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1. My team of testers used various slow cookers, from the smallest, which holds about 3 cups, to the 5 1/2-quart oval, which quickly became my favorite. Although it's not necessary to own more than two sizes, you might consider having a smaller model (3- to 4-quart) for chutneys, sauces and recipes that will feed about four people and a large machine, such as the 5 1/2-quart, for entertaining.
2. Once you've placed ingredients in the slow cooker and turned it on, it is neither necessary nor advisable to lift the lid to stir the mixture. The steam generated in the cooking creates a vacuum that seals the lid. Every time you open the lid some steam and heat dissipate, which can prolong the cooking time. Some recipes do instruct you to stir halfway through the cooking time or toward the end, but otherwise it's best to leave the lid in place.
3. Take care not to fill the insert so much that the lid doesn't fit tightly. Without a tight fit a vacuum will not form, and that can dramatically affect cooking time.
4. It's very important to clean the insert completely between uses. Built-up food stains are impossible to remove. I often put the inserts in the dishwasher (check your slow cooker's instructions to be sure it's dishwasher-safe).
5. Avoid placing the hot insert directly onto a very cold surface. The shock could make it crack.
6. When cooking at high altitude, be sure to allow an additional 30 minutes for each hour of cooking time specified in the recipe. Legumes typically take twice as long to cook at high altitude as at sea level.
7. Cooking on the low heat setting generally -- but not always -- takes about twice the time of high heat.
8. Because there is no evaporation during cooking, there may be excess liquid in the insert at the end of the cooking time. If so, drain it into in a small saucepan and simmer until it has reduced to an appropriate amount. It's important to add seasonings after this reduction takes place, since reducing the liquid will intensify the taste.
9. Condensation will form in the lid. To avoid dripping the condensation onto the food, always lift the lid gently, straight up, without tilting it, until it is away from the insert.
10. Browning meat and some cuts of poultry before placing them in the slow cooker adds immensely to the finished flavor. Dredging them in flour before browning thickens the cooking liquid into a sauce that needs only to be skimmed of fat and seasoned before serving. While some foods will brown during the cooking process (particularly if they are not submerged in liquid), they will not develop the same color and flavor that they get when browned first on the stovetop. If you can find the time for this step, the results are worth the effort.
• Find delicious slow cooker recipes in the Recipe Finder.