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5-Step Guide to Using the Instant Pot for Beginners

Here’s the deal: using the Instant Pot can be confusing for beginners. All those buttons, the fancy lid, plus the very thought of pressure cooking – will this shiny new gadget blow up if I do something wrong?

Consider today’s post to be “The Instant Pot for Dummies” guide that will show you the five main things you need to know to use your Instant Pot with ease.

Using an Instant Pot: how to cook beans and grains

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So you’ve finally bit the bullet and bought yourself a shiny new Instant Pot. However, a week passes, then another, yet it still sits there unused. How come?

You search for Instant Pot tips online, but soon realize that there are way too many guides, a lot of them really long and detailed.

That’s not bad if you’re studying for a degree in Instant Pottery, but what if you just want to make some chili for dinner tonight?

I’ve been in your place before. I bought my Instant Pot a couple days before my daughter was born, so trust me: I’ve put aside quite a few recipes because I just didn’t have the time to do all the research.

Thankfully, those days have long since passed, and I’ve learned quite a bit about using this fancy pressure cooking tool.

So today I decided to share five main facts about using the Instant Pot for beginners that will help you go from “Where the heck do I start?” to “All right, let’s do this!”

5 Main Things to Know about Using the Instant Pot for Beginners

1. It may be called Instant Pot, but it will take more than an instant to cook your food.

The cooker will need a few minutes to reach the needed pressure, then cook the food for as long as you set it for depending on the recipe, and a few more minutes after that to release the pressure. The larger the food volume, the longer the overall time.

Good news for Instant Pot dummies: that’s all hands-off time, so you can do whatever you want while your food is cooking.

Recipe Example: My Instant Pot vegan jambalaya recipe calls for 4 minutes of the actual pressure cooking. Add to this about 5-7 minutes for the pressure to build up before that, then 10 minutes afterwards for the 10-minute natural release. (Read more about the release methods in #3 below.)

2. Don’t let the buttons on your Instant Pot confuse you!

In all fairness, you can get anything pressure cooked using only 3 buttons: Manual, Sauté, and Keep Warm/Cancel (plus the “+” and “-” to adjust the time). The exact names of these buttons may vary depending on your IP model.

Using an Instant Pot: 3 main buttons that get all the work done

– Manual – the button that you press to get the pressure cooking process started.

After the lid of your IP is closed, press Manual and use the “+” and “-” buttons to set the cooking time. The IP will beep to let you know that the process has started.

The dial screen will say “On” while the pressure is building, then it will start counting down the cooking time.

– Sauté – this button lets you use the bowl of your IP the same way you’d use a pot on the stovetop.

Sauté vegetables to build the flavor of your soups and stews before pressure cooking, or add more ingredients or spices afterwards and let the food simmer a bit longer.

To use this function, just press the Sauté button and wait until the bottom of the bowl is warm.

– Keep Warm/Cancel – this button is used to cancel a function (like when you’re moving from sauteing to pressure cooking), or to turn the IP off. Older Instant Pot models have two separate buttons for this function.

Recipe Example: A lot of recipes will require using more than one cooking mode. My shiitake mushroom soup calls for sauteing the vegetables first, then pressure cooking the soup for 4 minutes.

A few additional ingredients are added after pressure cooking, and the soup is cooked in the Saute mode again to let those ingredients cook through.

What do the rest of the Instant Pot buttons mean? Soup, Meat, Chili, Rice, Multigrain, etc. – those are just preset times for pressure cooking each of those things.

However, it’s easier and more precise to use the Manual button for all your pressure cooking needs since your IP isn’t going to know how much foods you’re putting in; if those beans are dried or pre-soaked; if any of the ingredients are still frozen; or if you’ve pressed the right button for the type of food you’re cooking.

3. There are 3 ways to open the Instant Pot at the end of pressure cooking.

– Quick release – for releasing the pressure instantly. Press Cancel, then carefully turn the pressure knob to Venting position to allow the steam to escape.

– Natural Release – for continuing to cook the food in the residual heat and steam after the pressure timer runs out. Press Cancel, then wait for the pressure to come down naturally until the metal pin on the lid drops. Unlock the lid carefully.

– 10-minute Natural Release – a Natural Release variation that doesn’t take as long. After the pressure cooking time runs out, wait until the “Keep Warm” timer reaches 10 minutes. Press Cancel, then turn the pressure knob to Venting position.

Recipe Example: In my recipe for easy 3-ingredient Instant Pot steel cut oatmeal, I’ve included two ways of cooking it. The faster method calls for the quick release opening method, while the slower method includes a natural release where you wait for the pressure to come down on its own.

4. Pay attention to the pressure knob position when closing the lid.

The little handle on top of the lid closes the opening that allows the steam (and thus the pressure) to escape. That’s why it’s important to make sure the handle is turned clockwise to “Sealing” position before the pressure cooking begins.

To release the pressure at the end of cooking, turn the handle counterclockwise to “Venting” position.

Using an Instant Pot: tips for sealing and venting the lid

When the lid is properly sealed and the IP reaches full pressure, the metal pin next to the pressure knob will rise up. When the pressure is released, the pin will drop.

Note: When releasing the pressure, be careful not to burn yourself on the escaping steam! Keep your hands and face away from the lid, and use a spatula to turn the handle if needed.

5. Vegetarians rejoice: cooking beans and grains in the Instant Pot is a breeze!

However, there are a few things to keep in mind.

– When cooking beans, add enough water to cover them at least by a couple inches, but avoid filling up the inner pot with beans and water more than halfway. Beans need room to expand during cooking.

– You can cook beans without pre-soaking them first, but pre-soaking makes them cook faster and lets their nutrients be more bio-available. It also helps break down components that might give us gas and bloating. For best results, pre-soak your beans for 6-12 hours before cooking.

– The exact timing for cooking beans and grains may vary depending on the altitude of your area. The Instant Pot manufacturers suggest adding 5% to the cooking time per every 1000 feet of elevation starting at 2000 feet.

– When cooking grains, follow the grain-to-water ratios suggested by the Instant Pot website or the pamphlet that comes with each Instant Pot. However, be aware that there are some differences between the ratios listed on the website and in the pamphlet.

For best results, you may need to experiment with both versions and find out what works for you.

Here’s what works great for me when cooking rice:

  • White basmati rice: 2 cups rice + 2.5 cups water. I set it to cook at high pressure for 3 minutes on Manual, then do the 10-minute Natural Release (see above).
  • White jasmine rice: 2 cups rice + 2.25 cups water. Same instructions as basmati rice.
  • Brown rice: 2 cups rice + 2.5 cups water. Cook at high pressure for 22 minutes on Manual, then do the 10-minute Natural Release.

I hope these tips help you demystify using an Instant Pot. Before you know it, you’ll be pressure cooking all kinds of deliciousness!

See all of my vegan Instant Pot recipes and cooking tips from the blog (I’ll be adding more in the near future).

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author avatar
Alina Zavatsky - Vegan Runner Eats
Alina first made a switch to a vegan diet in 2013 to optimize her athletic performance as a marathon runner. Eventually she embraced veganism as a way to be kinder to fellow living beings and the environment. Alina hopes that this blog helps its readers on their path to becoming vegan and making this world a better place.

Jessica albecht

Thursday 28th of July 2022

Hi! Beside sauté. Do you always have to the selling valve in the closed position?

Thanks, Jess

Alina Zavatsky - Vegan Runner Eats

Friday 29th of July 2022

Hi Jess! Whenever I'm pressure cooking, I put the sealing valve in the closed position - otherwise the steam would keep coming out instead of collecting inside (that achieves pressure).


Tuesday 22nd of December 2020

Hi, I’ve read many posts about using the Instant Pot that was recently gifted to me. I honestly can’t find any benefit to using this appliance vs just cooking on my stove. In many examples the IP seems to be more trouble than it’s worth, and with heating up and cooling down time added to the cooking time, it’s pretty much the same as ordinary cooking on a stove. The IP is very large, bulky, and heavy, and finding a place to store it is going to be challenging. I’m pretty sure I’m going to be dropping it off at my local Goodwill store.

Alina Zavatsky - Vegan Runner Eats

Wednesday 23rd of December 2020

I agree that the name "Instant Pot" is kind of a misnomer since it takes longer than an instant to cook everything. But I appreciate the convenience of putting everything in, locking the lid, setting a timer and walking away to do anything I want for a little while instead of having to stand by the stove and stir the food every 3 minutes to prevent it from sticking to the bottom. Also, easily cooking beans from dry without soaking them first is pretty amazing - a great way to save on buying canned beans.


Saturday 7th of March 2020

What an tremendous help this was for me. Bought my Instant Pot in November and still reading and attempting to muster the courage to use it and here we are in March already. Thank you so much. This afternoon is my dress rehearsal with this thing and I think I’ll do well after your helpful information. Thank you for taking time to help those of us who are Instant Pot Scaredy-cats !!!

Alina Zavatsky - Vegan Runner Eats

Saturday 7th of March 2020

Elizabeth, thank you for telling me this! That was exactly my hope when I was writing this post - to help folks intimidated by Instant Pot get more comfortable with using it. Hoping your "dress rehearsal" goes well!

Rox Geer

Tuesday 10th of December 2019

Hi Alina so I made the jambalaya last night for the first time with lP it turned out pretty good enjoy the rice did seem to be al dente so I was able to cook it a little bit longer but still delicious my question is what about using canned beans I wanted to make some chili but I only have canned beans on hand thank you so much My name is rox geer

Alina Zavatsky - Vegan Runner Eats

Tuesday 10th of December 2019

Hi Rox, canned beans will work fine in chili. I actually prefer making chili with canned beans because it's faster. If you're making chili in Instant Pot, you won't need to pressure cook it for a long time. Of course it depends on what type of beans and what kind of other ingredients you're using.