Chicken and dumplings: using an Instant Pot Pressure Cooker

Chicken and dumplings: using an Instant Pot Pressure Cooker

We recently saw the recipe for Chicken and Dumplings from Today Show host Natalie Morales. It looked great, but she did it in a slow cooker, which she said would take 4 hours.

We decided to see if we could speed this up using our Instant Pot pressure cooker. Her recipe uses chicken stock and cream of chicken soup. We decided to eliminate those, since we can make the chicken stock in the pot, and thicken it using cornstarch and add a little cream. We also used chicken thighs, because we wanted the bones to make the stock. We also added a leek, and made our own dumplings without using the dreaded Bisquick.

We started by cooking the thighs for 15 minutes using the Poultry pot setting on the trivet over a cup of water. Then we released the pressure and cut the meat off the bones and put it in a bowl, and tossed the bones and any scraps back into the pot, leaving the trivet in place so we could lift them out later, and added vegetables and water, and pressure cooked for 25 minutes.

Then we discarded the bones and vegetables, removed the trivet, and added new veggies cut into bite sized pieces and pressure cooked for 10 minutes. Then we thickened the broth, added cream and the chicken, brought it to a boil using the Saute function and put the dumpling batter on top. We cooked it covered using the Saute feature to cook the dumplings, and then served it, with the dumplings in one bowl and the chicken stew in the other.  Absolutely delicious.

The only change we’d make next time would be adding less water, as the stew was thinner than we had wanted. We had added 6 cups. Probably 4-1/2 to 5 would be more than enough, since there was already a cup in there from cooking the chicken. Also with that much liquid, the sauté function was not able to heat the stew to a real rolling boil when the dumplings were added, but would probably work better with a bit less water.

  • 6 chicken thighs
  • 1 cup water
  • 3 carrots, cut in half
  • 3 stalks celery, cut in half
  • 1 washed leek, cut in several pieces
  • 5 sprigs of parsley
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3 sprigs thyme
  • 1 tsp salt
  1. Remove the skin and place the thighs on the trivet in the Instant Pot.
  2. Add 1 cup water and cook under pressure for 15 minutes. The Poultry button works fine for this.
  3. Release the pressure, remove the thighs, cut the meat away and set aside in a bowl. Refrigerate when cool.
  4. Place the thigh bones and any scraps back on the trivet, and add the vegetables and spices.
  5. Pressure cook for 25 minutes using the Manual setting. Release the pressure, and discard the bones and vegetables.
  • 4 cups water
  • 3 carrots, peeled and sliced into small pieces
  • 3 stalks celery, sliced into small pieces
  • 1 cup corn (any of these can be frozen)
  • 1 cup beans
  • 1 cup peas
  • 8 oz mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 onion diced
  • 3 potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-sized pieces
  1. Add the water and toss in the vegetables
  2. Cook under pressure for 10 minutes.
  • 4 Tb cornstarch, dissolved in ½ cup water
  • ¾ cup light cream



  • 1 ½ cups flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3 Tb shortening
  • About ¾ cup milk
  • 2 Tb chopped chives
  1. Mix the flour, salt and baking powder
  2. Cut in the shortening with a pastry blender of 2 forks
  3. Add the chives
  4. Stir in the milk to make a slightly sticky batter
  5. Add the cornstarch solution and cream
  6. Add the chicken back in.
  7. Bring the stew to a boil until thickened. Use more cornstarch if needed.
  8. Drop the dumpling batter by spoonfuls on top of the boiling stew.
  9. Cover the pot and cook the dumplings for 15 minutes.

Serve the stew and dumplings right away in two bowls.

Overall, this recipe took about 75-80 minutes. You could speed it up, of course, by just using canned chicken stock and skipping steps 4-5. Either way, this is definitely worth it and way faster than using the slow cooker approach, which doesn’t seem to add any real advantage.

MSG causes headaches, asthma? Probably not.

MSG causes headaches, asthma? Probably not.


Every time you get into conversations about cooking and food, there is a good chance someone will bring up MSG, or monosodium glutamate. It was identified by Professor Kikunae Ikeda in Tokyo in 1908 as the brothy flavoring found in seaweeds such as kombu. This seaweed has been used to make a soup stock called dashi. But the unique flavor of dashi was a mystery until Ikeda boiled down stock from 75 lbs of seaweed stock and allowed it to crystallize. He found that the flavoring, which he called umami, was due to the sodium salt of the common amino acid, glutamic acid, commonly called monosodium glutamate.

HO-(C=O)-CH2-CH2-CH-(NH2)-C(=O)-O Namsg

In the formula and picture above, you will see that MSG is a simple 5-carbon compound with 2 carboxylic acid groups, one at each end. In a mildly basic solution, the hydrogen comes off one of the acid groups, replaced by a sodium ion, making the sodium salt of glutamic acid, which we call mono sodium glutamate. It can be extracted from a number of foods, but is most commonly obtained either by fermentation of proteins or by using bacteria to make the compound for us.  No matter how it is obtained, it is exactly the same simple compound. You will see it referred to as MSG, or “glutamate” but it is the same thing either way.

You will find MSG used in Japanese and Chinese cooking as well as in many other cuisines, because it occurs naturally in mushrooms, tomatoes, parmesan and blue cheeses, broccoli, peas, soy sauce, prawns and Marmite.

But some people believe that MSG is harmful and the cause of any number of allergic symptoms. This is the thesis of this frequently cited misguided article: “Glutamate and your gut: understanding the difference between umami and MSG.”  The first part of the article starts out soberly enough, outlining the history of the flavoring, including scientific references, but then veers off into scary, but inaccurate claims. Of course, you shouldn’t expect an article on a web site called to be scientifically reliable, but this one started out so well.

Now, while glutamate is a common amino acid, the body can and does make its own, so whether it gets some from foods or seasonings doesn’t matter. Inside the body, it works as a neurotransmitter. And while buildup of glutamate is possible in certain diseases and brain injuries, it is not likely in healthy people and poses no harm. It is used in Japanese cooking and the Japanese are one of the world’s healthiest populations.

The article also talks about gamma aminobutrylic acid (GABA), which the body synthesizes from glutamate. This can take you down a whole rabbit hole of pseudo-science where naturopaths dwell, who insist that GABA is a valuable supplement and that MSG can interfere with the production of GABA. This is essentially nonsense, as there is little evidence that GABA is an effective natural supplement. Within your body GABA helps balance the production of glutamate, but has nothing to do with the traces of MSG used as a seasoning.

Synthetic gluamate?

The place where MSG mythology begins to take off (in this article and in general) is the assertion that naturally occurring glutamate and manufactured glutamate are somehow different.  This just reveals lack of basic knowledge of chemistry. As you can see from the above diagram, MSG is a relatively simple 5-carbon compound, and one that is easily synthesized in a number of ways. It was once made from wheat gluten and from acryonitrile, but now is made by bacterial fermentation of various sugars from sugar beets and molasses and corynebacterium.

If you look at the drawing of the structure above, you will notice that the carbon having the NH2 group attached has 4 different things attached: an H, an NH2, a COOH and a CH2 group. This makes this carbon an asymmetric center and it has two mirror images that cannot be superimposed, much like right and left hands. Thus, there are two forms of glutamate, the right-handed and the left-handed versions, often labeled “D-glutamate” and “L-glutamate,” for “dextro” and ”levo.” Only the L-version has umami flavor properties, the D-version is tasteless. Extracted from seaweed, there is about 5% of the D version and 95% of the flavorful L-version. Synthesized by fermentation, there is much less D-version, probably less than 1%.

Are there allergic reactions to MSG?

As explained by the Cleveland Clinic, a true food allergy is a reaction mediated by immunoglobin E (IgE) antibodies. The antibodies are directed at protein allergens and are less common than other sorts of food reactions. MSG has never been shown to produce IgE antibodies under any conditions.

However, anecdotal evidence persists of reactions to MSG, mostly in reports of headaches after consuming MSG containing foods. But, considering how common MSG is in foods, this seems somewhat unlikely.

Tarasoff and Kelly described a double blind experiment in which 71 healthy subjects were given a capsule containing MSG or a placebo before a standard breakfast over 5 days. Of the subjects, 85% reported no responses to the MSG or the placebo, and sensations previously reported as MSG reactions did not occur at a significantly higher rate in the MSG test than for the placebo. And reviewing the existing experimental literature the next year, Freeman reported that there was no significant data to support reported reactions such as headache or asthma. Nor did they find any subset of the population with an MSG sensitivity.

MSG has also been accused of causing asthma, but a Cochrane review of available evidence reports that no such correlation existed.

One interesting recent paper by Shimada  examined the possibility that MSG could cause headaches and TMD (temperomandibular disorders) or aching of the jaw muscles. Three of the subjects experienced some pain in this study. However, the study of 14 healthy young men administered  150 mg/kg of MSG each day for 5 days in a diet lemon soda that the authors believed masked the taste of MSG.

15gNote, that for a 100 kg man, this would be 15 g of MSG (pictured) which is a whopping dose. Even for a considerably lighter man or woman, 7 or 8 g of MSG Is still probably more than 20 times the usual amount used as seasoning. The authors noted that at the end of the double blinded study, the subjects admitted that they could taste the MSG in the lemon soda, this essentially nullifying the experiment.

A paper on headaches and a review of dietary factors published this year by Zaeem concluded that there were no studies showing such effects for MSG when you eliminated papers where double blinding was ineffective. Interestingly, Nakamura found that there were glutamate sensors not only in the oral cavity, but in the stomach, indicating that this is clearly part of the body’s normal processes.

Some negative effects in very high concentrations

But getting into something close to conspiracy theories, Nakanishi published an article called “Monosodium glutamate (MSG): a villain and promoter of liver inflammation and dysplasia.” In this paper, Nakanishi and co-workers injected a solution of MSG into 123 newborn mice, at a concentration of 2 mg/g of body weight. Not only is injection quite different than digestion, that concentration is 2 g/kg, or for a 100 kg man, the equivalent of injecting 200g of MSG. With concentrations this far from those in normal consumption of foods, any results are pretty unlikely to be significant. They found that this concentration induced liver inflammation and damage as well as obesity. Their conclusions were that MSG be withdrawn from the diet, ignoring the fact that it occurs naturally in so many foods, and is synthesized by the body as well. A similar paper by  Tsuneyama injected twice that concentration (4 mg/g) and found much the same effects. Again, this has no real relevance to the normal human diet.

But people continue to report headaches

But despite the continuing findings that MSG causes no ill effects in  double blind studies, people continue to insist that it does and the science “must be wrong,” because they or their spouse gets strong reactions from foods with added MSG. Sometimes they even report that Parmesan cheese (which is high in MSG) also produces such symptoms. Usually, they report headaches, but sometimes other varied symptoms as well. For example, if you read the comments on Rachel Feltman’s 2014 Washington Post article, you will see some very annoyed people insisting that negative effects do exist. Similar comments have been made on previous articles I have published.

The question is why such reports contradict all carefully done experiments. The reports are anecdotal, of course, which means that those reporting have not been part of any study to find out what is causing these very real effects.

So, in brief, we really don’t know. One possibility is called the nocebo effect. This very real effect is caused by the expectation of a negative effect even when there is no actual medical reason for such an effect. The nocebo effect is very powerful and cannot be brushed off as some psychological oddity. But even this year, a series of studies among self-identified MSG sensitives showed no statistical effect.

So in conclusion, all studies have failed to show any significant effects of MSG on humans. But some people persist in reporting such symptoms, and we really do not know for certain what is behind these reported effects, nor why it has never been observed experimentally.




Serendipitous home fries from failed French fries

home-friesWe were quite taken with this French Fry recipe that suggested that you could make lower fat French fries in your slow cooker. The author says you cut up the potatoes; add salt and your choices of spices, and about 1/3 of a cup of olive oil for 3 lb of potatoes.

Well, we had to try this, so we took 2 large potatoes (about 1.5 lb) and cut them to French fry size, added salt and around 1/6 cup of olive oil and tossed them in our Instant Pot. We set the pot to Slow Cook and the highest temperature setting (high) as recommended by the recipe.

We set the slow cooker to 3 hours, and put the lid on (a glass lid, not the pressure cooker lid)m and stirred them once or twice an hour.

After 3 hours, we had cooked, limp, white potatoes, but nothing like the French fries in the recipe’s picture. We even tried switching to the Saute setting, but this would not brown them either. Either her recipe doesn’t work at all, or it doesn’t work in our Instant Pot, which may have different heating characteristics than her slow cooker.

But we made great potatoes anyway!

We were making hamburgers anyway to go with these failed fries, so we just tossed the potatoes on the griddle, adding a dab of butter for flavor and browned them. This made the most delicious home fries we’ve ever made!

Well, if you think about it, this really says that cooked potatoes maker better home fries, because all you have to concentrate on is browning them: you don’t have to cook them too!

And you can make those cooked potatoes in the Instant pot pressure cooker in about 4 minutes. Add a cup of water, and place the sliced potatoes on the trivet or in a vegetable steamer. Cook 4 minutes and release the pressure right away. Then, dry off the potatoes and brown them on the griddle. They will be great. You could also add bacon or onions at this point to flavor the potatoes. But you will definitely have great home fries with very little work.

And a cast iron frying pan would work as well as a griddle. And you could use a vegetable steamer for a couple of potatoes. For more, use the Instant Pot.

Success comes from failure!

Easy mashed potatoes in an Instant Pot

Easy mashed potatoes in an Instant Pot

It’s not that using a pressure cooker for mashed potatoes is faster,  it’s that they taste better. Once you’ve made mashed potatoes this way, you probably won’t boil them in a pan ever again!

  • 2-4 lb Idaho potatoes (or use Yukon Gold)
  • 2-4 Tb butter
  • Salt and pepper
  • Up to ¾ cup buttermilk

Here’s all you have to do.

  1. First peel 2 or more pounds of potatoes, and then cut them in half or at most in quarters if they are really large. Try to cut them so the pieces are pretty much the same size. And don’t cut them into little pieces: the more surface area  you create, the more flavor is leached from the potatoes, whether you steam or boil them. Little pieces may cook more quickly, but the flavor will be much less intense.

2. Place the potato pieces on the trivet inside the Instant Pot, and add 1 cup of water.

3. Close the pot and vent, and select Manual for 13 minutes. Then, vent the pot right away using Quick Release. You don’t want them to overcook. Check them with a fork, to make sure they are cooked through.  If they are not (unlikely) you can close the pot and cook for 2 more minutes.

4. Remove the potato pieces and put them in a mixing bowl or stand mixer bowl. Do not use an immersion blender.

5. Beat the potatoes for a minute and then add butter 2-4 Tb, salt and pepper.

6. Beat in the butter, and then add up to ¼ cup of buttermilk and beat until smooth.

Serve right away.

Camelot at Westport Playhouse: a chamber version

Lusty Month of May
“Lusty Month of May,” Guenevere and Knights. Patrick Andrews, Michael De Souza, Britney Coleman, Mike Evariste, and Jon-Michael Reese. Photo by Carole Rosegg

Camelot opened Saturday night at the Westport Country Playhouse, in a new pared-down “reimagined”version with a cast of only 8 (plus young Tom) and an orchestra of the same size. While Camelot has a reputation of being overly long and swampy, this “chamber” version runs a fairly brisk 2:15 with one intermission.

The newly adapted book by David Lee features the 4 main characters: Guenevere (Britney Coleman),  Arthur (Robert Sean Leonard), Lancelot (Stephen Mark Lucas)and Mordred (Patrick Andrews), and 4 men who are remarkable singers and dancers: Michael de Souza, Mike Evariste, Brian Owen, and Jon-Michael Reese. Young Tom of Warwick is played by Sana Sarr.

Britney Coleman and Robert Sean Leonard

Britney Coleman as Guenevere is simply spectacular and steals every scene with her gorgeous bell-like voice and smoothly glamorous acting. She alone makes it worth your while to see this interesting adaptation.

As Arthur, Robert Sean Leonard, is an excellent actor who gives you Arthur’s early immaturity and his later commanding persona with great skill and magnetism. Unfortunately, he is not a singer and talks his way through most of the music, often coming in late, to its detriment. He does sing in ”What Do the Simple Folk Do?” showing that he can sing a little.

Patrick Andrews as Mordred is everything you want in an evil, snarky, oily villain who also happens to be Arthur’s illegitimate son. He sings, he dances, and his two numbers with the 4 men: “The Seven Deadly Virtues” and “Fie on Goodness” show off his excellent dancing and Connor Gallagher’s imaginative choreography.

Britney Coleman and Stephen Mark Lukas

Stephen Mark Lukas is a dazzling Lancelot, tall, ridiculously handsome and suitably arrogant, with a lovely, rich baritone voice. His “If Ever I Would Leave You” is quite lovely and satisfying, although he was really working on those low notes.

This is really a chamber version of Camelot, cut down in size and length, and emphasizing the four main characters over any real ensemble work: there is no women’s chorus. The only female voice belongs to the fabulous Ms Coleman. The story is a little simplified, but almost all the great songs are there and Ms Coleman sings in eight of them.

What do we lose in this version? We lose Nimue and the lovely “Follow Me,” as well as Merlin, King Pellinore and Morgan Le Fay. And with the serviceable 8-player orchestra we miss Robert Russell Bennett’s and Phillip J Lang’s lush orchestrations. And of course, we miss the Overture and the opening Camelot March.

The Revelers


While Camelot was always about spectacle, we don’t find that here. There is an opening dance, accompanied mostly by drumming that has the entire cast in colorful capes and grotesque masks that is quite stunning, but we have no idea what it was there for, except, perhaps to replace that opening march. The sets are fairly simple. Much of the action is played against floor to ceiling wooden panels, with a few pieces, like Arthur and Guenevere’s bed wheeled in. The wooden panels open to reveal a distant castle painted on a drop behind a scrim. From time to time banners are lowered and a huge circle, rather like a roulette wheel is lowered. I finally realized that this represented the Round Table.

Robert Sean Leonard and Sana Sarr

The script called for Young Tom of Warwick to appear at the end of the show to tell Arthur he wants to become a Knight of the Round Table, after many of the original knights were defeated in the final battle. The director or adaptors have expanded that role. Tom appears in the opening number, barefoot and in pajamas playing with models of knights on horses. And he appears again during the jousting tournament, with his toys representing the actual jousting.

This adaptation does nothing to clarify the climactic, but baffling song “Guenevere,” where apparently an entire battle between Lancelot’s and Mordred’s forces seems to have taken place offstage. Arthur explains it afterwards. But the quiet ending with Arthur and Young Tom is as effective as ever.

If you go expecting to dread the original Camelot’s length and bloatedness, you will be pleasantly surprised at this compact version. If you are looking for spectacle, that is really only there by proxy. But the singing actors and orchestra put on a thoroughly professional and entertaining version of the story of Camelot.

The show runs through November 7, with performances on Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesdays at 2 and 8pm, Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday ant 3 and 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are available on the theater’s website or by callng 203-227-4177.


Poached eggs for a crowd

Poached eggs for a crowd

It is very easy to poach a couple of eggs in a saucepan for a couple of minutes and come out with nice looking perfectly cooked eggs. We use the swirl method, which causes the stray white to wrap around the egg instead of filling up your pan. While it is time consuming, you can also cook them in an Instant Pot: it doesn’t work very well.

But suppose you are making poached eggs for a crowd. We once made Eggs Benedict for 11: that’s 22 eggs. How can you do this quickly and efficiently? Fortunately mass production of poached eggs has been solved years ago, and Harold McGee describes it in his magnum opus, On Food and Cooking.

You use a large pot and add 1 Tb of salt and ½ Tb of vinegar per quart of water. What happens seems almost like a magic trick: you break the eggs into the pot of barely boiling water. They sink to the bottom. But when the eggs are done, they float to the top. You lift them out and put them on toast or muffins to serve. There is no need to keep track of which egg is next. You just keep adding eggs and lift them out when they pop up.

What is happening is a little bit of chemistry:  the vinegar reacts with a bit of bicarbonate in the egg whites, forming small bubbles of carbon dioxide. As the egg white coagulates, the bubbles get trapped in the cooking egg. The salt increases the density of the water just enough that after about 3 minutes of cooking the eggs and their bubbles will float to the surface. And there are no long tails of uncooked white, either. They always look perfect!

To make this work best, you want to use freshly bought eggs, and for a large crowd, use an 8-quart spaghetti cooker pan.

For our photos, to make it easier to see, we used just a 3 quart pan, but you could easily do 6-8 eggs in it, scooping them out as they float to the surface.

And that’s the whole trick. And for even a few eggs, this is a really helpful trick!

Microwaved Poached Eggs

Someone is always publishing some other weird idea for cooking eggs, and here’s another one that doesn’t really work: microwave poached eggs. Supposedly, you put ½ cup of water into a small bowl, break an egg into the water, and cover the dish with a plate and microwave it for a minute.

We tried it, and the egg was seriously overcooked. And while we could have fooled with it to find the right time for our microwave oven, we didn’t bother, because it really doesn’t scale much beyond 2 eggs. You’d have to do them separately, and you get a lot of little bowls (and plates) dirty.

Stick with the swirl method for 2-4 eggs and use the crowd method for large numbers of customers.

One bowl Quiche Lorraine

One bowl Quiche Lorraine

This simplified quiche recipe can almost be made in a single bowl. OK, you have to fry 3 strips of bacon, too, and probably will use a pitcher to fill the piecrust, but the crust and the filling can all be made in the food processor. And you don’t even have to rinse it out between ingredients!  You can have this quiche done in less than an hour including baking the piecrust.


  • 2 cups flour
  • 2/3 cup shortening
  • 2/3 cup (or less) cold water
  • Aluminum foil
  • Dry beans for weight

This amount of dough is more than you need: it makes two piecrusts, but since a quiche pan is bigger than one pie pan, we just make two and use the remaining dough for something else.

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
  2. Put the 2 cups of flour in the food processor and add the shortening. Pulse briefly.
  3. Add 1/3 cup of water and pulse briefly.
  4. Add some of the remaining water and pulse until mixed. If the dough is not smooth, add just a bit more water. The dough should be the consistency of Play-Doh.
  5. Roll out about ¾ of the dough to a circle larger than the quiche pan, fold it in half, and fit it into the quiche pan. Pinch it into place, and cut away any excess dough.
  6. Prick the dough in a few places with a fork.
  7. Put a sheet of aluminum foil over the piecrust and fill it with dried beans to weight down the crust.
  8. Bake 8-9 minutes, remove the foil and beans, and bake 2 more minutes.

Quiche filling

In this method, we create the filling but do not fill the pie shell until we have it sitting in the oven.  This prevents the filling from slopping over into the oven when you put the pie in.

  • 3 strips bacon, fried and drained
  • 4 oz Swiss cheese (Emmentaler or Jarlsberg)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 ½ cups light cream
  • Chopped chives or green onions
  1. Reduce oven heat to 375°F
  2. Put the cheese in the food processor and grate it with the steel blade.
  3. Add the eggs and cream and pulse until mixed.
  4. Cut the bacon into small pieces and place on the crust.
  5. Pour the quiche filling into a 2 cup pitcher, making sure to get all the cheese
  6. Place the quiche pan on a pulled-out oven rack, and pour as much of the quiche filling as you can into the pie shell.

7. Top with the chopped chives or onions, close the oven and bake for about 30 minutes, until a knife blade comes out clean.

Remove the quiche from the oven, make sure the crust is free of the pan rim and place the quiche pan on top of a cup or jar and press downwards to drop the sides of the pan. Place the quiche on a platter and serve at once.


Baking potatoes the right way

Some people bake their potatoes in the oven, wrapped in foil or not and some use potato spikes to speed up the process. Others cook potatoes in their microwave oven and other use their charcoal or gas grill. We decided to compare the three basic methods and tell you what we found.

A baked potato means cooked using dry heat. This leaves out the possibility of using a pressure cooker, which steams the potatoes, giving quite a different result. But it turns out that if you wrap your potato in foil, as many do, you are actually steaming the potato using the moisture trapped inside the foil. And there is a difference in the result.

We took 3 russet potatoes each weighing around 200 grams. One we wrapped in foil and one we left unwrapped but inserted a potato spike in the middle to help heat transmit to the center, speeding up the cooking process.  You can get these spikes on Amazon for about $6.50 for 6, and at many hardware and cooking stores as well.

We set the oven to 400° F and baked the potatoes until inserting a fork indicated they were done. At 400°, the spiked potato took about 40 minutes, but the foil-wrapped one took nearly 50 minutes. You could expect these times to be about 10 minutes less at 450° F.

Then, for comparison, we pricked the third potato about 8 times with a fork and cooked it in the microwave oven for 5 minutes. When we removed this potato, it was wrinkly and shriveled, presumably because the microwave process forced more of the potato’s moisture out as steam.

All of the potatoes came out rather differently. The baked potato with the spike was flaky, tender and flavorful. The foil-wrapped potato was mushier, and took 10 minutes longer to bake, which makes foil a silly idea. The microwaved potato was the worst of all, being the mushiest, and having an odd off-taste, perhaps picked up from the peel. It was truly terrible.

on-grillIf you want to grill your potatoes, add spikes and throw them on the grill, near, but not on the actual fire source. Yes, the outsides will blacken a bit, but it is worth it for the improvement in flavor and texture. A baked potato should be flakey, like many politicians, but not mushy like some other politicians. It will have a nice pleasing texture and a much better flavor. We found that grilled potatoes took about 20 minutes and had an excellent flavor and texture.

Our conclusion: only the oven and grill make an actual baked potato. Foil wrapped takes longer and is mushy, and microwaved potatoes are the worst of all.


EWG and Erin Brockovich recycle discredited chromium claims

waterThe ill-informed Environmental Working Group has been engaged in a blizzard of press releases and E-mails claiming that nearly everyone’s drinking water is contaminated with chromium-6 (hexavalent chromium).  Consisting mainly of lawyers, PR people and self-promoters like Brockovich, the EWG has little scientific expertise, but loves to issue scary broadsides about evil chemicals. Their board members and staff contain almost no actual scientists. Their yearly press releases on the “Dirty Dozen,” have been widely discredited for failing to recognize that all the residues they report on fall far below USDA safety levels.

Comes now Erin Brockovich, mostly known by having been portrayed by Julia Roberts, recycling her claims from 25 years ago about Cr+6 in our water supplies. In fact she and the EWG have sent out regional alerts with lists of the chromium levels in water supplies for that region, conning naïve local papers into publishing these data with little contextual explanation.

Well, as McGill chemistry professor and science writer Dr Joe Schwarcz explained some years ago, there was actually little cause for concern in the town of Hinkley, CA where Brockovich made her name, and little cause for alarm now. Learning that trace amounts of chromium were in the Hinkley water supply caused by PG&E using it as a corrosion inhibitor, she quickly connected it to every conceivable malady, including miscarriages, Crohn’s disease, lupus and cancer, without any actual evidence. She eventually got PG&E to pay a $333 million settlement to Hinkley.

Now the trouble is, as Schwarz points out, chromium exists in two ionic forms trivalent or Cr+3 and hexavalent, or Cr+6. The trivalent state is pretty benign and an essential nutrient. It also sometimes appears in nutritional supplements (where it probably does little good). The hexavalent form is actually rather toxic, but Brockovich disregarded the chemistry, much as the EWG always has. The small amounts of hexavalent chromium would quickly react with chemicals in the soil and groundwater, reducing to the safer trivalent chromium.

And, in fact, exhaustive, repeated studies have shown no toxic effects on any residents either in Hinkley or other sites of contamination, as reported by The Wall Street Journal, and by ABC News.  While hexavalent chromium may be carcinogenic to some chemical plant workers, there is no evidence at all that ingestion of trace amounts of chromium in drinking water poses any sort of harm.

The EWG could quickly find this out. After all, reviews of the movie even pointed out that this contamination probably was not actually harmful.  But, no, they want to scare you and use the claims to raise their membership levels and raise money. They are not qualified to undertake “research” in this area and should cease these ridiculous claims.

Incidentally, the EWG is also trying to scare us about atrazine. But as evidence, they are using the pronouncements of Tyrone Hayes, the eccentric UC Berkeley professor who claims in entertainingly profane diatribes that atrazine exposure can change the sex of frogs. However, since he refuses to release any of his data after several years of these claims, he has become more of a laughingstock than a credible scientist.


Poaching eggs in an Instant Pot

Put some water in the Instant Pot and add the little trivet. You ought to be able to poach eggs in some container above the trivet. Right? Right. We went through a dozen or more eggs, eggs-perimenting with this, and tell you that the answer, like all social science is “It depends,” because there are a lot of variables.

Our first trial was to put an egg into each of two little glass ramekins that we had sprayed with cooking spray, and set them on the trivet over 1 cup of water. We closed the pot and the steam vent and pressed the Manual button for 3 minutes. Since it take the pot almost 6 minutes to heat up the water and come to pressure, this actually takes 9 minutes to cook the 2 eggs. We released the pressure quickly (30 seconds) and lifted out the two ramekins on the trivet.

It took a bit of time to unmold the eggs: we ran a thin spatula knife around the edge of each dish to loosen them. And even this wasn’t that quick, because the ramekins were so hot that we had to wait a bit before we could handle them. And unmolding the eggs is delicate enough that using hot pads or gloves just won’t cut it.

But we did get the eggs out and onto toast in about 11.5 minutes. They looked fairly nice, although weird because they are actually upside down: the yolk, which would normally by on top is inverted and is now on the bottom. However, when we cut the eggs open, they were a bit overdone. The yolk was more cooked than we would like for a classic poached egg.  Moreover,  the whites were distinctly tough and rubbery.

Rubbery whites were something we saw in cooking hard-cooked eggs under pressure. It vanished if you cooked the eggs at low pressure.

3-minlp-broken-openSo we tried cooking the eggs at low pressure, reducing the time to 2 minutes. They weren’t sufficiently cooked, so we repeated the experiment at 3 minutes and low pressure. These were actually pretty nice, but again, it was hard to unmold them, and the ramekins were just as hot, so it took some time. Again, the elapsed time was at least 11.5 minutes or more, and while the eggs were cooked well, it was hard not to break them while unmolding them.

Some people have recommended poaching eggs in little silicone cups. We picked up a couple of Poach Pod cups at our local Cook’s Nook.  Some people have also tried other similar egg poacher cups like these from Zenda Home.

poach-pod-broken-openWe sprayed them with cooking spray as they recommended and cooked 2 eggs for 3 minutes at low pressure. They weren’t done, so we returned them to the pot for one more minute. These were done and looked pretty nice in their silicone cups. But, while the pods weren’t as hot as the glass ramekins, they were very difficult to get the eggs out of. In fact, even though we carefully ran the spatula knife around them, one of them broke.  Further, they were hard to center over the toast. While the eggs were cooked properly, getting them out was far too difficult, and we don’t recommend them. This took nearly 12 minutes.

Finally, for comparison, we poached two eggs in a saucepan as we have described before. It takes 3 minutes to bring a quart of water to a boil in a 2 quart saucepan, then we turn the heat down so the water is barely bubbling, swirl it with wire whisk and crack the eggs one at a time into the swirls. The eggs are done in 2-3 minutes. The total time was 6 minutes, including lifting the eggs out onto the toast. And there are many fewer dirty dishes!

So, we conclude that while it is certainly possible to poach eggs in the Instant Pot, it takes twice as long as in a saucepan, and since the cooking time is so brief, you have to watch the pot timer like a hawk so they don’t overcook. This takes away the “set it and forget it” advantages of the Instant Pot that you get for longer cooking stews or rice.