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Review: Instant Pot Max

Electric pressure cookers hit it big in American home kitchens a few years back because, along with the perceived lower risk of dinner on the ceiling, they cook food fast. Something like beef stew, which takes all day in a slow cooker, needs as little as 25 minutes under pressure. With an extra hit of power, Instant Pot's new six-quart Max promises to take that speed and turn it up to 11, getting dinner to the table even faster.

Could it? I wondered. And what's 11 mean, anyway?

Like many other electric “multicookers,” the Max has several functions beyond pressure cooking including browning, slow cooking, steaming, rice-cooking, and yogurt-making. Like a few fancier models, it can cook sous vide, though due to the size of the cooking pot, that's of pretty limited utility. The big difference is that until now, electric models struggled to achieve 15 psi when pressure cooking, the way old-school stovetop pressure cookers could. Without that extra bit of pressure, electric pressure cookers couldn't get quite as hot, and recipes took a little while longer than they did in stovetop models.

Now with 1,100 watts (compared with Instant Pot's traditional 1,000 watts), the Max says, “No more!” It hits 15psi and gets dinner cooked an estimated 10 to 15 percent faster. It’s caught up to your grandma's stovetop pressure cooker! It’s not as big a deal as the hype preceding the Max, but it's a nice, solid step forward. For now, it’s only available in a standard 6-quart size and you’ll pay a premium—$200—for the improvements.

Now if only they could have boosted its searing capability. Searing is an electric pressure cooker's weak spot, especially considering how many pressure-cook and slow-cook recipes use browning as a way to build flavor. Cookbooks and manufacturers like to tout the all-in-one-pot ease of multicookers, but I've always wished that the Instant Pots I've used could sear something in short order. They can't. What I've learned with my own Instant Pot Ultra is to do the searing in a skillet on my stove, then to transfer the food to the pressure cooker, which saves a lot of time. Strangely, despite the power boost and several other incremental changes to the Max, the skimpy searing stays the same.

One thing I was excited to see addressed was slow cooking. Pressure cooking and slow cooking are extremely complimentary birds of a feather, essentially two different kinds of convenience and the two most important features of any multicooker. If you feel like prepping the night before, flicking a switch on the way out the door in the morning and coming home to dinner, then slow cook. Want to make it all happen after work or try something fancier on a weekend afternoon? Pressurize!

Figuring out those the improvements to the Max and how to take advantage of them was a little confusing when I started cooking. But fear not, I've done the screwing up for you.

Maxed Out

The changes to the Max means that it slow cooks like old-school slow cookers—slightly slower than multicookers' slow-cook options—and pressure cooks with what's essentially a turbo option. This means that the easiest recipes to follow with the Max will be old-school pressure cooker and slow-cooker cookbooks.

If you do use the Max setting with a multicooker pressure-cooker recipe, it'll be done 10 to 15 percent sooner than it would be on the “high” setting. You can also skip the math and use the low/high pressure settings on the Max and it'll cook just like the book says; having those options is a subtle touch, but clever and very helpful. If you use a multicooker cookbook's slow-cook recipes, though, they'll now take a little longer than the scheduled time in the Max, but that's a good thing.

After reviewing America's Test Kitchen's new book, Multicooker Perfection, earlier this year, I learned that Instant Pots were the laggards of the slow-cooking game. The book gives pressure- and slow-cook instructions for each recipe and in a couple occasions, it goes as far as advising not to slow-cook some of its recipes in the Instant Pot Duo as that machine’s version of "low" ran at a significantly lower temperature than other models like the Fagor LUX LCD. Recipes like beef stew and ribs just took way too long to cook in the Duo.

I tried slow cooking Multicooker Perfection’s beef stew in the Max, before realizing I should have used the near-identical recipe in Slow Cooker Revolution. It meant that it wasn't done as soon as I thought it would be, so I gave it a short blast under pressure and finished it in time for supper.

Lesson learned, I cracked open Slow Cooker Revolution and tried again. No dice! The cookbook said it should take nine to 11 hours on low and I started it cooking at midnight. I checked it at nine, I checked it at 11, and I kept checking it until four the next afternoon when I found the beef was still a bit chewy and the potatoes and carrots not yet cooked through. I gave up and swapped over to pressure cooking so I could have it in time for dinner.

As my wife Elisabeth put it: "Sixteen hours seems like a long time to not cook a potato."

I tried again, this time making ribs from Hugh Acheson's fantastic The Chef and The Slow Cooker. After eight hours bubbling away in a sauce made with gochujang paste and onions, they just squeaked in under the wire. They were good at the predicted eight hours (which is generous—some recipes call for six hours) but really hit their falling-off-the-bone sweet spot an hour later.

What puzzled me here was how Instant Pot could re-engineer a machine, seemingly address their slow-cooking deficiency but seemingly not try to cook the same beef stew and other dishes that had dinged their reputation just a few months prior.

Two other things you'll want to watch: There's been controversy around the Max's ability to sous vide (which I didn't test because I find it too small and clunky of a setup to bother) and canning, where it's been rumored to skirt a bit too closely around food-safety rules.

What really had me scratching my head, though, was the E19 message that ground my machine to a halt. Having had my fill of beef stews, casseroles, and marinaras common to the multicooker and slow cooker cookbooks I'd been overdosing on, I swapped over to Dr. Uruvashi Pitre's Indian Instant Pot Cookbook, being mindful to reduce the book's proposed cooking times if I used the Max setting.

I started with baingan barta, searing eggplant on my grill, then combining it in the Max with onions, tomato, and spice blends like garam masala and goda masala, cooking it under pressure, then adding a little coconut milk once it was done. While that cooked, I prepped another dish from the cookbook, bundh gobi mutter, a simple mix of cabbage, peas, and onion with cumin and turmeric. When the eggplant dish finished, I quickly switched gears and used the Max to sauté the onion, cumin, garlic, and ginger, then added the rest of the ingredients, closed the lid and tried to pressure cook on low. A few moments later, the machine let off a series of beeps and the screen flashed "E19." My friend Ted who was visiting and doing some armchair cooking said "that's not good" then complimented the eggplant dish.

I let the machine cool down a bit and tried again, but the error message wouldn't go away and I had a potluck to get to. The manual simply recommended contacting customer service. I swapped the cabbage over to my Ultra and finished it there.

The day after I made the eggplant, I was sure the Max would be up and running again, so I prepped the ingredients for Dr. Pitre's famous version of murgh makhani—aka butter chicken—but I got the error message again and ended up cooking the dish in my Ultra. The chicken was fantastic, but apparently, my Max was fried.

Since the Max doesn't hit the market until mid-to-late August, customer service was understandably unable to help. I asked a company rep and she said that "The error normally refers to the sensor in the lid being wet." At first, I thought that since I'd rapidly swapped one recipe for the other that it might have been pushing the machine past expected limits, but then I remembered that there are plenty of pressure cooker recipes that suggest cooking for a while, then checking on things and pressure cooking for a few more minutes if the food isn't fully cooked, which is essentially what I'd done.

The company rep also suggested that the glitch in the Max may have been due to it being "a pre-production model," which is peculiar because we had arranged for me to receive a retail-ready production model for my testing. Still, the rep told me there are no differences between the machine I tested and the production models that will ship in August. So there's all that. Make of it what you will. Maybe it was just a one-off bug with the model I reviewed.

That error message and the still-slow slow cooking really mucked up the works because the Max has so much going for it. If none of this confusion happened, I'd be wondering if it could unseat America's Test Kitchen's favorite multicooker, the Fagor LUX LCD. Instant Pot is not making staggering leaps forward, but like Apple does with MacBooks, the company made several smart, incremental changes to its current lineup to come up with the Max. It's a little more powerful and there are additional little perks like a re-thought UI and a clever automation of the pressure release valve too.

Truthfully, you don't need to replace your existing multicooker just to get this newest one—especially considering that it costs $200, and you can get a Duo on sale for well less than $100. Still, if that error message hadn't cropped up and they had nailed slow cooking, it could have set a new standard.

If you are thinking about taking the plunge, the best tack might be to hold off for a few months and watch customer reviews to see if anyone else gets that E19 message, indicating a larger problem. I'd love to recommend the Max, but I can't. Not yet, anyway. Your best bet might just be to stick with the one you've got and see if they ever put out a Max 2.

Read more: https://www.wired.com/review/instant-pot-max/

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