The Art of the Slow Cooker

Slow cookerFor busy professionals who want the frugality and quality of home-cooked food, the slow cooker can be a true lifesaver. However, most of the cookbooks out there have all sorts of weird requirements and usually end up seeming unusable or being as complicated as preparing a meal in the evening, somewhat defeating the purpose of using a slow cooker in many cases. So the slow cooker winds up gathering dust in the cupboard.

The truth is it doesn’t have to be this way. A slow cooker can be a very simple and incredibly effective tool in the kitchen of any busy professional. Here are a few items to help you get started with cooking with a crock pot.

Selecting A Slow Cooker

As with anything, you get what you pay for with a slow cooker. As a rule of thumb, the bigger ones have much more utility, but they may be overkill if you live alone and can’t foresee yourself making a large batch of soup or a large meal with it. Here are the two models I’m familiar with – both are quite nice, but one is my clear favorite.

Rival 3735WN 3.5 Quart If you live alone and have never tried a slow cooker before, this is the one I recommend. I used an older version of this for my first slow cooker when I was a single man, but this one seems superior to it, with a removable crock (meaning you can pull out the pot inside of it and put it on your table for serving food). Very simple settings and it holds plenty of food for one or two people.

KitchenAid KSC700SS 7 Quart This is the best slow cooker I’ve ever used, but you’re going to pay for it. It has all of the features of the above slow cookers, except that the exterior barely gets warm (let alone hot) and there are a bunch of extra settings. Time and time again, I’ve found the “buffet” setting to be wonderful when you’ve finished cooking the meal but want it to sit out for a while and keep warm while people serve themselves over time (such as at a large party). This is the slow cooker I recommend the most, though it is pricey.

Getting Started

Don’t have any idea what to cook? I’d recommend starting off with one of the spice packets sold in the grocery store, usually near the soup mixes. McCormick’s slow cooker packets are quite good for what you pay for, and the recipes usually involve dumping in the packet and four or five ingredients, turning it on low, and walking away for eight or nine hours. If you need to be away longer than that, add a quarter cup of additional water to the mix.

If you don’t have access to such packs, here’s the simplest really tasty recipe I know of for a slow cooker.

1 can condensed cream of chicken soup (chicken & herbs if you can find it)
1 small can mushroom pieces (a 4 ounce can, drain off the water first)
1/2 chopped red onion
1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breasts (cut into strips if you’d like)
1/4 cup white wine (optional)

Put them all in the crock pot. Turn it on low. Walk away for four hours. For every additional two hours it will cook, add a quarter cup of water.

Want more recipes? There are tons of great slow cooker recipes all over the place on the internet. I recommend searching Google for dishes you like plus the phrase “slow cooker” to find some interesting ones.

Five Big Tips

If you need to cook a recipe longer than the recipe calls for, add water. Just a small amount; a quarter of a cup or so per extra hour and a half of waiting. The best benefit of the slow cooker is the “steam” effect inside of it, and adding more water prolongs this effect, meaning your food won’t dry out (the biggest danger with leaving the food in the crock pot for too long).

Don’t fill it more than two thirds full. If you do that and something heats up in an unexpected way, you will have spillage and it will be messy. If your current slow cooker basically requires you to fill it up near the brim, you need a bigger pot – the one above is a great one.

Don’t fill it less than one half full. This isn’t a hard and fast number, but I’ve found if you fill it less than that, you regularly run into issues where all the liquid has steamed off and you’re left with a brown, crusty mess. Cook extra and save it for leftovers.

If it’s juicy, remove the lid and turn it on high. If your dish is nearing completion and it’s juicier than you’d like, remove the lid and turn the slow cooker on high for the final half hour. Your kitchen will smell tremendous and the juices will thicken up nicely.

Don’t put anything frozen in the cooker unless a recipe explicitly says to do it. Frozen foods (for me at least) wind up with a weird texture, plus they slow down the heating process of the food inside. You want the cooker to get to a safe temperature fairly quickly (safe temperature being about 55 C or 140 F) and frozen foods will slow this down drastically.

Slow cookers really make cooking at home much easier. If you follow these tips, the food should be quite delicious as well. We love our slow cooker and almost couldn’t live without it.

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