Instant Pot Crash Course


So you got an Instant Pot for Christmas. Now what?! Other than the “water test”, where do you start, right? (And if you don’t know what the water test is, then you aren’t the instruction manual reading type and you desperately need this article. Just sayin’.)

You’re going to love your Instant Pot the most if you learn how to use it properly from the beginning. Only a few failed “trial and error” attempts could leave you with lackluster feelings for your new toy, and we just can’t have that. I can’t cook worth a darn, but I am a total “pot head” now. If I can make this look easy, so can you! Here are some insights to help you rock that pot.

If you take this New York Cheesecake step by step, it’ll be a smash hit. Recipes below!

It takes longer to cook than they claim.

The times people brag about are total baloney. I mean, technically they are telling the truth, but you aren’t making pasta in 4 minutes or ribs in 10. The time you set is the cooking time, which doesn’t start until the pot comes to pressure. The amount of time it takes to build up pressure inside the pot depends on a few factors like how much food you put in, the temperature you started with, etc. So if I throw frozen meatballs in with my spaghetti, it’s going to take longer to come to pressure than if I used only room temperature sauce and hot water. The reason the pot is so awesome is that I don’t have to adjust the math for those two extremes. I always put my pasta in for 4 minutes, regardless of what else I’ve added or how many servings I’m making. No second guessing how long to set it for, even though estimating total cook time takes a little practice. 

You need liquid to make the magic happen.

The liquid is what makes the steam, which is what builds the pressure. You need at least a cup of liquid in the bottom of the pot, no matter what. That can be water, broth or a thin sauce. If you are making something you don’t want sitting in the liquid – or something you don’t want sitting directly on the bottom of the liner (rice can be tricky) – the “pot in pot” method is great. The Instant Pot comes with a trivet, which is a short little rack you can use to keep stuff off the bottom if you need to. You can use any oven-safe dish, aluminum foil, or even those disposable cooking pans. It won’t be long before you want other gadgets like steamers, stackers and cheesecake pans that fit inside the pot.

Facebook is riddled with groups focused on pressure cooking. Find a few and follow them. I discourage “winging it” with the Instant Pot until you have some practice. You’ll have a better experience if you start out with tried and true recipes with clear instructions.

  • I like this Recipes Only group, where it’s all about the food and not about the appliance. .
  • If you are new to Instant Pot and want to learn more about using it as a tool, join the official Instant Pot Community.
  • We also follow groups for specific dietary needs like Gluten Free or Vegan pressure cooking.

I appreciate that all my stuff is in one pot and doesn’t require babysitting. This is the real game changer for me. I get stressed when I have to juggle multiple dishes and cook times; and I’m easily distracted, which results in a lot of burning when I cook the old fashioned way. The Instant Pot doesn’t require supervision, because what would you watch anyway? Once it’s sealed, there’s not much you can do to check on it or tweak what’s in there.

The other day I was forced to make pasta “the regular way” for the first time in 6 months. I hated my life. I had to watch for the boil, remember to add the pasta, stir, keep testing it to see if the texture was right. I had another pot of sauce going. I was microwaving then sautéing frozen meatballs. I broke a sweat juggling it all and had half a dozen dishes to clean. In my Instant Pot, it goes like this:

  • Dump in meatballs (fresh or frozen, doesn’t matter)
  • Dump in a box of dry pasta
  • Dump a jar of sauce on top
  • Refill the jar with water and pour it in (off to the side a little so it doesn’t wash the sauce down to the bottom of the pot but rather just soaks the pasta underneath – don’t stir!)
  • Close the lid, set to Cook for 4 minutes
  • Walk away with my glass of wine 

When the timer goes off, it’s perfect. Every. Single. Time. One pot. One spoon. Where has this been all my life?

Put it all in the pot, 4 minutes, done!

I have the 6 qt Instant Pot Duo. There are “program” buttons like poultry and stew; but these actually just set the cooker for an appropriate amount of time, as opposed to doing something different than “manual” cooking. Manual just means you hit the Pressure Cook button and choose the minutes yourself. The three buttons that really perform something different are:

  • Saute: This differentiates the Instant Pot from your crock pot. You can brown meats and soften your veggies before kicking off the main cooking process, which is great for flavor and texture without dirtying another dish.
  • Slow cook: This eliminates the need for a crock pot, it does the same thing. Bonus, you can set the time to cook and then move to “keep warm”, if you don’t really want it cranking on full heat all day.
  • Yogurt: Yes, this really works and it’s awesome. There’s a complicated approach with boiling and cooling and blah, blah, blah. Lazy moms like me choose the no-boil method, which requires Fairlife Milk and a tablespoon of starter (basically a spoonful of yogurt from the store for your first batch, or the pixie dust inside a few probiotic capsules). 8 hours later – awesomeness! This may also drive a desire for a strainer. I bought a cheap reusable coffee filter from Publix. This step makes for thicker yogurt but is not required.
Fun fact – to add frozen shrimp to any dish, put them in after the rest of the cooking is done and set the manual time for 0 minutes. Yep, zero minutes. By the time it comes to pressure, your shrimp is done but not overcooked. Magic!

You should set your vent to “sealing” to pressure cook. Every recipe will specify the way to release the steam when it’s done.

  • QR = Quick Release. That’s where you toggle the vent to open and let the steam rocket out like a freight train. Be sure to use a towel or pot holder…because steam.
  • NPR = Natural Pressure Release. This means you don’t move the vent nozzle, you just let it sit until the pin drops on its own. This obviously takes longer, maybe 10 minutes, so account for that in your meal planning. 90% of what I cook is QR. I’m not big on patience.

When something goes wrong, it’s almost always the detachable cord has come unplugged from the back of the base, the rubber ring isn’t seated in the lid properly, or you haven’t set your vent to sealing. If you get the “burn notice”, the problem is almost always that you didn’t use enough liquid or put something on the bottom that scorched. Tweak those things before you give up or assume it’s broken. Having said that, I really did blow a fuse in mine last month. I called the company and they sent me a new base super quick, zero hassle.

Don’t EVER set your Instant Pot on the stove. I don’t know what compels people to want to do this, but I have seen countless stories of this habit leading to disaster when someone accidentally turns a burner on. Once you melt the bottom of your pot, it’s toast. And since the company will require a picture of the sticker on the BOTTOM of your pot for any warranty claims, you are out of luck if you’ve fallen into the stovetop trap. Just put it on your counter where it belongs.

A giant binder clip will hold the inner pot in place so you can stir hands-free!

Sarah’s hot tips:

  • Fold a long strip of aluminum foil and run it under your containers like a sling. It can stay in there while it cooks but lets you easily remove the containers after cooking.
  • Steal a gigantic binder clip from your office and use it to secure your liner to the edge. This keeps the pot from spinning while you stir and frees up your other hand. It’s a lifesaver!
  • Your lid is machine washable. You should occasionally remove the sealing ring, splatter guard and pin according to the manufacturer’s directions for deeper cleaning, but the whole lid can go in the dishwasher right along with the pot.
  • The rubber ring will absorb smells. Some people get an extra, using one for sweet stuff and one for savory. I use just one ring but do have to dunk it in vinegar water or leave it in the sun for a bit to really de-funkify it from time to time.
Summer Italian Chicken over spaghetti squash is downright delicious!

Lastly, here are some of my favorite recipes. Enjoy!




  1. Am I doing something wrong? The contents are spraying out all over the counter and top of pot? I have soup all over? Please help. Thank you!

  2. This would have been very helpful if I knew where how to start operating the Instant Pot. I need the very basic instructions on how to begin using it once I take it out of the box! It’s been sitting on my counter for over a year because I’m intimidated by it! HELP!


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