Friday, November 10, 2023

When I Get All Steamed Up

By Suzanne Norquist

In elementary school, I sang about a teapot getting “steamed up.” At the time, I couldn’t imagine the plethora of uses for steam, particularly pressurized steam. From steam engines, which powered the world for a time . . .

. . . to the Instant Pot that is all the rage today.

The pressure cooker function of an Instant Pot cooks food quickly using steam. When an open pot of water is boiled, temperatures never exceed 212 degrees Fahrenheit. However, when the pot is sealed and the steam can’t escape, temperatures and pressures increase significantly, speeding up the cooking and tenderizing of food. A pressure relief valve allows some of the steam to escape, preventing explosions.

The first pressure cooker, known as a steam digester, was credited to Denis Papin in 1679. He also came up with the idea of the steam engine. When he watched how the steam moved the pressure relief valve, he realized steam could power an engine.

His steam digester could extract nutrition from meat and vegetable discards, like bones and roots. He cooked meat with bones—that were reportedly as “soft as cheese”—for the Royal Society in London.

He hoped to provide less expensive food for the poor. Unfortunately, the device was too cumbersome and expensive to be used in most kitchens, and he died in obscurity. It would be over one hundred years before anyone revisited the idea of cooking with pressurized steam.

In 1795, the French government offered a reward to anyone who could preserve food supplies for the military. Nicholas Appert created a pressure canning process, bringing back the idea of cooking with pressure.

In the nineteenth century, digesters made of heavy cast iron were being sold as “kitchen furniture” in England, but they weren’t popular.

The term “pressure cooker” first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1914. The following year, it showed up in the Journal of Home Economics.

By the early 1920s, the devices were advertised in American newspapers. Articles touted their benefits. A column in the Great Divide newspaper (Denver, Colorado) in 1922 states,

“‘Emancipation of womankind’ is the proper name for the pressure cooker, according to Miss Eugenia Kennedy of the United States government extension work . . .”

The article describes the benefits of quick food preparation, saving fuel and time.

A 1939 World’s Fair display in New York demonstrated a saucepan-style pressure cooker. Sales took off.

With the start of World War II and rationing, the devices became an even more important kitchen tool. Tasty dishes could be created with substandard cuts of meats, using less fuel than conventional cooking.

Unfortunately, the steel used to manufacture these pots was diverted for the war effort and was in short supply. A 1943 article in a Colorado newspaper reported on pressure cookers for homemakers to rent.

Over the years, new technologies, particularly microwave ovens, pushed pressure cookers aside . . . until Instant Pots came along. And, who knows, with rising meat prices today, we may be using those to tenderize inferior cuts again. However, I can’t imagine ever “digesting” bones with steam to make them edible.


”Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection

Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.

Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist

Rockledge, Colorado, 1884

Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers, and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away? 

Suzanne Norquist is the author of two novellas, “A Song for Rose” in A Bouquet of Brides Collection and “Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection. Everything fascinates her. She has worked as a chemist, professor, financial analyst, and even earned a doctorate in economics. Research feeds her curiosity, and she shares the adventure with her readers. She lives in New Mexico with her mining engineer husband and has two grown children. When not writing, she explores the mountains, hikes, and attends kickboxing class.



  1. Thank you for posting today. It was interesting to hear how and why pressure cookers began. I'm not a fan of them and don't own an Insta pot. I wonder if fans of bone broth would incorporate the dissolved bones into their liquid and if it would provide any extra nutrition that just boiling the bones wouldn't give.

    1. I don't use an Insta pot either. And I can't imagine that the bones actually do provide nutrition except for maybe calcium.

  2. Interesting. I once had a pressure cooker for making meals and a very large one for canning. I'm spoiled wiht microwaves and slow cookers. Less hassle and no danger of so much pressure the pots content explodes. I have an Instapot. Because you have to wait for it to reach pressure before it cooks and then wait for the steam to be released before you can open it the timing isn't any faster. I can cook a small roast faster in the oven or a pot then with an Instapot. It doesn't cook larger pieces of meat. I hear it si really good for making yogart. I think they even have a electronic pressure cooker for canning now. My brother-in-law use to put carp in a pressure cooker and cook it until the inky bones melted. Carp is very boney and most people won't eat it. He canned it and it looked like tuna.

    1. Interesting. I hadn't thought it as a way to get rid of those annoying fish bones.