The slow cooker is a versatile appliance, suited for a variety of foods.

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Slow Cooker Know-How

Q. What are the advantages of using a slow cooker to prepare food?

A. Who can resist the sensuous delights of a slow-simmered stew, barbecue, or leg of lamb slow-cooked until it's meltingly tender? Slow cooking remains a hot trend in food, and it seems slow cookers were invented for winter. They do a superb job preparing hearty, fulfilling foods when the temperature drops: pot roasts, thick stews with vegetables, bubbling soups, sauces and meats.

The slow cooker is a versatile appliance that's just as suited to vegetarian foods as it is meat and poultry, everyday meals, and entertaining occasions. You can make hearty, healthy dishes for the whole family the "throw-'n'-go" way: Simply add ingredients to the slow cooker, get on with your day, and come home to a kitchen filled with tempting aromas.

The slow cooker, which is essentially an electric pot with a stoneware insert, can do what no oven or stovetop burner can: cook food at consistently low and even temperatures for what might be as long as 10 or 12 hours. Dinner cooks while you're out.

Flavor is one of the big advantages to meals you cook in the pot. You can get a deeply flavored meal at the end of an 8- or 10-hour slow simmer. Time-saving is another reason for the slow cooker's popularity. Plus, they're practical: Since a slow cooker holds up to five quarts, you can definitely plan to have leftovers.

There is planning involved, however. The pot is perfect for cheaper cuts of meat that need long, gentle cooking to become tender: beef short ribs, brisket, pork shoulder, and lamb shanks. Fish and dairy products, however, don't fare as well; both will break down during the cooking. Chicken can get mushy, too, so pay strict attention to cook times for chicken recipes.

Always put vegetables in first. Vege­tables take longer to cook than meat does, so for layering purposes, start with vegetables, then meat, and finally seasonings and small amounts of liquid. To prevent overcooking, fresh dairy products, pasta, or instant rice should be added during the last 30 minutes of cooking time, or as your recipe directs.

For more information on slow cookers, including recipes, see: