Cookbook Review: Slow Cooker Revolution
I recently read that nearly 40% of American households use their slow cooker at least once a week. But in households in most U.S. cities? I suspect it's not so much.
Why so? First, slow cookers, or "Crock Pots" as many of us know them, are slightly hulking appliances and take up precious space in our small city kitchens. And second, cooking in a slow cooker takes a bit of planning and commitment: you can't change your evening plans at the last minute and head out to dinner with friends if you need to rescue that pot of chicken gumbo that's been simmering for 8 hours.
But if you're one of those who either never tried slow cooker cooking, or have one stashed in your basement storage space where it's collected dust instead of being put to good use, or maybe you've tasted one too many slow cooker-made meals and consider them all mediocre -- it's time to reconsider.
That's because of a splendid new cookbook from the folks at America's Test Kitchen. Slow Cooker Revolution (By The Editors at America's Test Kitchen, paperback with color photographs, $26.95) is their manifesto for how to use this countertop appliance to create big flavors for dishes that range from breakfast to main courses to tasty sides to desserts. This book just may convince you to give up precious kitchen space to make room for a cooker.
If there's anyone who can figure out how to get maximum flavor and productivity out of a piece of cookware, it's the team that brings us America's Test Kitchen as well as Cook's Illustrated Magazine, America's Test Kitchen radio, Cook's Country television and magazine, and various other enterprises, including many, many cookbooks. Their prolific output is rather dizzying; sort of like the Joyce Carol Oates of cooking content.
Why This Book Is Useful. And Different.
- This book demystifies how a slow cooker works and why if you use it one way (dump a bunch of ingredients into it and walk away) it produces forgettable results, but if you tweek certain steps (microwave the aromatics first to bloom flavors) or build flavors by using umami-type ingredients like soy sauce or tomato paste (see our link to our article that explains umami). As Christopher Kimball, Founder and Editor of America's Test Kitchen, etc., writes in the book's preface, "We completely rethought this modest home appliance and transformed it from an appliance of convenience to one of almost magical transformation."
- Recognizing that some slow cooker recipes are easier to prep than others, this book's editors have flagged those that need only a minimum of prep time. This is useful if the thought of standing in your bathrobe, chopping onions at 7:00 am while you're trying to get ready for work is not your idea of convenience.
- Unlike the predictable slow cooker meals, this book moves well beyond the expected soups and stews to include such unexpected recipes as stuffed peppers, burritos, risotto, and bread pudding.
- They used 30 slow cookers to test 1,500 recipes that led to the 200 included in the book. So not only are the recipes reliable, something we expect from America's Test Kitchen, but it's also enabled the editors to bring a knowing point-of-view to the entire concept and practice of slow cooker cooking.
- When addressing the issue of how to choose a slow cooker, a matter that can be daunting given the range of styles and prices (from $20 to more than $200), they get specific in explaining how capacity isn't the only feature on which to base your purchase. So if you are in the market for a new cooker, this section alone is worth having the book.
- For the first time in any slow cooker cookbook that I've owned, the editors address the fact that while 350° F can be a standard for all our ovens, there's no such reliable standard for cookers. "Low" or "high" are the only two choices with cookers and these vary with each machine. This is important as you get to know your slow cooker because we often must adjust recipes for the proclivities of our individual machines.
- Perhaps most useful are their tips for ways to avoid that "all slow cooked foods taste the same" criticism. They counsel when to brown meat first, how to use aromatics to boost flavors, how to use thickeners, and why it's usually better to use a low temperature than high. As so often in all our cooking, the small details make a big difference.
The book has 14 chapters. The first is "Slow Cooker 101," full of handy tips for buying and using a slow cooker. Then there are 13 chapters with recipes:
- Soups -- 25 recipes including Portuguese-Style Potato and Kale Soup and Japanese Pork and Ramen Soup. Many others are vegetarian.
- Stews -- 24 recipes such as Chickpea Tagine, plus various kinds of beef stew, including Burgundy, Stroganoff and Goulash.
- Braises -- 26 recipes, 11 made with chicken, and a simplified Cassoulet.
- Chilis -- A slow cooker favorite but here there are 14 different versions made with beef, pork, turkey, chicken, sausage, tempeh, and vegetarian. We've been given permission to share their outstanding White Chicken Chili that uses hominy as a thickener and two kinds of jalapeños for heat; see our link. I made this last weekend for my husband who is not prone to being effusive and after one taste he said, "fabulous." I agreed.
- Barbecue Favorites and More -- 14 recipes that include such favorites as ribs, pulled pork jerk chicken, and a very tempting Fiery Hot Wings.
- Pasta Sauces -- 14 sauces, some hearty with meat, sausage, or chicken, and others that are vegetarian; this is a smart use of a slow-cooker because you can have a sauce slowly cooking on the side leaving the rest of the stove to make the pasta and the rest of the meal.
- Meatballs, Meatloaves, and More -- 14 recipes showcase the versatility of ground meats, including stuffed peppers and Swedish meatballs.
- Enchiladas, Tacos, and More -- This is a particularly useful chapter that has eight recipes for fillings (Shredded Chicken, Shredded Tomatillo-Chicken, Ground Turkey and Chipotle Taco Filling, Sweet and Spicy Shredded Pork Filling, and four others) and then has "Putting Slow-Cooker Fillings to Work" in burritos, tostadas, enchiladas, and Mexican lasagna. Brilliant.
- Casseroles -- 15 recipes plus instructions for how to adapt your slow cooker for the unique needs of casserole cooking, such as using aluminum foil to make a collar or sling to hold ingredients. Recipes range from Chicken Divan to Chili Mac to lasagna.
- On the Side -- With 24 recipes, this chapter is mostly about vegetables and legumes, plus ways to cook rice, including Dixie Collard Greens, Barbecued Beans, Orange-Glazed Carrots for a Crowd, Parmesan Risotto, and an appealing way to make Ratatouille (see our link for this recipe).
- Eggs and Brunch -- Breakfast may not be the first meal we think of when using our slow cooker but with 12 recipes, this chapter will give you four ways to make Irish oatmeal, plus ways to cook eggs, hash, and French toast turned into a breakfast casserole.
- Desserts -- 11 sweet recipes that include Cherry Cobbler, Rice Pudding, Pears Poached in white or red wine, two kinds of chocolate fondue, and bread pudding, including Nutella Bread Pudding (see our link for this recipe).
- Basics -- this last chapter is unexpected and particularly useful, with recipes we may not always think of as made in a slow cooker: strawberry jam; orange marmalade; roasted garlic; broths -- chicken, beef, vegetable; caramelized onions; all-purpose gravy. Some of these are recipes that can take a while to cook, heating up a small city kitchen and holding at least one stove burner hostage. What a great idea to instead use a slow cooker to keep an apartment from over-heating while leaving the rest of the stove available for other cooking.
A few last comments about why I think a slow cooker is worth making room for in our small city kitchens:
I've said this before but I think it merits repeating how a slow cooker gives you a fifth burner for your stove. Making Thanksgiving dinner and need to keep the soup hot while you finish the meal? A slow cooker is a handy solution; you can even warm the dinner rolls in a slow cooker plugged in and sitting in the living room.
While you can certainly slow cook with a stove, doing so will also heat your entire kitchen. But a slow cooker is far less invasive and thus a good choice to use during warmer weather. Moreover, a slow cooker is usually more energy efficient than keeping our stoves or ovens on for hours at a time.
A slow cooker is not the way to cook everything, but it can be a trusted addition to how we make satisfying meals.