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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Tale of Two Cookers

Under Pressure Part 3: A review of the Fagor Duo Combi Package
It all starts in winter in Berlin. Imagine strolling around with a bit of a shiver. Last night you were in Rome, and despite jacket and scarf, it's like this wind has teeth. You should be soaking up the sights, you're aching to go to the Berlin Ethnographic Museum, but the real ache of knuckles, toes, and nose, drives you to find some heat.

Suddenly, you're in a cookware heaven, otherwise known as the flagship WMF store on Ku-Damm. There's sparkling cromargan steel all around, friendly staff, and a demonstration underway. Oh what a demonstration! (Here's a cheesy simulacra)

It was on just such a night that I fell in ardent love with the WMF Perfect Ultra Pressure Cooker. Its removable handle, even the integrated timer that would probably make me buy the battery-free Prefect Plus instead. . .  I've never had one in my own kitchen, but having seen it in action, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it. But alas, we were flying home carry-on only and I certainly didn't have its asking price on hand.

So I went home full of ardent and unrequited love. In a move to and from New Zealand, we'd passed-on two different decent cookers, and ended up with only our gargantuan 10 litre aluminum one in the house. I'd been meaning to get a new stainless steel pressure cooker for a while, and now I became obsessed—flipping through issues of cook's illustrated, talking to cooking friends, pouring over cook-books and internet archives. The long of the short of it?

I just received a birthday present in the mail. But there is in fact a twist; it's not WMF. Instead it's a package from Fagor, their Duo line Combi product which has a four and six litre base, a glass lid, a pressure lid, and a steamer basket (Image, Fagor USA)
There are a couple of reasons for purchasing this model, the first being price. The WMF model I had my heart set on is not even available in Canada. It's lower price-point compatriot, the Perfect Plus was about $450 if purchased from a local retailer. I still have a picture of it taped to the door of my locker, but I'm not at all disappointed in my choice.

The Fagor has its own rhythm and groove. I've done the research, put it through its paces, and wanted to share my conclusions with you. 

Now, in interest of full disclosure, this is an early birthday present from Tazim, underwritten by the folks at who provided her with a $50 discount as an incentive. This was pretty attractive to us, because they had a very low price on the product, and are a reputable online retailer. I wont exhaust you with details of the order process, but because we are Canadians who've had mixed experience ordering from the US, I wanted to highlight the fact that really makes the process pain-free and transparent. They show up-front all duty and handling costs and these are paid at time of purchase. We placed our order June 29 and received our order July 14. Our only point of concern was that the tracking number we received with our order was only from Fagor HQ to CSN's Distribution Centre. Once it hit the border, its date of arrival was anyone's guess.

All of that out of the way, let's get up to full steam.

Before settling on the Fagor cooker, I started by shopping around. If you're in Vancouver, you'll probably recognise my list of suspects, Herzog, Villeroy & Boch, and Cookshop. (Other favourites, such as Ming Wo, Gourmet Warehouse, Cookworks, et cetera, punk out when it comes to pressure cookers— local  retailer City Chef has some online, but no store-front). V&B and Herzog carry WMF, and Cookshop has Fissler, but I couldn't find Fagor anywhere, which was surprising, because they are popular down south. Thinking of American cookware stores, I finally checked at Williams Sonoma down on Granville and saw a Fagor model in town. The Fissler pot was built like all of their products—like a tank. I could tell it was designed to hold up to the rigours of a commercial kitchen. The WMF pot was certainly the prettiest, with sturdy thick walls, an attractive pressure meter and a solid seeming gasket. What Fissler, WMF, and Kuhn-Rikon have in common is that hefty build that makes you feel like a piece of cookware is "fancy." Overall, the Fagor Duo is more lightly built than any of these models—but this isn't entirely a disadvantage, as it is certainly lighter feeling as well; which makes a difference in moving it around the kitchen, or hefting it to the sink for a quick-release.

In Berlin, I was impressed with the thermal performance of the WMF cooker in searing and browning meat (not something a couple of vegetarians do often). A fat bottomed pot is the key to avoiding scorching on grains and legumes cooked under pressure. If the base is too thin, you have to resort to the hassle of pot-in-pot cooking.

I wondered about the Fagor given its slimmer bottom; however in using it, I've been pleasantly surprised. On both my induction cooker and our electric range, I've found it to be more than adequate; without hot spots, responsive to temperature change but not mercurial, and capable of holding a fair amount of heat. Compatible with induction, electric, gas, and ceramic hobbs, the Fagor base includes induction-compatible steel and aluminum for temperature responsiveness. So far lentils and grains have been cooked directly on both induction (where I don't tend to scorch) and electric elements without a problem. You cannot "stir" a pressure cooker when it's cooking, so this is absolutely vital. Both Presto and Lagostina pressure-cookers I have had in the past have had problems with scorching—because this was years ago, take that with a grain of salt.

Where the Fagor show's its price-point is in the (relatively) thin pot walls, and handles. 

Don't get me wrong, it's clearly a piece of quality cookware, but if I was going to add it to Clue as a murder weapon, I'd like an extra micron of thickness or two. 

The handles are (as on every cooker I've come across), plastic, screwed to weld points with standard phillips screws. In general, I'm not at all concerned with the build quality, except to say that it would be naïve to say there was no difference between the Fagor and other models. I fully expect to tighten those screws every once and a while.

This pressure cooker supports all three of the common pressure release models, running cold water over the lid, quick release (where turning a knob shoots a jet of steam out away from the user rapidly relieving pressure), and natural release (just letting the cooker cool down). Each of these work well, as they have on nearly every model I've used (most aluminum cookers do not have quick-release, and a Presto I've tried liked to spatter water all over with it's steam).

The cooker has a clear indicator when pressure falls, in the form of the safety lock valve which pops up as the pot approaches pressure, and falls when it is safe to open the cooker. 

One disadvantage of the Fagor Duo is that the only indicator that the cooker is at full steam is a steady but gentle emission of steam. I've encountered many people on the internet that are confused by this. 

It's a common assumption that once the safety valve (a yellow button) pops up and locks the cooker, that it is at pressure. This is not the case. If you are cooking, and no steam is coming out of the cooker, you are not at full pressure and your recipe may end up undercooked.

The Duo part of the tagline refers to the fact that this cooker has two pressure settings, 15 and 8 psi. This means that the pressure cooker has two temperatures. The lower presssure setting is set up to allow you to cook delicate foods, such as greens or fish without them turning to mush. I don't expect to use it often, as I prefer things like spinach or collard greens wok-seared. Unlike true spring-valve pressure cookers, these are the only two temperatures at which the Fagor can maintain pressure. The toggle between low and high pressures is integrated into the non-removable handle, and also is the mechanism for quick release. It turns easily even when the pot is at pressure, and directs steam directly away from the user. 

A highlight of the Fagor Duo line is this Combi product, which comes with 4 and 8 quart cooker-bases, a single pressure cooking lid, a glass lid and a steamer/pasta insert made out of stainless steel. WMF uses stainless as well, but the Fissler I looked at had an aluminum rack—I know many chefs who are vehemently anti-aluminum because of it's reaction against acidic foods, even just in the steamer basket. I've found all parts of this assemblage to be useful. The pots are of sufficient quality that they aren't something you'll avoid using for non-pressure efforts, and I've placed my large Paderno stock pot at the back of the pantry.

If I have a particular bone to pick with Fagor, it is that they still refer prominently on their website to a 2005 review in Cook's Illustrated. I have some issues with the review itself, well one, which I'll discuss—but the biggest problem is that it highlights the Fagor Duo's Spanish manufacture. 

Unfortunately, I purchased this product unaware that production had moved to China. I have no problems with Chinese manufacture, for me, it's all the magic of porcelain and silk. However, reports have highlighted a decrease in quality. I haven't carted my own cooker around to check, but I feel like the one which I received is different than the one that finally sold me on Fagor. When in Mexico City a couple of months ago, I had the chance to compare Fagor, WMF, Fissler, and Kuhn Rikon, all in one department store (El Palacio de Hierro), overpriced but another cookware heaven). The join of the laminated base to the bottom of the pot was perfect, and the handles did not jiggle at all on this Spanish-made specimen. Several Chowhounds and reviewers have said that they've experienced problems with these newer models. I hope that it is all psychosomatic. But I wonder how I missed the change of wording from "Spanish" to "Spanish Designed," a sneaky move I always find infuriating, particularly if brands do not post an ethical manufacture policy.

At the same time, the Fagor Pressure cookers come with a 10 year warranty, which is quite exceptional. I'm a bit of a warranty skeptic, and prefer to buy directly from a dealer who will take care of everything for me—but the fact that this extends ten years, and the products low price point, alleviate my buyer's anxiety. I suppose the catch is that this warranty does seem to require shipping to a US address with payment both ways, a true hassle for Canucks, but also a fact of life.

Between Fagor and European manufacturers, the difference in build solidity is reflected directly on each pot. My Fagor Duo is stamped with a maximum pressure certification of 1.05 bars stamped on according to EU guidelines. By comparison the WMF and Fissler pots I looked at were clearly labelled for 1.5 bars, an order of magnitude of improvement (For comparison purposes, the Kuhn Rikon models are rated at 1.2 bars).

Does a pressure cooker really need that tank like build? 
A tank like build will always allow your pot to hold heat better, but with mirror-finish stainless steel, extra thickness only minimally improves heat-performance. 

What it actually comes back to is something I discussed before—the difference in valve mechanisms. The Fagor Duo continuously vents steam. It has a quiet hiss, but still is designed to constantly release steam. It cannot get over 15psi (or 1.05 bars), unless it is blocked, in which case its safety mechanisms will kick in, and you might blow a gasket.

The WMF, Fissler, and Kuhn Rikon models all have completely sealed systems that only vent steam above maximum pressure. In their 2005 review, Cook's Illustrated reported that the WMF cooker they tested made a "hum," that cooks wouldn't want in their kitchen. The hum is vibrating metal, and not at all to be concerned about. It is not loud, but may be paranoia inducing in light of the exploding pressure cookers of the past. Cooks are a conservative lot, used to particular tools and often over-wary of change. 

The no-steam valves simply require a mental adjustment.

Because of WMF & Fissler's superior build they can accommodate a vastly greater amount of stress. In no case with any of today's pressure cookers are you likely to have an accident. But, as a numbers game I would argue that these models have a slight safety advantage in extreme circumstances, and a nice everyday safety advantage, as the most common pressure cooker injury is scalding from the often-invisible steam continuously vented during the operation of other valve types.

In summation, I'm ecstatic with my Fagor Duo. It does everything which I need it to, a few things I want (the wide and shallow four litre base is great for sautéing and getting things on the go), and above all, it is a good value.

However, if I had the bucks, I'd be on a plane to Berlin right now, or at least walking down to my local WMF retailer.

In the last part of this series, Sunday, August 8th I'll post one or two pressure cooker recipes we use often, and some tips and tricks to get the most out of your cooker.