In the service of summertime cooking shortcuts, I’ll do pretty much anything. I’ll buy pre-roasted, pre-sliced red peppers and dumplings. I’ll pick up rice from the Chinese restaurant across the street. Anything to keep from turning on one more burner or—oy—that stove. Opening cans is as much “cooking” as I want to do.
But on hot days when a plate of raw produce and cheese doesn’t cut it, the Instant Pot has come in quite handy. It doesn’t emit much heat, and it cooks food fast. I’ve been making a lot of Indian food, and have reluctantly simmered rice on my stovetop to go with it. So my mind was blown when I stumbled upon a version of Urvashi Pitre’s popular pressure cooker “butter chicken” in which the rice, meat and sauce are cooked at once in one Instant Pot.
How is this possible? You simply whisk together the ingredients for the sauce in the base of the pressure cooker, plop the meat on top and then rig up a steamer rack, legs plunked right in the sauce, to suspend a little bowl of raw rice, water, oil and salt, teetering above the whole thing.
It felt like the DIY equivalent of putting one of those frozen packets of Indian food that comes with the rice in the microwave or stove. (We can all admit we’ve been there, right?) Sometimes the sauce in those packets turns out pretty tasty, but the rice is almost always subpar. Pressure-cooking everything in an Instant Pot, however, was a game-changer. The rice was fluffy and delicious. It didn’t fall over into the well of the sauce itself, which is what I’d been certain would happen.
I emailed Pitre, a crack recipe developer, cookbook author and Instant Pot savant, to ask whether she’d invented this technique herself. The Pune, India native replied, “It’s actually a very common way for us to cook in India. We usually have 2-3 stainless steel containers that fit on top of each other so we can cook multiple things together.” She called it “pot-in-pot cooking,” pointed me to her YouTube tutorial, and said that the technique is often used to cook rice and dal at once.
“Could this possibly work for other chicken recipes?” I inquired, incredulous. “Yes, you can definitely do rice over chicken tikka masala, over korma, or really any other chicken curry recipe,” Pitre wrote. So I gave the same technique a whirl with her excellent chicken tikka masala, halving the cayenne and oil called for and adding a dollop of yogurt as a finishing note, to take the edge off the heat. (It’s a pretty spicy recipe.) It was excellent; the rice turned out fluffy and toothsome yet again.
My other Instant Pot guru, Melissa Clark, emailed that “it's definitely not just an Indian technique, I've seen it elsewhere—including in the IP manual and in Good Housekeeping magazine.” Clark employs a similar approach in her cauliflower farro salad, from Dinner in an Instant, using the metal steamer rack to suspend cauliflower and a ramekin of raisins above the grains. And in her forthcoming book, October’s Comfort in an Instant, she writes, “I use pot in a pot for cooking meatloaf and potatoes simultaneously, and also for shrimp and grits (sauce in the bottom, grits in a bowl suspended over the it).”
So although it’s new to me, and to many of us who have finally invested in electric pressure cookers, it’s not a new trick for loads of cooks who have been pressure-cooking—stovetop or otherwise—for years. Pitre wrote that in India, “almost every household has at least one if not more stovetop pressure cookers.” She added, “We’ve been using those stack techniques all my life and likely all my mother’s life.”
To try this hack at home, use the timing called for in this recipe, but feel free to experiment with adjusting the sauce, as you wish. (And use all the time you saved to camp out in front of the A/C!)
Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and content strategist who has written for The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.