Welcome to Counterpoint, a series in which we challenge commonly held ideas about well-known products. This time: instant pots.
As an Italian-American woman, I’ve been cooking since I was tall enough to stand on a step stool and help my mother roll cookie dough. For Christmas last year, instead of an expensive bag or shoes, I asked for an expensive Dutch oven and a cast-iron skillet. When I’m feeling especially stressed, or sad, or overwhelmed, I retreat to the kitchen. Cooking is both how I show love and how I escape, losing myself in the process of preparing a meal.
And that‘s why I think we need to pile all of the sous-vide machines and Instant Pots in a mound and burn them.
Over the past handful of years, it’s become so that I can’t mention a meal I’ve made or a recipe I want to try without someone telling me about the fancy (and definitely bulky) new gadget they’ve bought. The story is the same whether it’s an Instant Pot or an air fryer. First, friend plunks down money, sometimes hundreds of dollars. Next, friend uses new gadget with vigor, usually for about a month. Finally, inevitably, the shine wears off and the miracle gadget exists only to occupy valuable cooking space and collect dust.
Someone at brunch recently asked me if I have a rice cooker, and I found myself answering, You mean a pot and some water? in full screech. There are only so many times you can hear the same story of time, space, and money wasted before something snaps. (For the record, they had no retort.)
Of course, there are kitchen tools I think qualify as actual innovations. I adore my immersion blender. I couldn’t cook without my Dutch oven. And if someone asks me to roast a chicken without an instant-read thermometer, they’ll likely be served an undercooked bird.
But these tools are as useful to the professional as the novice. The gadgets I take umbrage with are those that take the skill out of cooking — the hands-off, set-it-and-forget-it types. I dislike Crockpots, Instant Pots, rice cookers, sous-vide machines and those weird molds you crack eggs into in order to poach them. (KitchenAid mixers occupy a gray area; I understand why they’re useful, but until I have a much bigger kitchen and arthritis in my wrist, I don’t see myself ponying up for one.)
This isn’t misplaced snobbery; it’s quite the opposite. Cooking doesn’t have to be some insanely complicated undertaking. The recipes that get me the most praise are typically the unfussy ones. The delicious sauces, comprised of four ingredients and some spices, that bubble over the stove for an hour. The seasonal ratatouille that involves nothing more than chopping up vegetables and letting them mingle in a pot. The perfectly seasoned steak seared over a ripping hot skillet, which cooks in minutes but took me months to perfect. These recipes don’t involve crazy amounts of time, dozens of obscure spices or a kitchen the size of a laboratory — just a little time, effort and patience.
These bulky, trendy gadgets, on the other hand, perpetuate the idea that cooking is inherently complicated and time-consuming, and do nothing to actually teach the user how to cook. They reduce the art of cooking to “just toss some things into this pot and walk away.” They lull the user into complacency and reward the bare minimum. I find that sad.
It makes me cringe to realize that cooking is no longer considered an essential skill, and that there’s social currency in claiming yourself too busy to pull together a meal. Kitchen innovations that take the knowledge out of cooking help to reinforce this nonsense, and actually divorce the cook from her meal. When I know I’m going to be making a ratatouille, spending my time chopping and dicing each vegetable by hand, I take care to pick the best veggies available. The same impulse doesn’t exist when you’re chucking things into a Crockpot before running to work.
Good meals are best made with simple ingredients and a good set of pots and pans. A good cook can get by, forever, with: a cast-iron skillet, a Dutch oven, two small pans (sauté and sauce), a good set of knives, a slotted spoon, a cookie sheet, a roasting pan, a ladle, two spatulas and a regular spoon. With those tools and just a bit of planning, you can avoid spending the time and effort the trendy gadgets claim to save.
Most of my cooking is done during a three-hour window on Sunday. I make sauces, stocks and other bases, like rice or quinoa, by throwing some ingredients into a pot and letting them simmer. (Sound familiar?) While that happens in the background, I prep as much as I can for other meals. I chop vegetables that can be cut ahead of time, like broccoli or brussels sprouts. Or I roll and fry meatballs so they’re ready to be sauced and served later over spaghetti squash, or alongside some greens.
After a few hours of prep work, I’m always halfway to a decent meal throughout the rest of the week. When I’m ready to eat, I just assemble some puzzle pieces. When the stock is already made and the vegetables already chopped, making soup comes down to boiling. Putting together any pasta dish with a pre-made sauce is the definition of simple.
I’m all for things that make cooking easier and more accessible, but not dumber. If you want to save time, learn some foundational recipes, practice making meal-prep lists and reacquaint yourself with that old, well-made pan in the back of your cupboard. If you want innovation, learn to make all those elements work together, with skill and confidence, and you’ll surprise yourself with what you can create. That’s where the true innovation in cooking lies: with the cook. I think it’s time we remember that.
A version of this article originally appeared in Issue Ten of Gear Patrol Magazine with the headline “Death to the Instant Pot.” Subscribe today.