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If you’ve never used a pressure cooker before, learning how to use an Instant Pot can be tricky. But once you grasp the key facts and try a few easy recipes yourself, you’ll get the hang of it in no time! So let’s start with the Instant Pot basics.


How does an Instant Pot work?

The Instant Pot is a pressure cooker that works by using steam to build pressure. As the pressure builds forcefully inside the pot, it produces temperatures high enough to quickly heat and cook the food inside.

Instant Pots have other built-in cooking programs, too. It can act as a slow cooker, yogurt maker, rice maker, steamer, or sauté pan — making it one of the most versatile small kitchen appliances on the market.

Learning to use your Instant Pot naturally comes with some trial and error, but these tips will help you avoid the biggest, meal-ruining mistakes:


1. Don’t forget to add liquid before cooking.

A person pouring tomato sauce into an instant pot to add liquid

Since your Instant Pot works by using steam to create pressure, you’ll need to add at least one cup of liquid to your Instant Pot for any meal you cook.

Of course, there are exceptions to any rule. Sauces are already a liquid, so you’ll need little to no added water to build pressure inside your pot.

Also, some foods carry more water than others, so you’ll probably need to add less water with veggies (like tomatoes or spinach) than you would with denser foods like meats.

Instead of taking a shot in the dark, refer to your Instant Pot recipe for specific liquid requirements.


2. But pay attention to the “Max Fill” line.

A woman adding water into an instant pot to meet the max fill line

Inside your inner pot, you’ll see it says “PC MAX,” with a ⅔ line and a 1/2 line. It’s important to never fill your inner pot past than the ⅔ max line.

For food that expands with heat (such as rice or dried vegetables), do not fill the inner pot past the ½ line.

Overfilling your Instant Pot can result in leakage, splatter, or poorly cooked food — and it’s a mistake you’ll only make once.


3. Don’t forget to seal the steam valve before cooking.

A person sealing the steam valve on an instant pot

The steam valve sits on top of your Instant Pot lid and has two settings: sealing and venting. The steam release handle allows you to move from one setting to the other.

Make sure the steam release handle is in the sealing position before using any of the pressure cooking programs. This will prevent steam from escaping the Instant Pot and allow pressure to build inside.

  • To seal the steam valve, close the lid and line up the steam release handle with the “wavy” lines next to the valve.
  • To vent the steam valve, you’ll need to have the steam release handle in the venting position — either by pushing it back yourself (also known as a manual or “quick release”) or on its own via a “natural release”.

TIP: Use a towel, potholder, or silicone glove to turn the steam release handle. When you switch the steam valve to vent, steam will come out hot and fast — so cover your hands and any unprotected skin!


4. Know the difference between a Natural Release and a Quick Release.

A person quick release venting an instant pot with the handle of an instant pot spoon

There are two ways to release pressure from your Instant Pot: through a Natural Release or a Quick Release.

Natural Release: Your Instant Pot releases pressure on its own until the float valve (next to the steam valve on top of your lid) drops down. A natural release takes a bit longer, but it’s best for recipes with meats, soups, broths, beans, starchy foods, and foods with lots of liquid.

Quick Release: You manually release pressure from your Instant Pot by pushing the steam release handle back to the venting position until the float valve drops down. A quick release is much faster and is best for recipes with vegetables, fish, and fragile or fast-cooking foods.



5. Don’t use the same sealing ring for every Instant Pot recipe.

A person holding a red instant pot seal ring next to an instant pot lid, Instant pot, and baking ingredients

The sealing ring is an Instant Pot accessory and safeguard that keeps your lid locked tight during pressure cooking. It helps your machine withstand the high forces of pressure needed to cook the food inside.

Since the sealing ring lives under your Instant Pot lid, it can absorb a lot of the steam and smell your food emits while cooking.

That’s why it’s always good to have a spare sealing ring to use for different types of Instant Pot recipes. I recommend using one sealing ring for sweets and another sealing ring for savory dishes.

You can find Instant Pot accessories on Amazon, like this two-pack of sealing rings for less than $12.


6. Avoid overcooking food with the “Keep Warm” setting.

A person going to press the keep warm setting on the control panel of an instant pot

The Keep Warm setting automatically turns on when your food is done cooking, so it’s easy to get distracted and forget that it’s on. If you don’t manually shut off the machine, the Keep Warm setting will keep it on for 10 hours before the machine shuts off itself.

If you’d rather NOT use the Keep Warm setting on your Instant Pot, you can switch it off on the control panel and avoid the risk of overcooked food altogether.


7. It can take time for your Instant Pot to build and release pressure.

A person cutting potatoes next to an instant pot surrounded by other cooking ingredients

Depending on the recipe and the amount of food you’re cooking, it can take up to 40 minutes for your Instant Pot to fully build pressure. But remember, releasing that pressure from your Instant Pot takes time, too.

A Quick Release only takes a few minutes, but Natural Releases take 10-40 minutes, which can really add to your overall cook time.

Before starting your Instant Pot recipe, don’t forget to factor in the time it takes to build and release pressure. A 15-minute recipe can quickly turn into a 35-minute recipe when you account for the whole process.


8. Pay attention to the timer and start buttons on your Instant Pot.

A person adjusting the cook timer on the control panel of an instant pot

You’ll need to select your cooking program BEFORE setting the timer on your Instant Pot’s control panel.

The cooking programs are located on the left and right sides of your control panel. Press the button for the cooking program you want to use, then press the “+” and “-” buttons to add or subtract time.

10 seconds after you choose your settings, your Instant Pot will beep three times and turn on to start the preheating cycle.



9. Don’t forget to replace the inner pot before cooking again.

A person adding the inner pot back into an instant pot pressure cooker

What may sound like a no-brainer is actually a common mistake.

Since you remove the inner pot to clean it, you may forget to place it back in your Instant Pot before dumping in food for your next recipe.

I recommend replacing the inner pot immediately after cleaning and drying it so you don’t have to remember it for next time.


10. Don’t underestimate the sauté function.

Bacon and onions being sautéed in an instant pot

Instant Pots are best known for their pressure cooking abilities, but that doesn’t mean its other programs (like slow cooking and sautéeing) aren’t as good.

The sauté program works the same as a stovetop pot or pan, but it’s definitely a game-changer. You can stir-fry veggies, thicken sauces, and brown meats without adding another pot to your pile of dishes.

Your Instant Pot lid stays off for the sauté program, so you don’t have to deal with the build and release parts of pressure cooking.


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How to Use an Instant Pot: Learn the Basics & Avoid Big Mistakes