Is an Instant Pot Really a Worthwhile Frugal Purchase?

Over the last few years, a hybrid pressure cooker and slow cooker called the Instant Pot has become quite popular in some circles and, as a result, many people have written to me asking for my thoughts on it. I’ve given some brief thoughts on it in the past, but I wanted to spell out my thoughts at length on this device in terms of whether it really makes sense as a purchase for saving money.

First of all, I received this specific Instant Pot as a birthday gift last year. We already owned a slow cooker, but I was intrigued by the idea of having a small pressure cooker and a slow cooker in a single device that I could use for both things. Plus, we did actually want to have a second slow cooker because we often had guests over and would prepare both vegetarian and meaty soups for our guests, and having two slow cookers made that much easier.

Over the past year, the Instant Pot has been our primary slow cooker. I’ve used it for a wide variety of pressure cooking applications and have prepared countless slow-cooked meals in it. I’ve used almost every mode available on the device.

And, frankly, I have mostly positive but some mixed feelings on it, and I’m not sure if I would universally recommend it.

First, let’s talk about the good things that the Instant Pot does.

It works rather well as a slow cooker. Rather than having a crock that’s heated by a heating element as most slow cookers are, the Instant Pot has a small internal stainless steel pot that’s easily removable that’s heated by the device itself, which is larger and thicker than most slow cookers I’m familiar with. In other words, most of the thickness is in the outer device, not the inner removable pot, which is the reverse of a crock-based slow cooker. I was skeptical of this as I was concerned about food burning and sticking to the interior surface, but this has not yet happened. The heating coils in the Instant Pot are well placed and well regulated to avoid this kind of burning.

The only complaint I have – and this is minor – is that the heat output in the “low” slow cooker mode isn’t enough to really get a large pot of soup thoroughly heated in a reasonable amount of time. My overall impression is that the “low” mode on the Instant Pot in slow cooker mode does not get as hot as a similarly-sized crock-based slow cooker, nor does the “high” mode get as hot as the “high” mode in a similar crock-based slow cooker. This means your recipes will need to be adjusted a bit, either by cooking for longer or by experimenting with a higher temperature setting. It does offer some limited programming ability, which is helpful.

The pressure cooker function works well for speedy food prep. This is probably the “cool” feature of the Instant Pot. If you’re cooking small batches of things like beans or rice or a small amount of soup or a one-pot spaghetti dish, the pressure cooker function works like a charm. This thing actually works as a really good rice cooker and can churn out perfect rice from dry rice in about 20 minutes or so. We can easily make enough rice or other items in this slow cooker to meet our family’s needs.

There are a lot of recipes out there now for cooking things using the pressure cooker function of the Instant Pot and I’ve tried several of them. They work very nicely and result in only one dish to clean and you can just toss that internal steel pot right in the dishwasher with no problems. However, you do have to manually clean the inside of the lid and it can be tough to reach some spots on the lid. Figure that you’re going to devote a small handful of minutes to getting the lid really clean after using it as a slow cooker for anything with liquid in it.

Another feature I’ve come to value with it is the saute mode. In that mode, the bottom of the pot heats up quite high, high enough to actually saute onions and peppers in there, and I use this all the time when making slow cooker meals. The saute mode means that I don’t have to make a skillet dirty when pre-cooking onions or peppers (or other such things) at the start of a slow cooker meal and it also means I can just pour in liquid right into the slow cooker to deglaze the bottom of the pot and make the liquid more flavorful. This works like an absolute charm and is perhaps my favorite feature of the whole thing. I swear I use this saute feature every other time I turn the Instant Pot on.

If you look specifically at those uses – as a general-use slow cooker and as a small batch pressure cooker and rice cooker – it’s really nice. However, there are a few things that I hoped for or expected from the Instant Pot where it didn’t quite deliver.

First of all, the pot is just too small for any sort of high throughput canning. You can do pressure canning in it, but you’ll be doing it just a jar or two or at most three at a time and thus it’s going to take a long while. If you’re wanting to can a lot of jars of a particular food for future use, the Instant Pot is just too small for it. If you just want to dabble and pressure can just a few jars of something, it’ll work okay for that.

Second, you have to buy a separate lid for the slow cooker to really use it well. The default lid that comes with it is a pressure cooker lid that is really awkward to use if you’re using it as a slow cooker. The lid doesn’t allow you to see what’s cooking in there without removing the lid and it’s hard to find a way to sit the default lid on there that’s just right for slow cooking. After a few uses, Sarah got frustrated and purchased the tempered glass lid, which is absolutely great, but I really feel like this lid should be included by default with the Instant Pot. For us, it’s basically an essential add-on, which effectively raises the price of the Instant Pot by $15-20.

Third, given that it’s driven by an electronic interface and has a lot of modes, I am concerned about loss of functionality in the future. With most electronic devices, the simpler the device, the longer it will last, and this is definitely light years more complex than our normal slow cooker. This isn’t a criticism of the function in any way, only a concern that the device won’t have as long of a lifespan as our other slow cooker (which has worked like a charm for years) or the original slow cooker that Sarah and I first had when we were dating (which still works, but is missing a leg and I don’t really feel good about “fixed” leg options for that thing, so we almost never use it).

In the end, do I recommend the Instant Pot? It really depends on what you want to do with it. If you’re looking for a slow cooker that you might occasionally use to cook rice or to cook one-pot meals, it’s going to be perfect for that – just make sure you get that optional lid. On the other hand, if you doubt you’ll use it for anything other than straight-up slow cooking, you’re probably better getting a slow cooker model like this one and save yourself $100. If you’re looking to do extensive canning or pressure cooking, I’d invest in a larger pressure cooker.

In my mind, this fits right into the wheelhouse of how we acquired our Instant Pot: it’s a very nice gift for a frugal person and they’ll most likely use it because some of the features are very useful. Is it worth $100 over a regular slow cooker if you’re buying it for yourself and already have a rice cooker? I’m hesitant to say yes.

I quite like my Instant Pot. I will continue to use it as my main slow cooker for as long as it lasts and I definitely do use some of the other features. I don’t think I would spend $100-$140 on it (depending on size and whether you buy that nearly-essential lid) given that I could get a similarly-sized slow cooker in the $30 range because, although the extra features are cool and useful, they’re not essential for anything I’m doing in the kitchen. I would happily gift this to other people in the right situation, though, such as a wedding gift.

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Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.