gently than stainless steel, you’ll be able to slow-cook your stew to perfection.
When it comes to the limitations of an Instant Pot, New York City-based private chef Adriana Guillen points out that “the temperature of the Instant Pot will not get hot enough to achieve a fried crispy texture.” Specifically, tofu ― arguably one of the most popular plant-based proteins ― has a tendency to stick to the bottom of the Instant Pot’s stainless steel insert, so getting an appealingly crispy texture will prove challenging.
Blogger and recipe developer Emily Eggers explains why textural issues so often occur in the Instant Pot: “Pressure cooking works by circulating hot steam in a sealed pot, so it is great for soft or wet foods like soups or stews. This method would result in a soggy item if it has breading or is intended to be fried.”
The Instant Pot brand does produce an air fryer attachment, which could be a viable option if you want to make crispy items in this appliance. But if oil-frying is your goal for tofu (or for anything else), then the Instant Pot won’t accomplish that goal.
It’s difficult to think of a more finicky, easier-to-mess-up dish than risotto, and that’s exactly why the “shortcuts” provided by the Instant Pot aren’t useful for this temperamental rice dish.
“There’s a fine line between crafting the perfect risotto and ruining it, and it requires constant and careful attention on the part of whoever is cooking it. An Instant Pot isn’t a cooking vessel that’ll grant you that luxury,” explains creative director Christina Russo of The Kitchen Community.
Pasta is shockingly easy to overcook, which compromises its texture and makes it difficult for sauces to properly cling to it.
As far as the Instant Pot goes, chef and recipe developer Devan Cameron of Braised and Deglazed tells us that “it simply doesn’t make sense to pressure cook pasta. If you pressure cook pasta, it will become soggy and overcooked, instead of delicious and al dente. Pasta also needs to be stirred frequently to prevent it from sticking together, and this is not possible while the pressure cooker is sealed.” Cameron notes that the Instant Pot can be useful for making sauces like bolognese in a shorter-than-usual time frame, but he urges you to “cook your pasta separately!”