There is a spate of Facebook posts making the rounds from people using varying brands of stove top and electric pressure cookers, detailing multiple accidents where the cook is burned by a violent eruption of food after the lid is removed. Similar accidents can be found in the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission Safer Products Database and on this website.
There is a very real concern that the redundant safety systems in the pressure cooker’s lid have failed to protect customers.
However, all of these accidents have these things in common:
- The recipe was “thick” (beans, soup, chili, stew) and the pressure was released using a very fast opening method (Normal/Quick/Water).
- The recipe was “fatty or oily” (soup, meat stock) and the pressure was released either quickly or using a natural release.
- The safety lock did not prevent the cook from easily opening and removing the lid.
We want to assure our readers, that the cause of these types of accidents is not a failure of the equipment or user-error – unfortunately, it is badly written recipes.
This is What’s Happening
There could be two causes for a “violent food eruption” after pressure cooking is finished and the lid is removed.
When a recipe is thick and viscous, it cannot easily boil and generate bubbles to release the steam. When a very fast pressure cooker opening method is used for this kind of recipe, the steam is released only from the very top of the recipe and the safety systems are disengaged because no more pressure is detected inside the cooker. However, there could still be a bubble of super-heated steam held under the thick food that has not yet broken to the surface during the release – this bubble could come to the surface even several seconds after the lid is removed.
When a recipe contains large amounts of fat and oils (added as part of the recipe or released from fatty meat), the high temperatures of pressure cooking turn this fat into oil. Since oil is lighter than water, it can rise to the surface and form a film that will prevent some of the heat from the liquid below from evaporating – even after the lid is removed. A disruption of this film, with a utensil, or bump of the cooker, can release this unevaporated heat all at once – creating a situation similar to the infamous exploding microwave water.
See Also: Pressure Cooker Opening Methods Explained + Quick Reference
Both of these, are known phenomena and some manufacturers include precautions in their instruction manuals on how to avoid it.
Spot & Avoid Recipes For Disaster
The internet has made it incredibly easy, and exciting, for anyone to share pressure cooker recipes at the push of a button. Unfortunately, the recipe author may not be aware of how the pressure cooker works – which is why it’s important to only follow recipes from trusted sources.
Here’s how to spot a recipe that could lead to an unexpected eruption after the lid of the pressure cooker is removed:
- Read your pressure cooker manual, and pay special attention to the list of foods to avoid pressure cooking such as oatmeal, applesauce, pasta and split peas/lentils – some of these can be pressure cooked safely following specific precautions such as: pressure cooking oatmeal in a bowl, ensuring pasta has absorbed all of the cooking liquid, and specific cautions for split peas (noted here). In addition, do not pressure cook hard liquor – here’s why.
- Never overfill the pressure cooker – follow the filling guidelines detailed in the manual: no more than 1/2 full for beans, rice and grains and no more than 2/3 full for everything else – here are more details on this.
- Avoid recipes that include steps for thickening or use thickening agents before pressure cooking (they can be simmered-in afterward). These include:
- instructions for pureeing ingredients before pressure cooking,
- adding flour, starch, gum before pressure cooking, and
- prepared ingredients such as soup/salad dressing/meat flavoring packets, condensed soup cans, jars of commercially produced sauce.
- Don’t use more than a 1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) of oil, butter or fat to a pressure cooker recipe – you can always add more after pressure cooking.
- When making soups or stocks with fatty meats, release pressure according to the recipe and then gently shake or tap the pressure cooker on the counter BEFORE removing the lid.
- Do not open the pressure cooker containing a thick recipe (such as a chili, soup or stew) quickly using a Normal, Quick, or Cold Water release. Use slow normal, 10-minute natural or natural release – here’s how.
- Never force the lid of the pressure cooker open – it should open as easily as it closed. If there is any resistance make sure the valve is in the position to release pressure and wait for the lid-locking mechanism to disengage.
Please note that some manufacturer’s own recipes published in their recipe books or apps, may also contain these defects – we also spotted at least one with these defects in the pressure cooker cookbook of a famous Test Kitchen TV Show.
Pressure cooking is a safe cooking method, but please follow recipes from trusted sources and, most importantly, heed the warnings in your cooker’s instruction manual.
If you have any questions about what release method should be used for which foods, take a look at the segment on pressure cooker opening methods from our free video series: Pressure Cooking School.
Another nasty accident scenario. I made stock in my pressure cooker, opened the lid and stuck a spoon in. This seemed to break a thin layer on the top of the stock and the liquid underneath exploded. Fortunately I only got a few scalds on my hand amd arm but the kitchen was a mess. I’ve used a pressure cooker for umpteen years and this has only happened the once. I think I had let it cool a while before oopening and that thin crusty (and tasty) skin you sometimes get on stock had formed.
Thanks for sharing your personal story -I’m sorry to hear about this accident. In fact, it is what the excerpt I included from Kuhn Rikon mentions. I had heard of how this could happen (aka microwave exploding water) but not heard of this actually happening to someone with a pressure cooker before.
I’ll do a little more research on this second way food can “erupt” so I can add any additional information in the alert.
I think this is the same phenomenal you get in a microwave oven when you create superheated water. I know you love to research yourself so do look it up but basically the thing that happens say when you heat water for tea is when you remove it from the microwave and put a spoon it it furiously boils over. Microwave energy can over excite water molecules past normal boiling point of 212° F at sea level. A pressure cooker can over excite anything inside especially liquids like broth. A placid surface can suddenly erupt when disturbed. My remedy is (stop laughing already) is to spear chuck a wooden spoon into the pot, or, in the case of tea, toss the bag from a safe distance with the knowledge that it could happen.
Liane, thanks for sharing what you know on this subject. It helped me connect the dots.
So, what is your tea-bag dunking average? : )
I almost did this again yesterday with another load of meat stock. I opened the pressure cooker by letting the steam off gradually. I left the pan at the back of the hob, with the lid off, as I was busy with something else. A few minutes later I was ready to carry on with the stock and a very fine skin had formed on the top. I put a spoon through the skin, and immediately got a bubbling geyser welling up through the break in the skin, only about an inch or so high but I think it was very similar to what happened before. A combination of a very hot stock, a cold room, and a stock that forms a definite visible skin.
I do have an induction hob which does mean that there is no heat escaping to warm the air above the hob, and a chilly unheated kitchen, so that probably helped the skin to form on the surface of the stock within minutes. I also switched a powerful cooker hood on to high when I vented the steam so the air temperature just above the hob would have quite cold.
I will be watching out for this in the future.
I had the same thing happen once! Not with a pressure cooker – just on the stovetop in a pot. I was trying to make ham bone broth. I didn’t know if it was due to high salt or fat, but the broth developed a film on the top that erupted when I tried to stir. Luckily didn’t get too burned either.
Thanks for the warnings on the thick stews in the pressure cooker- that makes sense that such recipes need extra time to cool. If it’s cooked long enough to get that thick, then why the hurry for a quick release?
And, a footnote to recipes with thickners is ….assuming the cooker is able to reach pressure at all!!
Reminds me of the time I went to get a cup of water out of the microwave and it had superheated. I was lucky I did not get burned by the erupting hot water.
Hi! I’ve been pressure cooking steel cut oats without a bowl following a recipe on another site. Should I stop doing this?
I always use a 7 cup Anchor Hocking bowl on the trivet. One cup of steel cut oats makes four servings. Very easy cleanup too. Of course cook without the lid on.
Thanks! I’ll use a bowl from now on! Thanks for this article.
Laura has a recipe for pressure cooking oats in a bowl. Much safer. Oatmeal cooked directly inside the pressure cooker, without a bowl, can rise up far enough to clog the vent (where the steam normally comes out) and trigger the safety devices, potentially resulting in a lot of mess and very hot steam being released!
My experience is different to the sudden eruptions being reported on this page – from an already opened pressure cooker. I once ran cold water over the lid of my stovetop pressure cooker too fast to release pressure quickly, resulting in a huge amount of steam and boiling liquid spurting into the sink, it was VERY scary! Luckily no injuries to my hands, which were not near the pressure cooker at the time. Following this experience, I posted a comment about it in the forums and Laura has since stopped recommending the cold water fast release (for stovetops). This method can’t be used on electrics for obvious reasons.
I guess I’ve been lucky. When I make oatmeal, polenta and similar, it’s usually waaaaay ahead of when I’m going to use it and I leave it in the pot on the keep warm setting. I wonder if you put a small wooden spoon just a tad down the side of the pot and slowly pulled it toward the middle if that would be a workaround?
This post suggests avoiding natural, quick, or cold water release methods; what release method would be suggested?
Actually, it suggests avoiding fast releases for thick recipes; and, to avoid adding to much oil or fat to a soup or stock-type recipe – and if you do, give it a shake before removing the lid.
OH I’m sorry. I misread. My apologies! Thanks for your quick reply!
Alex, it was a good question and I thank you for asking it. It tells me that some people might be confused about which opening methods to use for what, so I added a sentence at the end of the article pointing readers to the segment in my pressure cooking school about opening methods.
Would shaking the pot before opening be enough to release the trapped steam?
Taken from the instruction book for my stovetop Fagor. I wonder if this warns of the problem described here? I hope it uploads clearly, fingers crossed!
Readers: please click on the image to enlarge.
Here it is expanded, what is a “doughy substance”? Is that a common way for Brits to refer to thick food?
I agree that this is a reference to releasing super-heated pockets of food after the lid is removed, thanks for including it, Dave.
I’m not sure what it means by “doughy substances”. I wonder if anyone can figure out what it means? :)
Laura, thank you for your vigorous campaigning regarding this serious problem. I think a part of the issue comes from the layout of the manufacturer’s instruction manuals themselves.
For example, look at the excerpt you posted from the Kuhn Rikon instruction manual. When you read just the words, they seem to have presented the problem and the solution. However, when you look at that same segment in the manual, it’s just one item on a long list of tightly-packed wording. It’s really not comfortable for the user to read.
Then, IF the new user makes it through reading the manual, he or she will rarely ever refer to it again. It’s just too annoying.
That leads to users quickly forgetting the cautions and accidentally abusing the products. As a result, they post on forums and Facebook groups where the pressure cooker is blamed instead of the recipes.
If manufacturers would include an easy-to-read booklet or book, they would protect themselves against users who return the products AND tell everyone on the Internet not to buy it. Sure, it would cost a little more, but that would quickly be balanced out by overall customer satisfaction.
If I were talking to the manufacturers, I would recommend that they hire you to write such a booklet. Or, that they AT LEAST offer new customers a coupon for a discount on your book. Maybe you could offer this to them?
Hi Danielle, yes I tried getting the manufacturers to sell my book (they wanted too) but the publisher’s wholesale price left such a small profit margin (I mean REALLY SMALL) that it was just too risky for them to do – much less discount them.
On this topictThe VitaVit pressure cooker I am talking myself into buying states this in the manual:
Opening the cooker
• Never try to force the pressure cooker open. Do not open it before you are certain that it has been fully depressurized.
You will find information on this in Chapter 7.
• Always shake the pressure cooker before you open it, to make sure that pockets of steam will not spatter up and
scald you. This is especially important for quick depressurizing or if you cool the cooker under running water.
• Always keep your hands, head and body out of the danger zone when depressurizing the pressure cooker, for the
escaping steam could injure you. Be particularly careful about this when you are depressurizing quickly with the
help of the release button or the control valve.
I just found your link. Very helpful but I’m somewhat confused.
My pressure cooker exploded too. I’ve been using it for a while and the other day I was cooking only a 1lb pork roast with about 3-inches water in the pot. I cooked it for 1-hour. When that was done, the pressure released, I opened the lid. Everything was fine. I decided to add 5 more minutes to cooking. Locked the lid and set it. I walked away and within minutes, the lid blew off and set liquid and food everywhere. What a mess!!!
My food was not “thick” and not “fatty” either. What could have caused this?
Hi. Are you saying the actual lid actually blew off!? Which machine was this please? I have an electric one. Please tell us more…..
Thank you for this article it explains so much! My family and I have always taken the pressure cooker either outside or to the garage for release so as not to steam up the kitchen. I guess we’re inadvertently shaking the pot and have never encountered an explosion! I wonder if sticking a small wooden spoon in the pot would be a preventative too since that’s what I do to keep sauces and potato water from boiling over?
I appreciate the info as I didn’t know this could happen.
Why isn’t the idea of badly written recipes being taken into consideration when people file lawsuit claims?
Why is the manufacturer always to blame for everything?
There is a case in Colorado of a mother and daughter removing the lid of in Instant Pot after the pressure was released and the contents exploded all over the place causing the mother and daughter to be severely burned.
The lawyer claims the product was being used correctly.
This may be true, but no one is taking into consideration whether or not the recipe was written poorly.
I should mention they were attempting to add kale to the soup they were making.
Anyway, what do you think?
I think that no matter how much information is out there, the recipe with the best looking picture and most googlefied first-page result is going to get cooked. Giving some of the responsibility to the recipe writer would not be a terrible idea.
Manufacturers need to work together by developing an industry group, to ensure that the recipes they share, certify or post on their websites do not cause any safety issues. It’s true that they are only providing a tool, but if how people use it is causing safety issues (ie. pressure cooking liquor, or covering the lid with random post-market gadgets) manufacturers should have a unified voice in educating the public.
Many come here, for reliable information and recipes because of my experience working with manufacturers but, honestly, many of these safety guidelines and tips should come directly from them!!!
Of course, I’m happy to assist and consult in any capacity in any eventual pressure industry group that educates the public.
I used my Instapot for the first time and made an elk roast. Following instructions I used quick release and added potatoes and carrots for 10 more minutes, quick release of steam and removed lid. I put a slotted spoon in and removed some of the potatoes into a bowl. I went to remove more potatoes and the entire metal pot lifted up about 2″ from the cooker and threw food and juice all over my kitchen and me. I received a burn to my hand, but no other injuries. This was not a thick or oily dinner. Elk is very lean, and then the red potatoes and carrots along w/ some beef broth. Why did this happen?
Hi Laura-I was on an IP FB page earlier today and there were a couple of newbies that, having heard the stories of pressure cooker explosions, etc., are afraid to use their pots. Posts to the page are moderated and an admin will approve or decline a post. This is what I posted to the Instant Pot (with the ‘registered’ symbol) Community page. If there was a way to send you a screenshot of it, I would.
“I see a lot of newbie IP users with a lot of questions and fears re. using their appliance. Please take a minute to read through this safety information so that you are aware of limitations and how to work around them so that you can use your IP with confidence. It was a good refresh for me as well. FYI…I have no affiliation with the site.
And this was the reply I got from an admin as to why they declined my post. “Additional notes from the admins
Sorry this is one of the posts that actually tend to scare new members more than needed.”
I am just astonished that an admin from such a page would decline an opportunity to educate their members as to known hazards. I thought you’d like to know. And, thank you for all your diligence and hard work in making this appliance a fun and safe one to use. Best regards!
Elisabeth – thanks for being diligent and sharing the information. I agree and think it’s ridiculous to pretend that Instant Pot (and all pressure cookers) are completely safe! They are machines that bend the laws of physics and there are many documented accidents involving them so I, personally, think that using with a little caution and respect is the wisest thing to do!