With names like “Instant Pot,” “Vitaquick,” and Presto,” pressure cookers are fascinating and tempting kitchen gadgets for gift shoppers and busy, health-conscious families. They promise faster meals, higher nutrition retention, and a space-saving replacement for crockpots, chafing dishes, rice cookers, steamers, and even yogurt makers. In spite of being invented in their most primitive form in the 1670s, they still carry an allure of ultra-modern convenience — and all the dangerous design bugs one would expect of far younger technologies.
The inherent dangers of sealed pressure vessels, combined with the public’s willingness to accept that danger without expecting manufacturers to mitigate it however they can, has led to a market full of profitably unsafe products, with little incentive for change. Although pressure cooking is necessary for some recipes and may always carry an element of risk, most accidents are still the result of avoidable design flaws. At The Stoddard Firm, we help hold negligent manufacturers responsible, both to give burn victims the resources they need during recovery, and to encourage industry changes that will protect future users from product liability.
The Strange History of Pressure Cooker Safety
The bells and whistles of pressure cookers have changed over time, but the basic idea of raising the boiling point of water by applying pressure remains the same. The pressure cooker’s inventor, Denis Papin, originally proposed that his creation could be used by the poor to extract nutrition from bones, but the expense of a 17th century pressure cooker (or “digester” as it was then known) made this idea impractical. The technology remained a little-known novelty until the early 20th century, when the USDA declared it mandatory for the canning of meat and other foods with low acid content.
This is the one point in history when increased use of pressure cookers actually improved consumer safety. To this day, pressure canning is the only known way of preventing botulism in low-acid canned foods, because the spores that cause this deadly food poisoning require higher temperatures to kill than can be achieved without pressure. At first, pressure cooking was strictly a commercial endeavor, but during World War II, the U.S government began encouraging home preservation of food, and home pressure cookers became commonplace. These cookers were made from aluminum, or sometimes even ceramic to preserve metals for military use, and users were advised to use extreme caution, due to the risk of explosion.
Nevertheless, consumers began using their pressure cookers for other recipes that do not require the risky use of pressure, but are sped along by it. Modern pressure cookers, designed with a variety of purposes in mind, are usually made from steel and equipped with more advanced safety valves and temperature regulators than those of times past, but design flaws and manufacturer’s errors continue to lead to accidents and serious injuries from product liability.
What Makes Pressure Cookers so Dangerous?
Sadly, the same function that makes pressure cookers useful is also the source of most of their safety issues.
It’s easy to understand part of the danger of keeping hot substances under pressure. Pressure can lead to ruptures and explosions, and even a small leak combined with sufficient pressure can propel a stream of hot liquid across a room. However, a pressure cooker is actually even more dangerous than an ordinary boiling pot that might suddenly eject its contents all over the kitchen.
Pressure cookers work on the same principle as natural geysers. Geysers form when volcanic activity heats an underground water source from below. When the lowest layers of water reach their boiling point, the colder water and earth on top prevent them from turning to steam as they normally would. This phenomenon, in which water remains liquid at higher-than-boiling temperatures, is called “superheating.”
Eventually, the pressure of superheated water builds up beyond what the upper layers of water and earth can contain, and it erupts, turning instantly to steam and forcing everything above it upward in that famous geyser fountain. Pressure cooker designers attempt to control this effect through the use of valves, which allow users to release the pressure and vent the steam at will, before opening the pot. However, even when these features function perfectly, uneven heating and disparities in food texture can allow some steam pockets to remain trapped after venting, waiting to erupt. This happened in 2018 in Utah, when a superheated steam pocket escaped from under a pot roast, covering a mother and toddler in scalding liquid. The child had to be airlifted to a burn unit to be treated for second degree burns over 14 percent of his body.
Superheating isn’t a side effect of pressure cooker use; it’s the whole purpose of applying pressure during heating. It’s what causes food to cook so rapidly inside a pressure cooker, but as one might imagine, it also increases the potential severity of burns, even when compared with a regular stovetop pot at full boil. Under normal conditions, that unpressurized pot will never get hotter than 212 degrees Fahrenheit, unless it contains frying oil or another substance with a boiling point higher than water. A pressure cooker, on the other hand, under a standard 15 psi pressure load, can force its temperature above 250 degrees.
For context, water’s standard boiling temperature of 212 degrees is already more than hot enough to cause near-instant third degree burns, which require professional medical attention and never completely heal. Water that has been superheated under pressure, on the other hand, can get hot enough to cause paper to ignite on contact. That’s not even accounting for the pressure-frying recipes some pressure cooker users attempt. Pressure frying raises the potential temperature of frying oil, which already ranges from 300 to 500 degrees. Such high temperatures can melt through the cooker’s seals, causing sudden and explosive failures.
Yes, It Really Happens
Pressure cookers inspire almost as much wariness as fascination in the general public, giving rise to superstitions and urban legends that obscure the truth. Yes, many of the more outlandish third- and fourth-hand stories you’ve heard about pressure cooker disasters are probably untrue or exaggerated, but the down-to-earth reality of these devices is still full of burns, shrapnel, electrocutions, and hospital visits.
In 1988, long after the wartime challenges of pressure cooking and canning gave rise to new safety features, approximately 300,000 Rochedo brand pressure cookers were recalled, following at least two explosions caused by faulty safety seals. The company had been selling the faulty cookers for five years, but was out of business by the time of the recall, leaving consumers with no remedy but to abandon their purchases.
From 2001 through 2004, the Home Shopping Network received at least 25 complaints from customers who’d bought the channel’s featured “Welbilt” pressure cooker, involving the lid popping open and releasing the hot, pressurized contents. The network did not act on the complaints or report them to the manufacturer, and was eventually penalized $875,000 by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in 2007.
The problem of lids springing open prematurely and explosively has been common across multiple pressure cooker brands in recent years, including Maxi-Matic, Ultrex, Manttra, Breville, and Tri-Star, which ended up the subject of multiple class action lawsuits. Some of these companies continued selling their products long after the defects became apparent, while others issued voluntary recalls, but all of them first caused multiple injuries ranging from superficial to third degree burns.
Even Instant Pot had to recall one of its popular products in 2015, but for a different product liability reason. When plugged in, the pot’s internal temperature probe was capable of conducting a house’s electrical current throughout the pot and its contents, resulting in at least three electric shocks.
How to Protect Yourself While Cooking
The easiest way to avoid pressure cooker injuries is, of course, not to use one, but if you’re set on home canning low-acid foods, or if you just can’t resist the possibility of cooking sweet potatoes in 10 minutes and pot roast in an hour and a half, be sure to familiarize yourself with the CPSC’s recall list and check it frequently. If an advisory appears for your pressure cooker, stop using it immediately and follow any available directions on having your unit repaired, replaced, or refunded.
If there are no safety advisories in effect for your pressure cooker model, read the manufacturer’s instructions thoroughly and only use recipes written with your cooker’s size in mind. Use extreme caution when experimenting. Stick to pre-tested recipes, at least until you’re intimately familiar with how different ingredients and liquid ratios will react under pressure. Consider trying out any new ideas in a more traditional pot or oven first, to make sure they don’t froth or expand more than expected.
Whatever you do with your pressure cooker, DO NOT:
- Exceed the recommended fill line
- Deep fry, or use more than the bare minimum amount of oil needed to prevent sticking
- Switch on the cooker without first inspecting all seals and gaskets
- Attempt to open the cooker before steam has completely vented
- Cook with thick, frothy ingredients that might clog the vents, such as oatmeal, rhubarb, applesauce, split pea soup, or chili
Remember, however, that each one of the many product recalls above was issued because one or more users had the misfortune of discovering the defect for themselves without warning. No matter how careful you are, it’s difficult to tell in advance when a company has placed or kept a defective product on the market.
What to Do After a Pressure Cooker Accident
If you or a loved one has already been injured by a pressure cooker explosion, eruption, leak, or other defect, first administer necessary first aid.
If the injury is a burn, remove any jewelry, clothing, or other restrictive items from affected areas of skin before the swelling sets in. If the skin is red or blistered but still in place, immerse it in cold water. However, if layers of skin are falling off, this is a sign of a third degree burn, which should not be treated with water or any other home method.
In either case, wrap the burn in a clean, lint-free cloth and seek medical attention. Third degree burns, burns that are larger than three inches in diameter, and burns affecting infants or elderly patients should be treated immediately by emergency care providers. For less serious burns, it’s still a good idea to get checked over by a medical professional, both to prevent infection and to establish a record of the event.
Once immediate medical needs are met, document the incident before cleaning up or allowing the details to fade from memory, and get in touch with qualified legal counsel. At The Stoddard Firm, we’re dedicated to holding corporations accountable when they put profits above public safety. We have the necessary experience to explain manufacturing defects to judges and juries and clarify that what happened was not your fault, so that you get the compensation you deserve.
Our passionate team of product liability lawyers are standing by at 678-RESULT, and on our online chat function, to discuss your options in a free consultation.