Q. I just bought my first slow cooker and can't wait to use it. What should I know before I start cooking with it?
A. When cold weather (or cooler weather, depending on where you live) arrives, we crave heartier, more substantial meals. That means more long-simmering soups and stews, or maybe pot roast with vegetables, fresh bread, and home-baked desserts.
And what could be easier than throwing the ingredients into a slow cooker in the morning and coming home to a hot, cooked meal? Before you get started, though, here's what you need to know to cook successfully in your slow cooker:
- Slow cookers can prepare just about any type of meal you can imagine, including the accompanying side dishes, breads, and desserts. You don't have to fret over the food; there's no need for constant attention or stirring. (As a matter of fact, unless the recipe states otherwise, you should not lift the lid while cooking because the heat that escapes adds almost another 30 minutes to the cooking time.)
- Slow cookers are ideal for the aforementioned soups and stews, of course, and they're particularly good for dishes that call for tougher, inexpensive cuts of meat. But consider using your slow cooker for side dishes and desserts, too. This is especially helpful if you're entertaining, when your oven may be occupied by another long-cooking dish; in that case, use your slow cooker as another oven or burner.
- To make cleanup easier, spray the inside of the crock with nonstick cooking spray before adding the food.
- Meats will not brown in the slow cooker, so recipes requiring browned meat will instruct you to brown the meat in a skillet before placing it in the slow cooker.
- Slow cooking doesn't lose as much moisture as conventional cooking methods, so -- although you may be tempted -- don't add more liquid to the cooker than the recipe calls for.
- Remember that cooking times in all recipes are approximations. Several factors can affect cooking time -- your slow cooker's idiosyncrasies, how much food is in the cooker, the humidity, the temperature of the ingredients when you add them -- so note that cook times in the recipes are ranges only.
- Don't keep your finished dish in the slow cooker for long. It will continue to cook for awhile, which could overcook the food; then, as the slow cooker cools, the food will not stay hot enough to prevent bacteria growth. Likewise, don't use your slow cooker for reheating; the cooker only gradually reaches cooking temperature, which gives bacteria the chance to grow.
For more information on slow cookers, including recipes, see: