Tech Shortcuts for Life

How I Cook 84 Meals in 3 Hours

All it takes is science — and an Instant Pot

Tech Shortcuts for Life is a weekly column from Thomas Smith on Debugger exploring the apps, automations, gadgets, and other tech tricks that can make your life more efficient.

It’s the New Year, and if you’re like nearly half of Americans, you’ve probably resolved to eat healthier, save money, and lose weight. According to Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and basically all of Instagram, one of the best ways to accomplish these goals is to start doing meal prep — cooking all your meals for the week at once, so you can ensure they’re healthy, cheap, and convenient.

With all its measuring, portioning, and focus on culinary and financial efficiency, meal prep has a kind of geeky appeal, for the same reasons that many Silicon Valley types love Soylent. But meal prep can also be difficult and time-consuming — certainly more work than dropping some weird powder into a glass of milk and calling it a meal. Luckily, there’s a magic appliance that uses automation, physics, and the Ideal Gas Laws to make it far easier — the Instant Pot.

When I first heard about the Instant Pot, I assumed it was some kind of glorified slow cooker. It’s not. Instant Pots are automated pressure cookers. They use a slew of electronics — including microprocessors and pressure and temperature sensors — to automatically cook food in an enclosed, stainless steel pressure vessel at up to 15.23 PSI. Imagine that you took a one-square-foot floor tile and balanced a Volkswagen Beetle on it (or a stack of standard house cats 216 cats high). That’s the kind of pressure an Instant Pot is dealing with.

Why does that matter? Liquids conduct heat much better than air — about 20 times better. You can hold your hand inside an oven heated to 400 degrees Fahrenheit for a few seconds with no issues, but if you plunged it into a vat of liquid metal heated to the same temperature, you’d have third-degree burns. The most common cooking liquid — water — has a flaw, though. Because it boils at only 212 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s limited in how much heat it can transfer to food. Get it above 212 degrees, and it turns into a gas and loses its heat transfer efficiency.

Unless you pressurize it. Think back to your high school physics class, and the Ideal Gas Laws. In a system with a gas and a liquid, the boiling point of the liquid is directly related to its pressure. Raise the pressure, and you raise the boiling point of the liquid. In an Instant Pot operating at 15 PSI, water doesn’t boil at 212 degrees Fahrenheit — it boils closer to 248 degrees. That means it can transfer a whole lot more energy to the food you’re cooking.

How much more? An extra 36 degrees added to water’s boiling point doesn’t seem like it should make a big difference. But it does. Because increasing the temperature of water in an Instant Pot increases heat transfer exponentially. That extra 36 degrees means that Instant Pots cook food 1,600% (16x) faster than traditional cooking methods. The upshot? With an Instant Pot, you can pack eight hours of cooking time into just half an hour.

Traditional pressure cookers — which work by the same principle — have existed since the 1600s, and are still ubiquitous in many cultures. But due to safety concerns and finicky operation, they haven’t caught on in the West. The Instant Pot automates that all away with computer chips and safety sensors. To use one — and leverage the power of the Ideal Gas Law for your own cooking — all you have to do is add your food, close the lid, hit a few buttons, and let it do the hard bits for you.

The combination of automation and drastically reduced cooking times makes Instant Pots the perfect tech-driven appliance for doing meal prep fast and efficiently. My wife is on the board at our temple and is heavily involved in a variety of community groups that provide meal trains to people who have had a new baby, suffered a loss, or are otherwise in need of food. We’ve done tons of meal prep for ourselves, too. That means we’ve cooked a lot of meals in our Instant Pots — at least 2,000 of them, I’d estimate. We can cook an entire week’s worth of meals for a family of four in about three hours.

Instant Pot meal prep.

To do Instant Pot meal prep, find some Instant Pot recipes that you like, or adapt a recipe of your own. Most recipes begin with a section where you sauté or brown some of your ingredients, adding flavor (Instant Pots can reach 320 degrees Fahrenheit with their lids off, so they brown food much better than a slow cooker). You then add liquid (remember, you need some water to boost to 248 F), close the lid, and let the pot run through its automated cooking cycle. When it’s done, you release the pressure inside and open the lid. For many recipes, you finish by sautéing your food for a while longer to drive off excess liquid, or by adding delicate ingredients like fresh herbs.

A typical recipe like whole wheat pasta, meatballs, or a vegetable stir fry takes about 30–45 minutes to prep and cook in an Instant Pot. Braises, stews, and slow-cooker-style meals take a bit longer. But because much of the cooking time is automated, you can start preparing one meal while your pot is cooking another, which increases efficiency. A family of four needs 28 dinner portions per week, so I suggest choosing three or four dinner recipes (most say they yield four to six servings but really yield about eight) and cooking them back-to-back. That generally takes about 1.5 hours.

Next, move on to lunch. Choose two or three lunch recipes. Ideally, these will be things you can bulk up or augment with non-Instant Pot foods. You could make sliced steak that you’ll later add to a sandwich, for example, or salmon that you’ll put atop some greens and make into a salad. I also love making healthy grain bowls for lunches, like a Mexican quinoa bowl. A week’s worth of lunches should take about 45 minutes to an hour to prepare.

Use your last half hour for breakfast items and sides. The Instant Pot is stellar at making hard-boiled eggs, for example. It’s also great for edamame, vegetables, and tons of other healthy sides. You can even finish out your cooking session by adding milk and a starter culture and making Instant Pot yogurt overnight for days of breakfasts. As you finish your meals, pack them up. I’ve tested 10+ meal prep containers, and I’ve found Glotoch’s and Ziploc’s are the best. Refrigerate your meals, or freeze some and thaw them a few days later.

Congrats, you’ve got food for a week! You can eat healthfully — and cheaply — even if a weeknight coding session (or bout of Call of Duty) leaves you with no time to cook, or your East Coast boss schedules an all-hands Zoom call for West Coast lunchtime. As you graduate from Instant Pot Noob to Instant Pot Master, you can up your game by buying a second pot (we run two simultaneously to further increase efficiency), adding accessories, or upgrading to a pot that looks like R2D2.

But hey, if you’d rather that all your meals come through a straw and remind you of Charlton Heston, Soylent is always there for you, too.

A few of my favorite recipes

Co-Founder & CEO of Gado Images. I write, speak and consult about tech, privacy, AI and photography.

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