Papin’s Engine for Softening Bones – A Pot with Benefits or a Disaster Waiting to Happen?

Denis Papin, inventer of the New Digester or Engine for Softening Bones.

When I was growing up a pressure cooker was an ever-present fixture on our kitchen stove. I recall very little about what was cooked in it beyond potatoes, something we had with almost every meal. But I do vividly recall my fascination coupled with a sense of impending doom as I watched the little metal cap (the “pressure regulator”) dancing and spurting steam. It blew off only once in my presence, shooting soup or some kind of liquid onto our kitchen ceiling, but that was enough to keep me on edge every time I heard its menacing hiss.

The 1950s era pressure cooker that I grew up with.

Evidently I’m not alone in my childhood recollections. Rob Mifsud in a 2012 Slate piece writes:

Ask any baby boomer about their childhood pressure-cooking memories, and they’ll likely conjure a scene from The Hurt Locker. Early versions of the appliance rattled and belched steam ominously, and they could explode if misused because their one rubber release valve would blow like a geyser if the pressure got too strong.

[Editor’s note: I’m technically not a “baby boomer” (and proud of it) as I emphatically point out in an earlier blog. But I definitely can relate to Mifsud comment.]

Since those childhood days, pressure cookers have not been a part of my world. I’d assumed that they must have been relegated to the boneyard long ago along with percolator coffee pots and electric can openers. So I was interested to learn from Charlie’s contribution to today’s blog that not only are they still available but have morphed into high tech “Instant Pots.” This got me curious about the origins and history of the pressure cooker and its kin.

That origins of that scary device steaming away on my childhood kitchen stove date back to 1679 when French physicist Denis Papin introduced the “New Digester or Engine for Softening Bones.” His contraption was a pressurized steam cooker which not only cooked food but, as one web site claims, “also softened bones for the production of fertilizer.” Beyond being a revolutionary way to cook food (and perhaps making fertilizer), Papin’s technological innovation was a direct precursor to the piston-driven steam engine that ushered in the Industrial Revolution.

“A Presto cooker the most useful gift imaginable for the most wonderful woman in the world…a bride.” Vintage advertisements for Presto Cookers (L) 1950 (R) 1952 (Illustrations and quote from

As important as this discovery may have been, it wasn’t until after World War II that the pressure cooker became a common household item. Buoyed by post-World War II enthusiasm for time- and labor-saving devices, manufacturers aggressively marketed the pressure cookeer as a miracle time-saving essential for the modern woman (in those days no one said much about the “modern man” needing one). By 1950 it was estimated that 37 percent of U.S. households had a pressure cooker.

Goodby pressure cooker; hello TV dinner?

However, the heyday of the pressure cooker passed rather quickly and by 2011 only 20 percent of households had them. Rob Mifsud in his Slate piece mentioned above suggests that while the decline in its popularity could be partially attributed to the fear of explosions, the main reason was probably related to the competition from other fast cooking options:

While a pressure cooker can turn a tough cut of meat into a delicately perfumed stew in about an hour, Swanson’s TV Dinners, introduced in 1953, could turn a bland slab of minced beef and a handful of other industrial ingredients into “Salisbury Steak,” a side of veggies, and dessert in just 25 minutes using a conventional oven, and, eventually, in mere minutes using a microwave. In an era when flavor mattered less than convenience, the pressure cooker never really stood a chance [emphasis mine].

But with the new generation of pressure cookers currently gaining popularity, was it premature to write that they never really stood a chance? Today you can find numerous chefs and web sites extolling the virtues of the “new generation” of pressure cookers, with assurances that their safety features are nearly bulletproof. You can find 62 pressure cooker recipes featured in the New York Times food section just today!

This had me almost convinced that Ann and I should consider adding a pressure cooking device to our arsenal of kitchen paraphernalia. But then I came across a web site for a law firm that’s like Better Call Saul on steroids. What caught my attention was one of its blog posts entitled “PRESSURE COOKERS & INJURIES — A LONG HISTORY.” The blog highlights the findings from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission regarding six different pressure cooker brands that had been recalled between 1983 and 2015. The list of hazards can be a bit unsettling:

  • “The sealing gasket can be incorrectly inserted upside down on the lid which can allow the unexpected release of built-up pressure”
  • “The thermal probe in the base can conduct electricity throughout the cooker, posing a risk of electric shock”
  • “The pressure cooker’s lid can open while its contents are under pressure, allowing the hot contents to be expelled and causing burn injuries to bystanders.
The leading cause of reported home fires and home fire injuries (National Fire Protection Association)

But kitchens are full of hazards – sharp knives that can cut off our fingers, gas stoves that can asphyxiate us, hot oil that can scald us, electrical gadgets that can shock us. Indeed, according to the National Fire Protection Association, “cooking was the leading cause of reported home fires and home fire injuries in 2015-2019 and the second leading cause of home fire deaths.”

This suggests that the slim chance of getting scalded by a pressure cooker is small potatoes in a kitchen already bristling with danger. So maybe those who preach the virtues of pressure cooking are not asking us to risk our lives as much as asking us to consider the pressure cooker to be a useful kitchen tool. And maybe, as Rob Mifsud suggests in his Slate article, we should look at a pressure cooker as “just a pot with benefits.”

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