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Over the years, I collected dozens of recipes from magazines and newspapers for dishes that I suspected could, with some adjustments, be made in the slow cooker. Every time I saw the word "bistro" or "braised" or came across something that needed more than an hour's cooking time or required continuous stirring over low heat, I grabbed my scissors and clipped the recipe. My hunch paid off. When the New York Times ran a recipe for cassoulet that required dozens of steps and hours of careful pot-watching, I was able to convert it into a recipe that had one-third fewer steps and cooked beautifully in an unwatched pot. The more I used the slow cooker to make non-traditional, upscale dishes, the more I realized the potential it had.
You can harness this power for yourself. In addition to making life easier, the slow cooker renders tough cuts of meat practically fork-tender, allows natural sugars in many ingredients to caramelize, giving lovely flavor and beautiful color to finish dishes, and leaves you free for the most part from pot watching. Converting conventional recipes to the slow cooker is simple and straightforward if you follow these rules:
1. The easiest and most successful recipes will be ones that call for long simmering, braising, stewing or even slow roasting.
2. Think beyond the dishes usually associated with the slow cooker (chili and beef stew). You can use the slow cooker to make lamb shanks, osso buco and even risotto and dessert.
3. Dredging meats with herb-accented flour, followed by browning oil, before adding to the slow cooker will make a big difference in finished taste and appearance.
4. Resist adding liquid at the start, as foods give up liquid during the cooking process and extra liquid will just dilute the taste.
5. Assume that if you are cooking 2 to 4 pounds of boneless meat it will take at least 4 hours on high or 6-7 hours on low. A whole chicken, cut in pieces, bone in, will take about 3 hours on high and 5 hours on low. Boneless chicken will take about 2 hours on high and 4 hours on low.
6. Since heat settings vary from brand to brand, you should test for doneness after 3 hours of cooking on high or low. The easiest way to do this is to use an instant-read thermometer and consult a chart of desirable cooking temperatures.
7. If you find that there is more liquid than you want at the end of the cooking time, drain it off, or use a bulb baster to add it to a saute pan. Set the pan over moderate heat and reduce the liquid; add salt and pepper to season at the end of the cooking time.
8. Think beyond the more commonly used herbs and spices and consider using lemongrass, ginger or coriander (seeds of cilantro or Chinese parsley) to add a whole range of flavors to dishes.
9. Start with flavorful ingredients, and realize that you will most likely have to add extra spices and herbs toward the end of the cooking time.
10. The addition of caramelized onions will enhance almost every savory recipe done in the slow cooker.