Thursday, September 13, 2012

Tools and Tips: Slow Cooker

Boiling Water Added to Beans


If my apartment caught fire and my kitchen were engulfed in flames, guess what I'd rescue first?

Not the precious collection of vintage Blue Cornflower CorningWare. No, not the lovely sets of nesting Pyrex Cinderella bowls. And I definitely wouldn't rescue the slow cooker! I'd rescue Boyfriend Javelin, of course. As to how a fire would manage to engulf the entire kitchen unnoticed - that's a question best left unanswered...

But the real point of this story is that if you lined up all my kitchen appliances and asked me to choose only 3 (because you enjoy making me cry), I would never choose the slow cooker. I would grab the bread machine first, then I'd grab the food processor, and after many longing stares and a tearful goodbye with the ice cream maker, I'd finally choose the stand mixer. I wouldn't even glance at the slow cooker.

Granted, your priorities may be very different from mine and so a slow cooker may be your kitchen hero. I completely understand. In fact, I'm about to devote the rest of this post to extolling the virtues of a slow cooker (and even explain why it's the loving way to go). But before I convince you to run to the closest Walmart and plunk down cash for your very own slow cooker, remember this first:

There's nothing you can make with a slow cooker that can't be made without a slow cooker.

Covered Slow Cooker

That being said, a slow cooker is a marvelous kitchen tool for just about any lifestyle. It's versatile, energy efficient, time-efficient, easy to use, and cheap (unless you buy the high-end All-clad programmable beasts that might one day develop artificial intelligence). Slow cookers are perfect for making big batches and can feed an entire family from just one pot (if you had the foresight to invest in a large capacity slow cooker). Slow cookers can even simplify your life by taking the stress out of dinner prep - you can load everything into the pot the night before, start the slow cooker when you get home from work, and have dinner waiting when you get back from soccer and football practice.
  • Less Energy: Sure, you could roast that beef tenderloin in the oven but you'll have to waste money preheating the oven (not to mention all the wasted heat-loss energy when you open and close the oven door). The slow cooker can handle that same tenderloin using a lot less energy (around 50% less energy according to some claims). That's because rather than heating a cavernous oven, slow cookers use just enough electricity to keep the cooking insert hot. Newer slow cookers with tighter fitting lids and adjustable thermostats can be particularly efficient. So do your wallet (and this planet we all share) a favor and use a slow cooker.

    Chicken Thighs and Leeks Hot
     
  • Less Tending: Who wants to slave over a stove, stirring and scraping and flipping and turning and basting? Or hovering over a hot oven, checking the tenderloin every 10 minutes? With a slow cooker, there is no slaving or hovering or tending - everything goes into the slow cooker, turn it on, and walk away for at least 3 hours (typically more like 4-6 hours). Since you won't be busy tending pots and pans, you'll have more time to spend with your loved ones - like running the kids to soccer and ballet, vacuuming out the car for your better half, volunteering at the church bazaar, tutoring your chemistry-challenged 16-year-old on homework, and picking up flowers "just because". The slow cooker is another secret to finding more time for love.

    Tulips
     
  • More Leftovers: Leftovers make any dinner a breeze and with a slow cooker you will always have left overs thanks to big-batch capability. A slow cooker works best when filled approximately 3/4 of the way to the top, so with a 5 quart slow cooker, you could easily make 4 quart batches of your favorite meals. Which will almost certainly mean leftovers. And with all the leftovers keeping your fridge and freezer amply stocked, you'll be free to spend less time prepping dinner and more time expressing love in other ways - soccer, ballet, vacuuming, volunteering, tutoring, flowers (and calling your mom because she misses you)...

    CorningWare Pyroceram Slow Cooker
     
  • More Options: You're making Swedish meatballs for a potluck at work - so you load everything into the very portable slow cooker and let the meatballs heat while you complete the powerpoint slides for your boss. OR, you're sautéing on the range, baking cookies in the oven, trying to keep tabs on what your 4-year-old is doing in the living room, and you need to cook a pot of beans for tomorrow - so you throw the beans and water into the slow cooker, turn it on, and then dash into the living room to check on your 4-year-old. OR, your partner's ravenous great aunt is coming into town with an estimated arrival time between 3 PM and 8 PM - since you want dinner to be hot and ready when the persnickety dear soul arrives, you keep chicken soup with dumplings warm in the slow cooker for 5 hours. Options, glorious options.

    Red & Black Beans
But you could condense all these benefits for owning a slow cooking into just one: more love. By spending less on energy, you'll be able to save more in the bank to better provide for your loved ones' futures. And by spending less time tending pots and pans, you'll have more opportunities to spend quality one-on-one time with those closest to you. And with more leftovers, you'll always have an easy homemade dinner ready to reheat so you never have to bust out those premade shortcuts.

So if love has you itching to own a slow cooker, go for it. Just don't be duped into thinking slow cookers are magical cauldrons that will fix effortless meals. Like most appliances, they're most useful when you understand their limitations.
  • Saucy is Best: Slow cookers love liquids so stews, soups and saucy dishes work particularly well in a slow cooker - especially if you plan to walk way for 3 or more hours without checking. However, anything that thickens as it cooks or is heavy on cheeses will be troublesome for slow cookers - cheeses break down into oil and fat over time and the fat may end up burning around the edges of the slow cooker. Food such as oatmeal will gradually dry out and burn if left unattended. And without sufficient liquid, rice will stick unmercifully.

    Seasoned Beans in Slow Cooker
     
  • There's Always Prep: Slow cookers can't eliminate prep work - you still have to scrape the carrots, peel the onions, sear the meat, chop herbs, measure ingredients, etc. So while you may not have to hover over hot pans or peek into the oven every 5 minutes, there's still a time commitment, even with a slow cooker.
     
  • Too Slow, Too Fast: The genius of slow cookers is that you can walk away for hours without checking the progress of the food you're cooking. But sometimes you just need to get dinner on the table and you don't have 6 hours to cook the tenderloin - sorry, the slow cooker can't help. And sometimes you won't be home for at least 10 hours and the chicken thighs will be over-cooked by 8 hours - so unless your slow cooker has an auto-off feature, you'll be eating stringy chicken at the end of a long day.
     
  • Bell Curve: If you're disappointed by anything less than perfectly cooked steak, the slow cooker will disappoint. If you're an al-dente pasta aficionado, the slow cooker will disappoint. If you crave deliciously roasted, never-mushy vegetables, the slow cooker will disappoint. The slow cooker delivers squarely on convenient meals with average flavors and textures - so be happy and don't invite picky palettes to dinner.

    Slow Cooker on High Setting
If you're still itching for a slow cooker, here is a short list of things to consider before opening your wallet for a shiny new appliance. 
  • Oven-Safe Insert: Believe it or not, you may want to use your slow cooker insert in the oven such as to brown a topping, speed up the cooking process, or even to quickly reheat an already prepared meal. So I strongly recommend buying a slow cooker with an oven-safe insert. If you want your insert to be truly versatile, pick one that can be used on the range, in the oven or under the boiler. I recently picked up a vintage CorningWare slow cooker with a pyroceram insert that's safe for range, oven, broiler and microwave.

    Pyroceram Slow Cooker Insert
     
  • No Non-stick Coatings: If you're going to spend the time creating a home-cooked meal with your slow cooker, why infuse it with chemicals from non-stick coatings? Besides, many of these coatings can end up peeling or chipping off over time - which means you will need to eventually replace the insert entirely. And if that weren't enough, many of these coatings are not truly dishwasher safe so you'll end up hand-washing these inserts. For all these reasons, I recommend avoiding all non-stick coated inserts.
     
  • Tight-fitting Lid: You want a slow cooker with a tight-fitting lid (or at least a heavy lid) so that less steam can escape during cooking. A tighter lid that effectively traps steam can dramatically reduce the cooking time (by an hour or more) - so closely examine the lid and fit. And if you plan to transport food in the slow cooker (especially by car), I recommend selecting a slow cooker with a lockable lid.

    Slow Cooker Tight Fitting Lid
     
  • Bigger is Better: One of the big advantages of using a slow cooker is that you can prepare big batches of food with minimal fuss and lots of leftovers. Of course, to enjoy big batch convenience, you'll need a slow cooker with plenty of capacity. I recommend selecting a slow cooker with at least 4 quart capacity - the two slow cookers I own are 5 quart and 5.5 quart capacity and I've never needed to exceed this capacity.

    5.5 Quart Capacity Slow Cooker Insert
     
  • Multiple Settings: You don't need to spend hundreds of dollars on fancy LED back-lit menu screens - but you may want to invest in a slow cooker with 3 or more heat settings for optimal control of how fast your food cooks. Some options you may want to look for include: 1) at least 3 heat settings (warm, low, high), 2) programmable timer, and 3) auto-switch to warm setting

    Closeup of Slow Cooker Settings
And of course, one last reminder before you part ways with your cash: There's nothing you can make with a slow cooker that can't be made without a slow cooker. Ok, now you know - and I need to go put out the fire in the kitchen.



8 comments:

  1. Anneli (Delicieux_fr)September 13, 2012 at 7:41 AM

    I just bought my friend a slow cooker and she was a little perplexed, I shall forward her this post which covers everything so well! She has just had a baby and I thought it would make her life easier - my slow cooker can be a godsend. Great post x

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  2. this is an interesting gadget. I have never seen it before. Looks like something I could do with. I am a bit old fashioned when it comes with kitchen appliances!

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  3. mjskit @mjskitchen.comSeptember 13, 2012 at 3:36 PM

    I found your 3 keepers interesting. I just sold my breadmaker and food processor in a garage sale because they were collecting dust. :) I would choose my immersion blender, regular blender and pressure cooker! I don't have a slowcooker and, even though you provide a VERY convincing argument for getting one, I probably won't be buying one. My next appliance and the one that is coming soon - an ice cream maker!!!!! Can't wait! A great tutorial on the slowcooker my friend!

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  4. I really am very fond of my slow cooker(s) and I'd recommend them to anyone with a busy schedule or kids :) So I'm so pleased you enjoyed the post and thanks so much for sharing with your friend. I hope she will find the slow cooker useful in time...

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  5. If you like to prepare food in advance or if you just want an extra prep tool, I recommend a slow cooker. But if you've got a small kitchen and you prefer hands-on cooking, a slow cooker could be a waste of money :)

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  6. I love hearing what appliances other cooks use in their kitchens - I really do use my food pro all the time for a so many things (grinding parmesan, making bread crumbs, pastry dough, etc). And of course the bread machine I love for obvious bread reasons ;) What's funny is that I don't even own a pressure cooker (although I'm familiar with them as I grew up with my parents' old one) and I only occasionally use the immersion and standard blender. Although, if I had one of the "wide base" blenders (rather than the tapered funnel shaped kind), I feel I might use it more frequently... Then again, I have a Ninja that's kind of a cross between a blender and a food pro, so... lol And I'm so glad you're thinking about an ice cream maker - I highly recommend the cuisinart...

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  7. I really do love having an electric oven. Especially when I do the spaghetti sauce, but I have been known to place a 30 lb brisket and slow cooking that puppy! Great tips as usual! :)

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  8. I'm afraid of a slow cooker, I fear I'll burn down the house, I know I'm silly, I wish I wasn't though,afraid. Silly is okay, I guess? I've had meals made in it that were really delicious. It is just 2 of us and I mostly cook 2 different meals, as we both have different diets. So I guess I don't really need it but it would be nice to come home and have a meal ready. Though now that I think about it, I think a friend had in college and we used it all the time, we even made bread pudding in it. It was so good. I really enjoyed looking through all your tips and tools section.

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