Slow Cooker Basics

Time, money, and energy are precious commodities. Imagine an appliance that promises to save you all three and then delivers. You put the ingredients in the machine and that's it. No more standing around, poking your head in the oven to see if the dish is cooked. No more heating up the kitchen or getting the oven dirty. No more using and washing multiple pots and pans. You can let the slow cooker make dinner while you sleep, work, run errands or go to the gym. If you're running late, don't worry: In most cases an hour of extra cooking time won't make much difference. I have used slow cookers for years and have left them on all night or all day long. But if you are concerned about leaving an electric appliance on while you are sleeping or away, then follow your instincts and use it only while you are home and awake.

Choosing a Slow Cooker

All the recipes in my book were tested using Rival Crock-Pots. I prefer this brand because it is nationally available, affordable, reliable and sturdy. The heat is conducted evenly, and the outside metal housing doesn't get as hot as in some other brands. Crock-Pot is a registered trademark of the Rival company. All Crock-Pots are made by Rival, but not all slow cookers are Crock-Pots. Crock-Pots can be found in most department and many hardware stores. They come in solid colors that are much more attractive (to my taste) than the traditional flower, grapes or dancing vegetables motifs.

Is it done yet?

Different brands may cook at different temperatures, so it's important to check for doneness. There are three ways. The first is visual: Does it look done? Is it golden brown or as soft as it should be? The second is textural: Does a knife pierce the food easily? Is the interior of the meat, fish or poultry no longer raw? The third is taste: Does the food no longer taste raw or undercooked? Have the flavors fully developed?

Because things cook for a long time, I usually note the time when I turn on the slow cooker on a piece of paper and put it on the counter. It is sometimes advisable to use a thermometer to test for doneness. The ideal one, made by Poulder, consists of a metal probe connected by a thin metal filament to a plastic base with a timer and a digital temperature readout. You program for the desired temperature and the timer goes off when it is reached. You can insert the probe in the food and run the metal cord out of the pot with the top in place; a vacuum will still be formed. This works best if your slow cooker has a glass lid.

Versatility, thy name is slow cooker

In addition to its usual position in the electric base, the slow cooker's heavy ceramic insert can be used in the microwave, in the oven and under the broiler. That makes it easy to soften or even brown onions and garlic in the microwave before you add ingredients for stews, soups and sauces. You can freeze food right in the ceramic insert and defrost by placing the insert directly in the microwave. (But don't use the plugged-in slow cooker to defrost frozen food.) Top a finished recipe with bread crumbs, biscuit batter, yeast dough, streusel or mashed potatoes, then place the insert in the oven or under the broiler to bake, brown or crisp. Sprinkle cheese over savory dishes or powdered sugar over desserts and run them under the broiler until the topping has melted or caramelized. Again, always check your appliance's manual to be sure it is safe to use in the microwave, in a conventional oven or under the broiler.


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