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.

Excerpt of Kuhn Rikon instruction manual -under the heading “9. Reducing steam pressure and opening”
Excerpt of T-Fal instruction manual -under the heading “Important Precautions”

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 – more on this in an up-coming alert.
  • 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.

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19 Comments

  1. 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.

    1. 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.

      Ciao,

      L

      1. Laura,
        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.

        1. Liane, thanks for sharing what you know on this subject. It helped me connect the dots.

          So, what is your tea-bag dunking average? : )

          Ciao,

          L

    2. 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?

      1. And, a footnote to recipes with thickners is ….assuming the cooker is able to reach pressure at all!!

        Ciao,

        L

  2. Hi! I’ve been pressure cooking steel cut oats without a bowl following a recipe on another site. Should I stop doing this?

    1. 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.

      1. Thanks! I’ll use a bowl from now on! Thanks for this article.

        1. 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.

  3. This post suggests avoiding natural, quick, or cold water release methods; what release method would be suggested?

    1. 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.

      Ciao,

      L

      1. OH I’m sorry. I misread. My apologies! Thanks for your quick reply!

        1. 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.

          Ciao,

          L

  4. Would shaking the pot before opening be enough to release the trapped steam?

  5. 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!

    1. Readers: please click on the image to enlarge.

    2. Here it is expanded, what is a “doughy substance”? Is that a common way for Brits to refer to thick food?
      fagor warning

      I agree that this is a reference to releasing super-heated pockets of food after the lid is removed, thanks for including it, Dave.

      Ciao,

      L

      1. I’m not sure what it means by “doughy substances”. I wonder if anyone can figure out what it means? :)

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