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Thursday, September 16

The Beauty of Slow Cookers

I've decided to take a break from the instructional stuff, at least for a few hours, and get back to the nitty gritty...FOOD!!  Today, I thought I would address the often owned, but seldom used, Slow Cooker.  Most households have one.  It gets taken out MAYBE once a month to make a meal.  However, this is probably one of the most under-utilized appliances in the nation.

If you're like most, you probably see your slow cooker as a way to start a meal in the morning and have it ready when you get home from work...right?  Well, have I got news for you.  You can cook virtually ANYTHING in one of those handy dandy gadgets!!  Not just soups or stews.....I'm talking bread, desserts, breakfast, even beverages...the list is almost endless!!  I found some great websites with recipes for almost anything you can come up with, and I'll post that later.  But first, let's cover some basics. 

Using a crockpot or slow cooker is very easy; just add the food, cover, turn on low heat and cook all day.  But, how do you choose a good slow cooker?  Well, it's not that hard, really.  You need to start by determining how much you want to cook.  If there's only 2 of you in the house, a 5 quart will handle virtually anything you might come up with.  If you have a larger family, 7 quart would be the minimum.  Seems large, doesn't it?  The reason for the sizes I've mentioned is 2-fold...quantity and quality. 

First, quantity.  See, when you cook with a slow cooker, you shouldn't fill it to the brim...2/3 full is about as much as you want to put in it.  The reason for this is it allows your slow cooker to reach the optimal temperature fastest, which is safer for you and your family.  Ideally, you want the temp of your food to reach at least 140 degrees within the first hour of cooking to prevent bacteria from growing.  Overfilling will slow the heating process down considerably.  Since most slow cookers only have 2 settings...low (200 degrees) and high (300 degrees) have to help it do it's job.

Second is quality.  Typically, your small, cheap slow cookers are flimsy, and don't heat correctly.  But, once you get into the slightly larger volume cookers, you will find a better selection to fit your needs.  Yes, they do cost a bit more, but once you learn what all you can do with it, you'll most definitely get your money's worth from it.  In general, the price range for a decent slow cooker will start at $35 for a 5 quart.  You also would be best served looking at a slow cooker with a removable crock, and you normally can't find those in anything smaller than a 5 quart.  Trust me, the removable crock will be a god-send come cleaning time.  Oh, you CAN get around it...use an oven roasting bag to line the crock, and cleanup is a breeze.  But removable, for me, is the way to go.  As for digital vs dial?  That's your all comes down to what you can afford.

On to cooking.  Many recipes can be converted to cooking in the crockpot. Soups and stews, of course, are natural slowcooker favorites. Casseroles and most meats benefit from the low temperatures and even cooking heat.  Reduce the amount of liquid a recipe calls for, since liquids do not evaporate during crockpot cooking. However, if you are cooking rice, beans, or pasta, don't reduce the liquid called for. You generally need twice as much liquid as product to cook these ingredients. Here are basic conversion times:

  • If conventional time is: 15 to 30 minutes, then cooking time on low should be 4 to 6 hours.
  • If conventional time is 35 to 45 minutes, cooking time on low should be 6 to 8 hours.
  • If convenentional time is 50 minutes to 3 hours, cooking time on low should be 8 to 16 hours.
I generally prefer cooking most raw meat and vegetable combinations at least 8 hours on LOW. This gives the vegetables time to soften, the meat time to tenderize and all the flavors to blend.  Here's some specific cooking tips:
  • For best results, ground meats must be cooked in a skillet before cooking in the crockpot.
  • Seafood should be added during the last hour of cooking time, or it will overcook and have a rubbery texture.
  • Large pieces of meat can be browned before cooking in the crockpot, but this step isn't necessary. Browning does add color and helps in flavor development, though.
  • Cayenne pepper and tabasco sauce tend to become bitter if cooked for long periods of time. Use small amounts and add toward the end of the cooking time.
  • Add tender vegetables like tomatoes, mushrooms and zucchini during the last 45 minutes of cooking time so they don't overcook.
  • Dairy products should be added during the last 30 minutes of cooking time, unless the recipes states otherwise.
  • Liquids do not boil away in the crockpot, so if you are making a recipe that wasn't specifically developed for the crockpot, reduce the liquid by 1/3 to 1/2 unless you are cooking rice or making soup.
  • Stir in spices for the last hour of cooking. They will lose flavor if cooked with the rest of the ingredients for the long cooking period.
  • Surprisingly, vegetables cook more slowly than meats in the moist heat of the slow cooker. So vegetables should be cut or chopped roughly the same size and placed in the bottom of the crockpot.
  • Browning meats helps reduce the fat content in large cuts of meat like roasts. It also caramelizes the sugars in the meat, adding to appearance and flavor.
  • Trim off any visible fat from cuts of meat. Fat will make the dishes cook faster.
  • Most crockpot recipes don't need to be stirred during cooking, especially if cooked on low heat. When you lift the lid, the crockpot loses so much heat that the cooking time should be increased by 20 minutes each time.
Alright, enough blathering...on to recipes!!  The following links have some absolutely fantastic recipes specifically for slow cookers:

Slow And Simple:

Food Network:

Taste of Home:

Best Recipes:

You should be able to find a recipe for virtually anything you want from these links.  In fact, I spied one I'm gonna make for dinner tonight while posting them...haha.  Until next post...ENJOY!!!

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