Slow Cookers: They're Hot Again

By: Sara Elliott

Put some spice into dinner with an easy-to-use slow cooker. See more easy weeknight meals pictures.
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If you're wrestling with the guilt of too many trips to the drive-through, investing in a slow cooker may be the solution you're looking for. If your 40 hour work week has stretched into 50 hours or more, the idea of making a home-cooked meal has probably lost its luster. Admitting defeat and settling for supersized fries and a burger (or pizza, Chinese food or fried chicken) may seem like the easy and practical choice, but you can do better. Remember Rosie the maid in the Jetsons cartoon series? All she had to do was push a button to get dinner on the table, and even though Rosie is probably conspicuously absent at your house, a slow cooker is one effective way to revolutionize meal prep and bring sanity back to dinnertime.

Using a slow cooker carries a surprising number of benefits: You probably don't need anyone to tell you that eating out or ordering in on a regular basis can get expensive. Slow cookers do a great job of making a few ingredients go a long way. They can also make the most of inexpensive cuts of meat and all-vegetable dishes. Employing a slow cooker will give you more control over the foods your family eats, too. Don't like the idea of your kids dining on preservatives and stabilizers? When you buy prepared foods or packaged mixes, you invariably run into the problem of ingredients added to make foods more shelf stable. They may not be dangerous, but there's something very reassuring about assembling meals using ingredients you recognize, trust and can actually pronounce.

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Slow cookers are a bit like Rosie the maid, too. They do the work while you, like good old George Jetson, zoom off to work -- sans the space car. You add the ingredients to the slow cooker in the morning, set the timer, and dinner is ready when you get home hours later. It can be that easy. One pot cooking is fuss free. There's limited cleanup, and you can often just refrigerate the liner (inner pot) with the leftovers right inside.

Slow cookers aren't just for stews and casseroles, either. More than 16 percent of U.S. households use slow cookers to get a jump on dinner at least a couple of times every month, and they're making lots of different dishes in them. Whether you're interested in a fancy fondue or a dessert cobbler, a slow cooker can do the honors with very little supervision. Once you've discovered a few recipes you like, using a slow cooker can become a routine that's as familiar as shouting an order into the speaker at the fast food joint -- but a lot better for you -- and less expensive -- and more fun.

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Ideas for Slow Cooker Recipes

Slow cookers aren't just for making simple stews. You can make breakfast, appetizers and even desserts in them -- and pretty easily, too. In fact, the prospect of multiple one-pot fancy dishes may justify buying a couple of slow cookers to have them working side by side to create a feast from soup-to-nuts (as they used to say), while you're enjoying the occasion in the living room with your family and friends.

We love the idea of preparing old-fashioned soups and stews in a newfangled tool that makes the process so easy. It's no accident that granny's recipes are often primo comfort foods. The best soups and stews are cooked on low heat over a long period of time to flavor and thicken the broth. Before so many women worked outside the home, it wasn't a big deal for the cook to pop into the kitchen to check the pot every hour or so. Today's slow cookers are very effective stand-ins for granny -- in the kitchen, anyway. We have some classic slow cooker soup and stew recipes to offer that are completely delicious, smell amazing and are inexpensive to make, too. It doesn't get much better than that.

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  • Slow Cooker Beef Stew
  • Slow-Simmered Jambalaya
  • Slow Cooker Cheese Soup
  • Slow-Cooked Southwest Turkey Tenderloin Stew

While you may think using a slow cooker is a great way to make chili or red beans and rice, don't forget that slow cooking creates a moist environment that's perfect for your frittata and dumpling recipes, too. You can make moist and tender cakes in a slow cooker as well as steamed puddings, poached foods and even preserves. It's great for sauces, pasta dishes and rice dishes. It's also a natural for short ribs and barbecued wings. Heck, you can even cook a turkey breast in a slow cooker.

While you're contemplating your first (or next) foray into cooking foods low and slow, these tips will help:

  • Use your own recipes - Many conventional recipes can be adapted for use in a slow cooker. Although it may take a little experimentation, start by reducing the liquid requirement in your recipes by half. Remember, the moisture will circulate throughout the cooking process, so you'll need less. You can always add additional liquid later.
  • Use cheap cuts of meat - The harder a muscle works, the tougher it gets. That's one reason why meat from older animals is chewy. Slow cooking helps unlock the deep rich flavor in these tougher, cheaper cuts, but doesn't reduce them to mush. The result is a fork-tender consistency and a broth filled with dissolved connective tissue that creates a velvety texture.
  • Brown meats before adding - Although this is an extra step, browning meats in a little oil before adding them to your slow cooker helps seal in flavor and maintain the texture.
  • Add canned or frozen vegetables late - Canned vegetables are precooked, so they just need to be warmed up. To avoid soggy, squishy veggies, try adding them to your dishes within the last hour to half-hour of cooking (depending on size and volume). If you're using frozen vegetables, defrost them before adding them.
  • Add tender fresh vegetables last - You can load up the pot with all the veggies for your stew or soup and the result will taste OK, but vegetables like mushrooms, scallions and bell peppers don't need to cook as long as tomatoes and potatoes. Adding them an hour or so before serving will increase the visual appeal (they'll hold their color better), and improve the texture of your dish.
  • Add dairy at the end - Just because you're using a slow cooker doesn't negate all the rules you learned about stovetop cooking. If a recipe calls for cheese, sour cream, half-and-half or heavy cream, add it at the end.
  • Invest in a meat thermometer - You want your recipes thoroughly cooked but not overdone. Using a meat thermometer to test for doneness is one reliable way to get it right every time.

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Slow Cooker Tips

Slow cookers come in two pretty distinct configurations: electronic and mechanical. Electronic models are typically somewhat more expensive, say between $100 and $250. They have the added advantage of being programmable, though. This means you can preset the time and any temperature drops, like from high heat to low heat to warm. This can be a pretty nice deal if you're not sure when you'll get home. The warm setting will keep the dish ready and waiting until everyone meets up at the table. The other option is a simple mechanical model that can shift from high heat to warm, say, but a person will have to do the honors, since the slow cooker won't do it automatically. If you can use a cell phone, you can program an electronic slow-cooker, but if you're buying for a technophobe or someone who doesn't want all the bells and whistles, and you want the lowest price possible, go with a mechanical unit.

There are a few other features you should consider before you buy:

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  • Dishwasher safe - You probably want a slow cooker to save you effort in the kitchen, so make sure cleanup will be simple by purchasing a unit with a dishwasher-safe pot.
  • Oven safe - Although slow cooking ingredients is safe, reheating refrigerated leftovers in a slow cooker isn't. To serve an encore performance of last night's scrumptious meal, choose a slow cooker with a liner you can pop into your oven for safe reheating.
  • Stovetop safe - Some recipes recommend browning meats before slow cooking them. If your slow cooker has a stovetop-safe liner, you can use it to brown ingredients as well as slow cook them, saving you having to drag out -- and clean -- a skillet.
  • Locking lid - Replacement lids for slow cookers can be pricy, so it's always nice to make sure that the lid stays where you put it. If you plan on transporting your meals outdoors or to potluck gatherings, spending a little more for a model with a hinged, locking lid is a good idea.

After you get your slow cooker home, there are some things you can do to hedge your bets for meal prep:

  • Be prepared - Quick preparation at mealtime comes down to good planning. If you're loading up the slow cooker for poker night's chicken wings, get everything together the evening before. That way, the 10 minutes you allow yourself to get the slow cooker going in the morning won't turn into a mega-disaster.
  • Get the proportions right - You know it's important to get recipe proportions right, but slow cookers typically have a recommended capacity you should pay close attention to. It will be listed in the instructions and recommendations. Under-fill the pot and you may overcook your meal; over-fill it and you could be creating the right breeding conditions for nasty bacteria. Slow cooking is typically safe, but be sure to read the operating instructions before you make your recipe choices.
  • Leave the lid in place - If you had an aquarium or a terrarium as a kid, you know that self-contained environments are precisely balanced. The universe inside a slow cooker is like that, too. Condensation forms on the lid and then slowly drips back into the pot, helping to maintain a moist environment and reinforce the seal around the lid. When you pop the lid to take a quick peek, you undermine that delicate balance. Tampering can result in a dried out meal or one that isn't finished on time. Save yourself the headache, and leave the lid alone during cooking. Everything's okay in there. Take our word for it. If you do have to fiddle with the lid to stir or add ingredients, add a few minutes to the cooking time to balance out the heat loss.

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Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Atkinson, Catherine and Jenni Fleetwood. "Slow Cooker One-Pot & Casserole." Hermes House. 2005.
  • Consumer Reports. "Slow Cookers Convenience is Key." (10/24/11). http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/appliances/kitchen-appliances/slow-cookers/slow-cookers/overview/slow-cookers-ov.htm
  • Light Cooking. "Slow Cooker Classics." (10/24/11). http://www.cookinglight.com/cooking-101/techniques/slow-cooker-classics-00400000001101/
  • Meyer, Hilary. "7 Tricks for Better Slow-Cooking in Your Crock Pot." Eating Well Magazine. 10/20/11. (10/24/11). http://www.eatingwell.com/blogs/healthy_cooking/_7-tricks-better-slow-cooking-crock-pot
  • Neill, Marilyn. "Crock-pot Cooking." Golden Press. 1975
  • The City Cook. "The Essential Kitchen: Slow Cookers." (10/24/11). http://www.thecitycook.com/cooking/advice/essential_kitchen/000016
  • Tjader, Aimee. "Slow-cookers are Getting Hot." 10/24/11. (10/24/11). http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/homegarden/132319193.html

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