Instant Pot Guide: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Your Pressure Cooker

Wondering how to use your new Instant Pot? In this Instant Pot Guide, I’ll walk you through what you need to know to start cooking with your Instant Pot today. Safety features, how to do an Instant Pot water test, what’s the difference between a natural pressure release and a quick release, and what will happen step by step through the cooking process.

Beginner's Guide for the Instant Pot

I’ll be honest – the first time I used my Instant Pot, I was overwhelmed and a bit scared. An Instant Pot can be intimidating for a new user. There are so many buttons and safety warnings.

However, I guarantee that once you get started, you’ll wonder what you ever did without your Instant Pot. I love mine so much that I now own two Instant Pots!

I’m going to help you get started with all of the tips and tricks that I have learned through trial, error and research. This Instant Pot manual will tell you everything you need to know to use your Instant Pot for the first time.

What is an Instant Pot?

An Instant Pot is an electric pressure cooker. It is a multi-use appliance that can cook foods quickly at high pressure. Steam pressure builds up inside the pot, which creates a higher temperature environment that cooks foods faster. Unlike old fashioned pressure cookers, the Instant Pot has many safety features that make it safe and easy to use.

An Instant Pot is a pressure cooker, sauté pot, slow cooker, steamer, rice cooker, yogurt maker and warmer all in one. I’ve been amazed at the versatility of my Instant Pot and the flavor and texture of the foods that I am able to cook in it. The high pressure inside the Instant Pot can tenderize even tough cuts of meat. It creates rich, complex flavors – seriously, I’ve never had better chili than Instant Pot chili!

If you are not sure which Instant Pot to buy, check out my guide to the Best Instant Pots. I’ve also tested out many Instant Pot accessories so that I can share my favorites with you.

Unpacking your Instant Pot box

If you haven’t taken your Instant Pot out of the box, now would be a good time to do so. To open your Instant Pot, turn the lid counter clockwise and lift. To close turn clockwise. Remove any plastic wrap from the inner pot and the accessories.

Instant Pot Parts and Accessories

Instant Pot parts and accessories: base unit, inner pot, lid, steam release valve, condensation collector, trivets

  1. Base Unit – this contains the heating element.
  2. Stainless Steel Inner Pot – fits into the base unit.
  3. Lid – the look of the lid varies between Instant Pot models.
  4. Steam Release Valve (also called Steam Release Handle) – this fits on the top of the lid and may already be attached.
  5. Condensation Collector – attach this to the back of your Instant Pot. (LUX models do not have a condensation collector.)
  6. Trivet – be sure to keep this, as you will use it often.
  7. Power Cord – removable in some Instant Pot models.
  8. Measuring Cup & Utensils – These come with the Instant Pot. I use my own measuring cups and utensils instead of these.

The first thing you’ll want to do is wash the parts of your Instant Pot. The Instant Pot lid, steam release valve and stainless steel inner pot are dishwasher safe; however, I wash mine by hand. The base unit is not dishwasher safe – never immerse the base unit in water.

The TWO most important safety instructions for your Instant Pot

The Instant Pot manual is filled with safety instructions, but these two are the critical ones to remember:

First, never put your face near the steam release valve or float valve while the Instant Pot is on. When I toggle the steam release valve, I use a long handled wooden spoon so my hand and arm are not near the valve opening.  Any kitchen utensil with a long handle will do. Alternatively, you can use an oven mitt to carefully turn the steam release valve to the “venting” position when you are ready to release the pressure in your Instant Pot.

Opening the Instant Pot steam release valve with the handle of a wooden spoon.

Second, never open the Instant Pot lid until the pressure has been released through the steam release valve. You will know that all the pressure has been released when the float valve (pin) drops down.

Depending on which Instant Pot model you have, the float valve may be red or silver. It may pop up above the level of the lid when the pot is pressurized, or it may pop up to be flush with the level of the lid. In my 6 quart LUX, the silver float valve is below lid level normally and pops up to be flush with the level of the lid when pressurized. You will get to know how your Instant Pot model works.

These photos show my 8 quart DUO and you see that the float valve is above the lid level in the left photo, which shows a pressurized pot.

Instant Pot float valve drops down when pressure is released and it is safe to open the Instant Pot.

If a recipe calls for a natural release, wait for the natural release time specified in the recipe and then move the steam release valve to the “venting” position to make sure all of the steam and pressure have released. Make sure the float valve has dropped down and then it is safe to open the Instant Pot lid. Open the lid slowly, tilting it so any hot steam will not blow towards your face.

Never attempt to open the lid of your Instant Pot while it is pressurized.

Inspecting your Instant Pot before each use

1. Remove the stainless steel inner pot and look inside the instant pot base. You will see the heating element. The heating element should always be free of debris and dry before you use you the Instant Pot. After washing, I always dry my stainless steel inner pot thoroughly before returning it to the base unit.

Heating element inside the Instant Pot base unit.

2. Check that the silicone sealing ring is fitted properly onto the lid and is clean and free of tears.

Instant Pot lid with sealing ring.

3. Remove the steam release valve from the Instant Pot lid by gently pulling it straight up. Make sure it is clean and free of debris. Some foods, such as applesauce, pasta and oatmeal may froth and foam when you cook them and can clog the steam release valve. Check the steam release valve each time you use your Instant Pot. If it is dirty clean it under running water and then put it back on the Instant Pot lid.

How to take the steam release valve off of the Instant Pot lid for cleaning.

4. Check the float valve to ensure it is clean and free of debris. Clean it with warm water as needed. You may place the lid under running water as needed to wash it.

Instant Pot DUO and Instant Pot LUX model steam release valve and float valve.

Instant Pot Water Test

Before you use your Instant Pot for the first time, you should perform a water test. The Instant Pot water test is like an initial test run for your Instant Pot.

The water test will both ensure that your Instant Pot is working properly and will familiarize you with using your Instant Pot.

One of the Instant Pots that I purchased was defective. A water test helped me to determine that the Instant Pot wasn’t working properly. I was able to contact Instant Pot support and get a replacement.

Note: If you have the Instant Pot Ultra, you will use the dial to select cooking programs and change the cook time and then press “start.” Instead of a steam release valve that you turn, the Instant Pot Ultra has a steam release button that you will press if you want to manually release the pressure. The steam release valve will seal automatically on the Ultra, whereas on other models you turn the valve between a venting and a sealing position.

How to do an Instant Pot water test

  1. Make sure that the power cord is firmly connected to your Instant Pot. Plug it into a power outlet in your wall.
  2. Place the stainless steel inner pot in the base unit. Add 3 cups of cool water to the inner pot.
  3. Check that the silicone sealing ring is fitted properly into the Instant Pot lid. Place the lid on the Instant Pot and turn it clockwise until it is in the closed position. Your Instant Pot will chime each time you close and open the lid (if the Instant Pot is plugged in).
  4. Turn the steam release valve to the “sealing” position. (If you have an Instant Pot Ultra it will automatically set the steam release to “sealing” when you close the lid.)
  5. Press the “Manual” or “Pressure Cook” button. (Some Instant Pot models have a button that says “Manual” and others have a “Pressure Cook” button. They do exactly the same thing.)
  6. Use the +/- buttons to set the time to 5 minutes. Wait for 10 seconds and the Instant Pot display will say “On” and the cycle will begin. Instant Pot water test steps: Display shows "On."
  7. The Instant Pot will take anywhere from 5-15 minutes to reach pressure. Once it reaches pressure the float valve will pop up, the Instant Pot will beep once, and the cook time will begin to count down from 5 minutes. You might notice hissing sounds and some steam escaping from the steam release valve or float valve hole while the pressure builds – this is normal. You may also notice a plastic smell the first time you use your Instant Pot. This is also normal and shouldn’t happen again.Instant Pot water test steps: Display shows 5 minutes.
  8. Once the 5 minute cook time ends, the Instant Pot will beep a few times. It will switch to the keep warm mode and the display will begin to count up minutes instead of down. During this time, you will know that the cook cycle has ended and the numbers are now counting up because there will be an “L” displayed before the numbers. The count-up timer is handy if you want to do a certain number of minutes of natural release.Instant Pot display after the cooking cycle has ended.
  9. For the water test, you will do a quick release (QR) to release the pressure in the Instant Pot. I will tell you more about a quick release vs. a natural pressure release (NPR) below. To do a quick release, carefully turn the steam release valve to the “venting” position. Use the handle of a long spoon to toggle the valve to keep your hand safe from the hot steam that will escape from the valve.
  10. When the float valve drops down remove the Instant Pot lid.

If the water test does not go as planned (and your Instant Pot does not reach pressure), be sure that you turned the steam release valve to the “sealing” position during the test. Also check that the sealing ring is fitted properly onto the lid. If neither of these was the problem, you may want to contact Instant Pot customer service for further assistance.

Now that you have completed the water test, you are ready to cook in your Instant Pot!

How to use an Instant Pot: What you need to know to get started with Instant Pot cooking

There are a few basic things that you need to know when using an Instant Pot electric pressure cooker. Once you use yours a few times, these will be like second nature. Depending on which Instant Pot model you own, the buttons may be labeled slightly differently. Consult the manual that came with your Instant Pot.

Minimum Liquid Required: As a general rule, you want to use at least 1 cup of liquid in your Instant Pot every time you cook with it. The Instant Pot uses steam and pressure to cook food, and you need liquid to create the steam and pressure. Some recipes may call for more or less liquid. I recommend following recipes from a trusted source while you are learning to use your Instant Pot.

Fill Level: Inside the Instant Pot inner pot, you will see a 1/2 and a 2/3 line marked. Never fill the Instant Pot higher than the 2/3 line with food or liquid (before cooking). If you are cooking food that will expand during the cook time such as rice, quinoa or beans, do not fill the Instant Pot higher than the 1/2 line.

The front displays and buttons on the Instant Pot DUO model and Instant Pot LUX model.

“Pressure Cook” or “Manual” Button: Depending on which Instant Pot model you own, the Pressure Cook button is sometimes labeled “Manual” and sometimes “Pressure Cook.” This is the button that you will press to start a pressure cooking cycle. It’s your basic pressure cooking button.

+/- Buttons: Use these buttons to adjust the cook time.

“Keep Warm/Cancel” Button: Use this button to end a cooking program or turn on/off the keep warm function. (After a cooking cycle ends the Instant Pot automatically switches to keep warm.)

“Sauté” Button: Pressing this button allows you to sauté foods in your Instant Pot. This is convenient because you don’t have to use another pot on the stove. You can sauté and brown foods right in your Instant Pot. (Never place your Instant Pot base unit or inner pot on the stove top.) You can also use sauté mode to thicken sauces after pressure cooking. Never sauté with the lid on. When you press the sauté button the time will default to 30 minutes, but you can turn it off at any time by pressing the cancel button.

“Adjust” Button: The Adjust key switches between Less, Normal and More cooking modes. These are useful if you are using sauté mode, as they control the amount of heat.

“Pressure” Button: The Pressure (sometimes labeled “Pressure Level”) button toggles between high and low pressure settings. Pretty much every Instant Pot recipe you will find will direct you to cook at high pressure. If you own the LUX series, you will not have this button since the Instant Pot LUX only has a high pressure setting.

Program Buttons: Depending on your Instant Pot model, the program options might include Soup/Broth, Bean/Chili, Meat/Stew, Cake, Egg, Rice, Multigrain, Porridge, Yogurt, Steam and Slow Cook. These programs have pre-set cook times. Honestly, I never use these buttons because I prefer to control the cook times myself.

Using the Trivet: Use the metal trivet that came with your Instant Pot when you want to raise food up so that it does not come in contact with the bottom of the pot. You might use the trivet if you want to keep certain foods out of the liquid in the base of the pot, or away from the direct heat on the bottom of the pot. If you cook hard boiled eggs or baked potatoes, for example, you will set them on the trivet.

Closing the Lid: You will see a track on the back upper edge of your Instant Pot base. Hold the lid handle and fit the lid on using the track as a guide, turning the lid clockwise to close it. The arrow on the front of the Instant Pot lid should line up with the arrow next to a locked symbol on the base unit. If your Instant Pot is plugged in, you will hear a chime when the lid closes.

Sealing the Instant Pot: Turn the steam release valve to the “sealing” position to seal the Instant Pot. The steam release valve is meant to be a bit wobbly and will fit loosely. You will need to turn the valve to the sealing position every time you pressure cook in your Instant Pot.

Instant Pot steam release valve in sealing position and venting position.

Cooking Time vs. Total Time: The cooking cycle will take longer than the actual cook time of a recipe. Before the cook time starts, your Instant Pot will take some time to reach cooking pressure. This usually takes about 10 minutes and varies with the size of your Instant Pot, type and amount of food, and the temperature of the food and liquid in the pot. You also need to account for the time needed to release the pressure after the cooking cycle.

Natural Pressure Release (NPR): A natural pressure release is when you let the pressure release naturally by letting the Instant Pot sit after the cook cycle ends. This usually takes between 10 and 20 minutes. Use a natural release for foamy foods or when your Instant Pot is full to avoid hot foam coming out of the steam release valve or float valve.

Quick Release (QR): A quick release is when you manually force the pressure to begin releasing from the Instant Pot by turning the steam release valve to the “venting” position. You need to be careful when you turn the valve as hot steam will immediately begin to escape. I use the handle of a long spoon to slowly move the steam release valve so that my hand is not near the valve. You also want to keep your face away from the valve. Use a quick release when you want to stop the cooking process quickly to avoid over-cooked food, and for tender cuts of meat.

Safely Removing the Lid: Never attempt to remove the Instant Pot lid while the pot is pressurized. Wait until the float valve (pin) on the lid drops down to let you know that all of the pressure has been released. Then, hold the lid handle, turn the lid counterclockwise and carefully lift.

Do you need to double the cook time for a double recipe?

If you would like to double an Instant Pot recipe, you may double the ingredients (so long as you don’t exceed the max fill line). You do not need to double the cook time.

However, you may need to adjust the cook time based on the size/width of meat and vegetables. For example, a small 8 ounce chicken breast will cook faster than a large 12 ounce chicken breast and a small sweet potato will cook faster than a large sweet potato. Read all recipes and directions carefully to determine how long to cook your food.

Instant Pot Recipes for Beginners

If you have questions about how to use an Instant Pot that were not answered in this Instant Pot guide, leave them in the comments below.

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