Slow Cooker 101 – Kristen Desmond
I have had the same slow cooker for about 10 years. It is a 6-quart model with an ovenproof ceramic insert, a glass lid, and a simple high/low switch. Intended for long, slow, unattended cooking, these appliances are a great way to prepare soups, stews, steel cut oats, and all sorts of dishes while you work or play. These days, slow cookers range from having the most basic settings (like mine) to boasting all sorts of bells and whistles. Whatever model you select, the benefits are generally the same, as are the tips for using it.
Slow cookers range in size from 2 quarts to 7 quarts. I think most people would be happy with a 6-quart slow cooker, as most recipes are written for that size appliance. Even if you are cooking for one person most of the time, a larger capacity slow cooker can handle a whole chicken, various large cuts of meat, and gives you the flexibility to feed a crowd when necessary. You can always portion and freeze extra helpings for later. If, however, you prefer cooking in small quantities, the 2-quart slow cooker may be just right for you. Just be aware that your ability to make some recipes might be limited by container size.
There are other various elements to consider when selecting a slow cooker. For instance, a glass lid assures you can monitor progress without lifting the cover, and, it is ovenproof. An attractive, ovenproof insert and lid makes it easy to take the finished product from counter to table to refrigerator and to the oven for re-heating. Some models come with digital displays that allow for programming cooking times and levels. Some models have a function where they automatically switch to a “warm” setting once the programmed cooking time is complete. Some slow cookers even offer browning functions and steaming functions.
Typically, ingredients are layered in the slow cooker with long-cooking items like carrots and other root vegetables on the bottom, followed by meat, other vegetables and some liquid. Some recipes call for adding more delicate ingredients, such as rice, pasta or herbs, towards the end of the cooking cycle.
Slow cookers are almost always filled only about one-half to two-thirds of the way full with ingredients. The pot distributes heat evenly and the lid seals all of the juices in place. Not much liquid is necessary, in fact, sometimes very little is called for. Most slow cookers reach a cooking temperature of about 190° (low) to 300° (high). When used according to their directions, they are safe to sit on your kitchen counter for hours at a time, simmering away, while you do other things.
These days, slow cooker recipes are widely available and most slow cookers come with a set of their own. Some recipes call for browning meat or other ingredients before placing them in the pot. If not, I recommend trimming the skin and fat from meat that you use because it will otherwise simply melt into the dish you are cooking (not necessarily in a good way!). Other recipes require nothing more than simply placing a list of ingredients in the pot. If you have a recipe that requires some preparation, but don’t have time for it in the morning, take care of it the night before. Put the prepared ingredients into the slow cooker insert, and refrigerate over night.In the morning, when you get up, take the insert out of the refrigerator and set it on the counter to come to room temperature while you prepare for your day. Once the insert and its contents are at room temperature, you can program the slow cooker and get cooking!
One of my favorite slow cooker recipe is carnitas, a traditional Mexican dish featuring shredded pork. It makes a great filling for tacos, enchiladas, burritos and tamales. What is your favorite thing to make in the slow cooker?
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