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I think this question falls under "equipment", but if it's off-topic, please close and I'll delete it.

I recently acquired an Instant Pot. To my surprise, its "steam" setting generates and uses pressure. If I steam something for 10 minutes, for example, I have to manually release the pressure or let it equalize naturally before I can open the lid. This has deleterious effects on certain foods. For example, idlis will not puff up the way one would expect; the pressure prevents it.

I hadn't thought that steaming food used pressure, generally speaking. The Wikipedia page on steaming explicitly contrasts the two:

The food is kept separate from the boiling water but has direct contact with the steam, resulting in a moist texture to the food. This differs from double boiling, in which food is not directly exposed to steam, or pressure cooking, which uses a sealed vessel.

My earlier rice cooker (which the IP replaced) had a steam setting as well; on that one, steam escaped continually from the vent during the steaming process.

I'm trying to figure out what the advantage is of sealing the vessel and building up pressure if the intention is to steam food. The product manual is very sparse on detail regarding steaming, but does mention that steaming vegetables "require[s] 1~2 minutes pressure cooking time" and that pressure must be released manually after steaming.

Is it the case that the "steam" function of the IP is not actually meant for steaming, say for custards or dishes that rise? Is it meant for pressure cooking vegetables in a way that replicates the effect of steaming, but faster? I tried searching online to find out more about how the steaming function of the IP works, but found nothing useful.

  • From the manual, it looks like there's a sealed and vented position for a release valve - does it build up pressure even when in the vented position? (I'm not entirely sure which way it means you to use it for steaming.) – Cascabel Jan 19 '17 at 7:06
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    @Jefromi having recently acquired an Instant Pot myself, I know that the pressure relief valve pops back to the vented position several minutes after the time for pressure cooking has expired. In other words, it cooks under pressure, then it releases pressure naturally. Or you can turn the valve into the vent position after pressure cooking, which will allow you to open the lid within a minute or less. – Jolenealaska Jan 19 '17 at 8:12
  • @Jefromi No, it doesn't build up pressure in the vented position, but you can't leave the valve open to vent for steaming. The manual says to keep the vent sealed for all operations except sautéing, keeping food warm, and slow cooking. – verbose Jan 19 '17 at 9:35
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    Check out this article about using the Instant Pot as a steamer: paleopot.com/2016/12/steaming-vegetables-instant-pot (author is not the same Jason, heh). It mentions an optional glass lid with a vent hole. Perhaps that lid is a required accessory for that mode? Do you have that lid, or maybe a vented saucepan lid that fits? I don't know if that article applies to the model you have, though. – Jason C Jan 19 '17 at 9:54
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    @verbose Well, unless it turns out to be user error, I think it might be tough to answer why Instant Pot uses pressure for its "steam" mode. I mean, maybe they are nickel and diming you for accessories like the lid (assuming that's the solution), or maybe the marketing department thought 7-in-1 sounded better than 6-in-1, and since the thing can make steam, why not? They could've gone 8-in-1 if only they thought of "soak", heh. 9-in-1 if you count "air dry" (lid not required) or "funny hat" (turn upside down). – Jason C Jan 19 '17 at 15:20
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TL;DR

  • The Instant Pot is primarily a pressure cooker and its "steam" function is for pressure steaming. I guess typically you do raw/frozen veggies and seafood with this function.
  • You can do normal steaming in "sauté" mode with a vented glass lid (sold as an optional accessory, or if you have a vented lid that fits).

Why?

Is it the case that the "steam" function of the IP is not actually meant for steaming, say for custards or dishes that rise? Is it meant for pressure cooking vegetables in a way that replicates the effect of steaming, but faster?

... my question is about why the IP uses pressure for steaming, not how to steam with an IP. The technique described in the link doesn't use the steam function of the IP, it uses the sauté function.

Assuming it doesn't turn out to be user error (I don't own one to confirm), I believe the "steam" function is just intended for pressure steaming. After all, it is a pressure cooker. So you'd use it when you need to do pressure steaming.

It's possible that the button only says "steam" and not "pressure steam" because the designers felt the use of pressure was implied for this product. As for why it just says "steamer" in the product description, that's a question only their marketing department can answer. They could've gone 8-in-1 if they counted "air dry" (lid and electricity not required) or "funny hat".¹

Here is a long-winded YouTube video² about pressure steaming with the Instant Pot. At the very start he states:

The steam function is mostly used to cook raw or frozen vegetables as well as shellfish and other seafood.

At 4:05 he uses the "steam" function. I'm not going to describe the video in detail because I suspect it echoes the manual for this particular process.

Note also about pressure steaming in the Instant Pot, the video states at 2:30 that a typical stove-top pressure cooker runs at 15 psi but the IP runs at 10.15-11.6 psi, and thus recommends increasing pressure cooking times for stove-top recipes by 7-15%. I can't personally comment on or confirm this as I don't have a lot of pressure cooking experience.


Regular Steaming How-To

As for normal steaming, I do not own an Instant Pot and can not say for sure, but I found this article about using it as a steamer (author is a different Jason), which pretty much hacks it with the "sauté" function. In particular (emphasis mine):

I’m not talking about pressure steaming here, but simply using the Instant Pot as a countertop steamer.

...

The optional Instant Pot glass lid has a small vent hole at the top that releases some steam. The power of the steam in the pot also causes the lid to rattle ever so slightly, the same way some slow cookers do.

The article gives the following steps:

  1. Place your steamer basket and 2 cups of water into your Instant Pot
  2. Set Instant Pot to saute mode, and adjust the heat level to ‘more’
  3. Place the glass lid onto your Instant Pot to allow the water to reach a low boil / simmer
  4. Add your vegetables to the steamer basket and re-cover the pot with your lid.
  5. Steam to desired doneness!

It also makes a note about the initial step:

The water reached 203°F after 6 minutes without the lid on. The water will reach temperature a minute or so faster if you leave the lid on while preheating.

The key point here is there appears to be an optional glass lid with a vent hole. If you don't have this accessory you might have a vented saucepan lid that fits. Also don't forget a steamer basket.

Now, I don't know if that applies exactly to your model (not sure which one the author of the article has) or if the linked products fit, so that part's up to you.


1 For an extra $29.99 you can even get the 9-in-1 "leak stopper" version which can catch rainwater if placed under a leaky roof.

2 Which perfectly complements my long-winded answer...

  • I didn't even know "pressure steaming" was a thing. I guess the feature is meant to be used to clean my carpets? – verbose Jan 19 '17 at 17:57
  • @verbose Make that 10-in-1, lol. – Jason C Jan 19 '17 at 18:32
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    As the owner of an Instant Pot, I wondered about this for a long time too, and for a long time never bothered to use it for steaming. Recently I purchased a newer model, and found that it can be adjusted to steam without pressure - possibly a response to this exact end user confusion. – logophobe Jun 12 '18 at 20:42

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