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Slow Cookers: A Timeless Appliance for All Cooks

Fine Cooking Issue 56
Photos: Scott Phillips
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I opted for a small, untraditional wedding, not knowing there would be a price to pay—not one Crock-Pot in the gift cache. Fortunately, my sister went big when she’d married the month before, acquiring not one but three slow cookers, and she was glad to share. I’ve since had a few years to work with this nifty appliance. And while my slow cooker—Crock-Pot is a registered brand name of Rival—might go unused for weeks at a time, when it’s put to work, the results (and the convenience) are remarkable. Whether I’ve spent the day in the office or doing yard work, there’s nothing like coming home to find dinner in my slow cooker, hot and ready. What makes a slow cooker so useful is its ability to cook low and slow, hovering around 200°F on a low heat setting. This is hard to replicate on the stovetop without babysitting and adjusting the burner. And most home ovens aren’t that accurate under 250°F, a temperature so gentle that you’ll hardly see a stew burble. A slow cooker works its best magic on tough cuts of meat. The moist, gentle heat melts the rubbery collagen in the connective tissue of the meat to a forktender texture. Here are some of my favorite candidates for my slow cooker:

Beef: Anything from the chuck, including arm and shoulder roasts, as well as brisket, shanks, short ribs, and bottom round cuts (see the recipe for pot roast).

Pork: Any shoulder cuts, including shoulder blade roast, picnic, and Boston butt.

Lamb: Shoulder cuts and-shanks.

Chicken: Cut-up parts are the best bet for a slow cooker, I’ve found that a whole chicken heats up too slowly. Also, remove the skin before cooking, as it will get flabby, never crisp.

Dried beans: Cooking these in a slow cooker is a real convenience. It’s great not to have to constantly check the water level and heat. The extended cooking  time lets flavors gradually marry, always a plus for chili, stews, soups, baked beans, and other flavored bean dishes.

Editors’ choice

Smart-Pot Crock-Pot
6-quart capacity
$39.99
www.crockpot.com 

We tested a handful of different slow cookers. Our favorite was the latest model from Rival.

If you start a pot roast in the morning but get tied up late at work, you can rest assured your meal won’t be overcooked with this programmable slow cooker. You can set it to cook for 4 or 6 hours on high or 8 or 10-hours on low. When the time is up, the cooker automatically adjusts to a warm setting until it’s turned off. A version of the Smart-Pot exclusive to Williams- Sonoma lets you choose the heat level and any number of hours before the appliance switches to the warm setting—but for that convenience, you’ll need to pay another $30 ($69.95 total).

Tips for using a slow cooker

  • Avoid removing the lid during cooking. Stirring isn’t usually necessary, but if you do need to lift the lid, you may need to add 15 to 20 minutes to the cooking time, depending on how much heat is lost.
  • To monitor the internal temperature of meats, use a thermometer probe that connects to a readout base with a thin filament. Polder  makes a timer with a digital themometer probe that snakes into your slow cooker for a convienient way to check when your roast is done. Kitchen Emporium sells it for $25.49.
  • Don’t tilt the lid as you remove it. Gently lift it straight up to avoid spilling condensation into the crock and diluting the cooking liquid.

What to look for when buying a slow cooker

Cookware stores tend to carry a limited selection of slow cookers. Your best bet is to look in a general housewares store or even a well-stocked hardware store. While you’re shopping, be on the lookout for these features:

Side heating elements. I prefer slow cookers with heating elements housed within the unit’s side walls rather than the base so that, like an oven, heat surrounds the food. Unfortunately, most slow cookers don’t indicate this on-the box.

A “warm” setting. Once the power is off, the ceramic crock doesn’t hold heat well. So this setting is ideal for when the food is done but you’re not quite ready to serve it.

A power light. Amazingly, most slow cookers don’t have this feature, which is too bad since the dials can easily be turned off if they’re nudged inadvertently.

Size. Consider how you’ll use the cooker—will you want to make enough for many servings or just a single meal? For the pot roast recipe, which serves four, a 6-quart slow cooker is ideal. Keep in mind that the cooker works best when it’s filled at least halfway.

Shape. Think about what kind of food you’ll be cooking. We’re partial to oval cookers, which easily fit roasts, long ribs, and other odd-shaped cuts.

The lid. The lid (preferably glass) should fit snugly and without gaps where it rests on the crock insert, so that steam can’t escape. A little side-to-side wiggle room is fine.

Removable inserts. Most models now have removable ceramic crock inserts, which make cleanup a-lot easier. Some are even dishwasher safe. Also, look for inserts with handles that are easy to grip with potholders.

Adapting recipes for a slow cooker

If you pick up a cookbook dedicated to slow cookers, you’ll find many, many foods that you can cook in one. You can even “bake” a chocolate cake. For cakes and other recipes you’d never identify with this appliance, you’re best off following a recipe designed especially for a slow cooker, preferably the exact model you own (the heat intensity varies among brands and models). On the other hand, regular recipes that call for slow simmering, braising, or stewing are well suited to a slow cooker. Here are some tips for adapting these types of recipes to your slow cooker:

Brown meats and poultry in a skillet on the stovetop before adding them to the cooker. This boosts flavor, adds color, and renders fat.

Use the low heat setting for tough cuts. Turning the heat to high will shorten the cooking time but won’t deliver nearly as-tender results.

Root vegetables are slow to cook through, so cut them into pieces no larger than 1 inch and put them in the bottom of the pot so they’ll be surrounded by hot liquid.

In a covered slow cooker, liquids have no place to evaporate and foods release yet more liquid as they cook. If you have excess liquid at the end of the cooking time or if the flavor is diluted, simmer the liquid in a-saucepan (straining if necessary) until it has the consistency and flavor intensity you want.

Add more fresh herbs and spices to taste at the end of cooking (and after reducing the liquid, if-needed) to boost flavor and freshness.

Avoid adding milk, cheese, or sour cream to a recipe until the last hour of cooking. With the exception of processed cheeses, dairy products will separate with long cooking. Evaporated milk is-a safe substitute.

Upgrade an old cooker

Smart-Part Programmable Module
$19.99
www.crockpot.com

If you already own a slow cooker, you can buy a Smart-Part module, which lets you program heat levels and cooking times. Plug your slow cooker into the module and then plug the module into an electrical outlet. There are three settings to cater to the model of slow cooker you have, and the heat and time settings are the same as for the Smart-Pot Crock-Pot. To determine the setting for your machine, the manual lists the model numbers and corresponding settings for Rival Crock-Pots. It also includes instructions for other brands, as long as they’re rated 400 watts or less.

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