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Instant Pot Max review: Instant Pot Max will let down fans of the famous pressure cooker

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The Good The $200 Instant Pot Max is a 6-quart electric pressure cooker with features we haven't seen on similar products, such as an automatic steam release valve. The touchscreen makes it easy to use the Max. And the countertop appliance cooks dishes like rice and chili well.

The Bad The sous vide cooking option didn't reach the accurate temperatures needed for this method of cooking. The Max took longer to cook beans than we've seen with other electric pressure cookers. And the canning feature is questionable.

The Bottom Line Stick with older Instant Pot models that are cheaper and cook food faster.

6.0 Overall
  • Performance 5
  • Usability 8
  • Design 7
  • Features 5

Oh, Instant Pot Max. We expected so much more from you.

The $200 (£150/AU$269) Max is the newest electric pressure cooker from Instant Pot, the company behind the eponymous line of small appliances. These countertop cookers have gained a passionate online following in part because of their quick cooking, ease of use and versatility. 

The 6-quart Max, available starting Aug. 1, provides new features and cooking options that we haven't seen from previous models or competitors. One of the key features of the Max is its ability to reach an internal pressure of 15 psi (pounds per square inch), which Instant Pot says is higher than previous models attained. In theory, this high pressure level should enable the Max to cook faster than any Instant Pot before it. Other noteworthy additions include a sous vide setting that allows the Max to double as a water bath with precisely controlled temperatures, a preset mode just for canning foods at home, and a hands-free valve in its lid that automatically adjusts to your preferred method of steam release (a first for Instant Pot).

The Instant Pot Max is the newest electric pressure cooker from Instant Pot. It will cost $200 (£150/AU$269) when it becomes available Aug. 1.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Unfortunately, many of the new features fall short of expectations. Basic dishes like beans and rice took just as long (or slightly longer) to cook as we've seen in other models despite the increased pressure. The sous vide setting failed to reach the desired temperature, which resulted in undercooked food. And there were minor annoyances that made us wish for an older Instant Pot model, such as missing preset cooking modes for common dishes. But for all its shortcomings, the Max costs twice as much as the capable $100 Instant Pot Duo 6 Quart

The Max does have some bright spots, including its design and the canning setting. But the newest cooker in the Instant Pot family doesn't match up to the performance of its lower tech brethren. Skip the Max for an older, yet faster Instant Pot cooker.

Design and features

The Max is an evolution of an existing Instant Pot model, the $150 Instant Pot Ultra. Both appliances have large LCD control screens, a metal control knob and glowing labels for the device's cooking programs running along the control screens' left and right sides. The Max's corresponding text labels for its eight cooking modes and its big display are touch-sensitive. That's not the case for the Ultra: You must use its central control dial to navigate through its 16 preset cooking functions, whereas you use the Max's dial to adjust cook times and temperatures.

The Max releases steam through this valve at the top of the lid. The valve automatically adjusts based on the steam release option you choose.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The Max's pared-down control panel makes it a breeze to use. We also liked the graphics that showed the cooking progress. Rectangles made of small dots represent each phase and change from empty to full as the Max chugs along. You can also alter cooking programs in progress. For example, you can change the pressure from medium to low in the middle of a cook cycle if necessary.

The Max's design also eliminates the need to fiddle with a manual steam valve on the pressure cooker's lid. The Max's valve system is fully automatic, which means it will adjust itself based on which option you select to release steam: 

  1. Quick release: releases a short burst, then a continuous stream of steam.
  2. Pulse release: sends brief pulses of steam at timed intervals.
  3. Natural release: The valve stays sealed, and the internal pressure decreases on its own.

Other aspects of the Max remain mostly unchanged from other Instant Pot models. The lid sports tab-shaped wings on either side that let you drop the lid into slots on the side of the cooker to keep it out of the way when you remove food. There's a small plastic container that fits onto the Max to catch condensation. And the inner pot is made from the standard Instant Pot stainless steel, too.

Max should back off sous vide

The Max provides a new function that lets you sous vide (which is French for under vacuum). With this method you vacuum-seal your food in a plastic bag and let it cook in a temperature-controlled water bath. The water circulates and cooks the food that's in the bag. Sous vide is known for being a precise and consistent way to cook your meals; in theory, you can cook steaks at the same water temperature multiple times, and the steaks will come out with the same level of doneness each time. 

Unfortunately, the Max isn't reliable enough to be trusted with sous vide. The Max failed to heat the water to the intended temperature during multiple tests, which left food undercooked. For example, we set the sous vide temperature to reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit to cook a steak. After about 43 minutes, the Max indicated that it had reached the set temperature and started the cook timer. However, a temperature probe we inserted in the Max showed that the temperature of the water inside had reached only 120 degrees Fahrenheit. (Note: You don't have to have the Max's lid in place to sous vide. We performed tests with the lid on and off, and there was a large difference between actual and set temperatures during both sets of tests.) 

The sous vide cooking feature wasn't a reliable way to cook with a water bath.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

A 20-degree discrepancy between the actual temperature and what the Max showed is a big deal; most immersion circulators that bring water to temperature vary only about a degree or two from the intended temperature. At 140 degrees and 1 hour and 15 minutes of cooking, we should have had a steak cooked to medium. But the steak came out medium rare because the water never reached 140. The same thing happened with hard-boiled eggs: I set the Max's temperature to 165 degrees (based on this guide) and cooked the eggs for 45 minutes. At the end of the cooking time, the whites of the eggs were still slimy rather than firm as anticipated.

Instant Pot would have been better off leaving this cooking method to companies that have made water bath cooking their business. We can't recommend the Max for sous vide until it address its temperature inaccuracies.

Canning

It might just be putting food into glass jars, but home canning can get complicated. Instant Pot wants to help you out with the addition of the Max's Canning program. But there has been some disparity between recommendations from the USDA and Instant Pot about whether electric pressure cookers can get hot enough (between 240 and 250 degrees Fahrenheit) to destroy potentially deadly bacteria inside canned food. This is especially important when you can low-acid foods like fresh vegetables and meat. 

We had some limitations on how we could test the canning feature. We couldn't record the temperature inside the cans as it cooked, and we opted to can pineapple, a high-acid food that could block the growth of bacteria even without substantial heat. We also had difficulty fitting the Max with a temperature probe while the jars processed because it interfered with the seal needed to build pressure.

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