Classic Split Pea and Ham Soup, With and Without a Pressure Cooker

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[Photographs and video: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Let's face it: Pea soup is not an attractive dish. It's not even attractive in a down-home, plain kinda way. It looks like, well, like something that is projectile-vomited out of Linda Blair's mouth.

Good thing it's got some pretty darn redeeming characteristics. It's cheap, filling, hearty, and deliciously smoky with ham, and the only downside is that it's ever-so-slightly fussy and time-consuming to make.

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Traditionally, you'd start by sautéing some vegetables and diced ham or a ham hock in butter, then add the dried split peas and stock. You'd then let the whole thing simmer until the peas are fall-apart tender, which takes about an hour. (Al dente is not a feature you're looking for here.)

Ideally, the peas will break down enough to form a creamy broth on their own, with little work required on your part. Realistically, you usually end up having to purée it with either a hand blender or a countertop blender if you really want it creamy and thick.

But you want to know a secret? There's a way to make it easier, faster, and more delicious: Just use a pressure cooker.

You'll form the base of the soup the exact same way (reducing the amount of broth by about 25% to account for the fact that no evaporation or reduction occurs in a pressure cooker), seal the lid, and let it cook. At high pressure, those peas are cooking at 250°F (120°C). At that temperature, not only do the peas take just 20 minutes to fully tenderize, but you also get a bit of Maillard browning, which lends the soup a richer, more complex flavor.

The neat part is that once those 20 minutes are up, if you immediately lift the pressure-release valve on the pressure cooker, the rapid boiling that occurs inside will shake up the contents so vigorously that the peas will essentially purée themselves.

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When you open it up, you'll release a thick cloud of steam (as thick as pea soup, perhaps) and find the soup bubbling away underneath. Season it to taste with salt, pull out your plainest bowls and spoons, and dinner is served.

PS: I've included a traditional recipe here as well, just in case you haven't jumped on the pressure-cooker bandwagon yet (get jumping!).

Warning: Split peas are particularly prone to clogging valves and foaming, so some precautions are necessary when cooking them in a pressure cooker. Do not attempt to double this recipe—the split peas and liquid should not come more than halfway up the pot. Do not cut down on butter, since fat can help inhibit foaming; you can use oil in place of the butter and omit the ham if you're making a vegan version of the dish. If using a stovetop pressure cooker, do not set the heat higher than medium-high, and monitor carefully, lowering the heat to maintain pressure as soon as it has come to pressure. After cooking, make sure to immediately clean the gasket and valves on the lid as soon as the pot is cool enough to handle, since pea soup can clog the valves and harden if not properly cleaned.

Thanks to my friend Laura Pazzaglia from Hip Pressure Cooking for alerting me to these potential dangers.