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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).
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.
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'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:
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.
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.)
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.
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.
We cooked chopped pineapple with white grape juice for 10 minutes, then poured the pineapple and juice into four sterilized pint jars. We followed Instant Pot's directions, which often referred directly to the USDA's guide to home canning, created with the National Center for Home Food Preservation. After a processing time of 15 minutes and a natural steam release, we removed the cans and the lids popped from the vacuum created inside. A week later, we cracked open a can and found that it was firmly sealed, and the pineapple tasted fine.
Though the pineapple canning appeared to be a success, we wouldn't issue a blanket recommendation to use the Max for all your canning needs because we couldn't verify that the internal temperature of the jars reached 240-250 degrees. The Max's control screen showed that the pot's internal temperature consistently surpassed 250 degrees, but we hesitate to rely on that reading since there was a discrepancy during the sous vide testing. If you want to use the Max for home canning, it would be wise to either stick with high-acid foods or wait for an official recommendation from the USDA or the National Center for Home Food Preservation.
During testing, we didn't see the faster cooking times that the Max's higher pressure was supposed to bring. In fact, the Max's overall cook times were longer than we've seen with other electric pressure cookers. It also took longer to cool down and lower its internal pressure through natural release.
Beef brisket is a difficult test for any cooker. Under normal conditions, it can take as long as 12 hours to transform this tough cut into something tender and delicious.
The good news is that the Max needed only 60 minutes of pressurized cook time to properly handle my 2.8-pound hunk of brisket flat. The bad news is that the Max had to cool down for 40 minutes and 23 seconds until pressure inside the pot dissipated completely. This, plus a preheat time of a little less than 11 minutes, brought the total cook time to one hour and 49 minutes. That's not much faster than what the $100 Black & Decker 6 Quart pressure cooker required to pull off the same feat (one hour, 56 minutes).
Nevertheless, the meat I removed from the Max was delicious. Soft, tender and flavorful, my cooked brisket may not compare to what a real outdoor smoker can create but it was mighty tasty all the same.
Black beans were a problem for the Max. That's not to say the Max can't take dry black beans and turn them into something wonderful; it just needs a much longer time to do this than the Instant Pot's suggested guidelines of 16 to 20 minutes.
The Max lacks a dedicated preset for cooking beans, so we adjusted by using the generic "pressure cook" mode under maximum pressure with the natural pressure release method. We ran four tests with cooking times of 16, 20, 25 and 30 minutes.
Unfortunately, the beans weren't completely cooked during any of the tests. The 30-minute test had the most favorable results, but the total time these beans spent in the cooker (which includes preheat, cooking and natural pressure release) came to 1 hour and 11 minutes.
By comparison, the Black & Decker pressure cooker took 9 more minutes to cook the beans than the Max did. However, in the Black & Decker, all of the beans were cooked.
Cooking rice in the Instant Pot Max went well enough. After 32 minutes of total cook time (including 13 minutes for natural release), our 2 cups of long grain white rice were ready. We opted for our usual (and Instant Pot-recommended) water to rice ratio of 1:1, and the texture was just sticky enough with a pleasing amount of chew. That's comparable to results from other pressure cooker models such as the Duo 6 Quart and the Lux 6-in-1.
One annoyance is that the Max's inner pot lacks markings for rice water levels. Other Instant Pot cookers have them, as well as traditional electric rice cookers. They simplify rice making since you just drop your dry grains into the pot, then fill to the right volume line with water.
The Instant Pot made tasty chili thanks to its stainless-steel pot and high temperatures that help bring out the flavor in cooked meats. Our test recipe isn't complex -- just kidney beans, supermarket ground chuck, onions, garlic, tomatoes and spices. The Max doesn't have a dedicated chili preset cooking mode like the Crock-Pot Express pressure cooker, so we once again had to use the manual "pressure cook" setting. Still, after a total cook time of 1 hour and 43 minutes, the batch of chili we made was outstanding. Deep, rich and full of flavor, it almost made us forgive the Max for spending 43 minutes in natural release mode.
The Instant Pot Max had a lot of promise thanks to new features we hadn't previously seen on other electric pressure cookers from Instant Pot and other manufacturers. The automatic pressure release valve is a smart addition, as is the Max's easy-to-use control panel. But the bright sides are few and far between when you consider all that the Max promised and failed to do, especially when you consider its $200 price. The Max took longer to cook basic foods. It's missing some helpful preset cooking modes. And two features that could have been standouts -- the sous vide and canning functions -- weren't as reliable as we needed them to be. Rather than the Max, you'd be better off buying a cheaper, older Instant Pot model.