The Essential Kitchen: Slow Cookers
Buying and Cooking With A Slow Cooker
Slow cookers are very city kitchen friendly. They're perfect for winter meals and useful year-round. If you've never used one, what follows is a primer on buying a slow cooker, how to use it, and some of the best cookbooks on the subject.
Buying A Slow Cooker
Rival is the king of slow cookers. While pottery cooking has been around for centuries, Rival seems to have set the standard for the electric version -- plus they've successfully turned their brand name into mainstream language with the Rival "Crock Pot."
While there are about a dozen slow cooker manufacturers, Rival is in the business in a serious way and they're the dominant brand. Slow cookers can cost as little as about $12 and rise well above $250 (All-Clad's 7 quart Deluxe Slow Cooker has a $400 suggested price), although sales are easy to find.
In terms of functionality, all slow cookers are essentially the same and employ the same technology. The difference in price is primarily due to size or electric features. For example, the least expensive models are completely manual with a knob that simply chooses low, high, or off. Others have an option for "warm" after the cooking is done. Many of the newer models, including the one I bought, let you set the heat level (low or high) as well as a multi-hour timer calibrated at 30-minute intervals. After the time has passed, the cooker will automatically shift to "warm" and keep it there for up to four hours. And the most costly cookers have extras; All-Clad's Deluxe model has an insert made of cast aluminum that can also be used on a stove top.
None of them let you pre-set the start because this would create a food hazard with raw food, notably meat, poultry or fish, sitting at room temperature and developing bacteria. Slow cookers always require a manual start, even if the stop is electronically controlled hours later.
Sizes range from very small, 16-ounce pots that are used as warmers, such as for serving a warm dip, to very large 8-quart appliances. Two-to-three-quart models are available for smaller households but the most popular sizes are five to six quarts. I bought a 5 1/2-quart not because I have a big household; I don't. But buying one a quart or so larger didn't seem to change the price and I wanted its versatility. Five quarts is big enough to hold a rack of ribs, a four-pound pot roast, or a whole chicken. Plus if I'm going to use 6 or so hours of electricity to cook something and go through all the effort to prep the ingredients, I want to get my money and effort's worth, meaning I want leftovers.
The pots come in two shapes: round or oval. In an oval cooker you can more easily fit a whole chicken or odd-shaped pieces of meat like lamb shanks than in a round pot. The cookers have two parts -- the removable (and dishwasher proof) interior ceramic pot and the outside metal appliance. Once you turn it on, the metal outside gets very hot, enough to burn your hand so the pot needs to be placed where children (or adults) won't brush against it during these day-long simmerings. Most slow cookers also have short electric cords as a safety feature, keeping the pots close to the wall.
A reader wrote to me how she's used her rice cooker as a slow cooker, but my research suggests this will be a frustrating substitute because they don't get hot enough; the ideal temperature for cooking rice will not get you good results with ingredients like chicken or beef.
The cookers themselves are refreshingly uncomplicated. Plug it in, set at high or low, and time the clock.
A Rival Adventure
I chose a Rival Crockpot for two reasons: one, they're easy to find and very affordable (if I hated cooking with it I didn't want to lose too much of an investment). And two, I wanted to work with a brand that had been almost singlehandedly responsible for keeping this cooking method in American kitchens. I figured they knew what they were doing.
Before buying I did lots of market research, read tips that were included with the cookbooks I had begun to gather, and did the usual asking friends (only one had a slow cooker) and scanning Google. Bed, Bath & Beyond's web site had a 5 1/2 quart Rival Crockpot with a timer and automatic thermostat that would turn to warm when the cooking was done. It was very attractive with a stainless steel exterior and black ceramic pot. And it was $29. Since I live within walking distance of one of their stores I called to see if it was also available there but learned this was a web-only deal on a discontinued model. A few mouse clicks and two days later I was making my first slow cooked pot roast. Back to that in a moment.
After making three dishes in my very pretty crock pot, I began to notice how recipes that were supposed to take six to eight hours on "low" were in fact cooking in three and I called Rival for advice. Without much of a detour I quickly reached a human being, a lovely woman named "Tanya" who patiently listened to my virgin crock pot experiences. After asking me to read her a code that was stamped onto the prongs of the pot's electric plug, she responded with, "Dear, it sounds like something is wrong. Why don't you just let us send you a new one." It was that simple. No shipping the malfunctioning one back. No fussing. No arguments. No paperwork. Tanya guided me to a web site that had about 30 Crock Pot models with the instruction to choose anything I liked. Five days later UPS delivered me a brand new Crockpot, plus it was a newer model!
When was the last time you had a customer service experience like that?
The Technique of Slow Cooking
I always considered slow cookers as good for only a few dishes. Chili, soup, and maybe pot roast, recipes in which ingredients would just be thrown together and essentially abandoned for eight hours.
But in fact this is not the case. While slow cooking is the direct opposite of 30-minute meals, they still require some preparation and some "technique" to get the maximum flavor from the slow, moist cooking.
So what does the slow cooker do that your oven cannot? Well, nothing really. So if we can cook the same way with our stoves, why use a slow cooker -- especially in our small city kitchens that don't have room for non-essential appliances?
Here's what I've already come to appreciate about having a slow cooker:
- While we can use our stovetops and ovens for braising, or a long, slow roast at a low temperature, only the slow cooker gives us such gentle heat, delivered through convection. The metal casing surrounds the ceramic container -- the "crock" -- and the cover keeps the moisture inside the cooker. Temperatures are lower than what we usually use in our ovens; about 185° F to 200° F when low, and 250° F to 300° F at high.
- I can cook a slow braise without heating up my entire apartment from having the oven on for three hours. Yes, the cooker will be on for six or seven hours (three or four if I set it to high) but it's not blasting heat as my oven does.
- Because the heat is so gentle, you can cook for hours without overcooking.
- It gives me a kind of second oven. I can be cooking a stew in the slow cooker while using my oven to bake a dessert or roast vegetables.
- If I'm entertaining and making a multi-course meal, the slow cooker lets me keep food warm when I've made it in advance -- at a perfect temperature that doesn't continue to cook it. For example, if I'm going to serve a soup or little meatballs in sauce, I can plug the slow cooker in anywhere and keep things warm while freeing up my stovetop to finish cooking the meal.
- It's best for inexpensive cuts of meat, such as chicken thighs, chuck roasts, pork shoulder, lamb shanks, and sturdier vegetables like beets and potatoes that benefit from long, slow cooking. If you're more carefully managing your food budget, buying cheaper cuts of meat and poultry and cooking them in a slow cooker can mean interesting flavors and satisfying meals at a lower cost.
- It's unexpectedly well suited for cooking dishes that have far more complexity than chili. For example, it's perfect for rice pudding, cassoulet, pulled pork, or tagines (the tagine's distinctive hat-shaped pot is intended to create and return moisture to what's being cooked, exactly what a slow cooker does). And this coming summer, when the Greenmarkets are full of local, in-season, big flavor-low cost fruits, I'm going to use it to make jams and preserves.
What can't a slow cooker do? You can't brown in one. As Andrew Schloss, author of the wonderful Art of the Slow Cooker, wrote, "In cooking, brown is not just a color. It is a flavor…." That is why most slow cooker recipes begin with browning in a skillet plus pre-cooking some of the ingredients that will develop better flavor if you get them a head start with more heat. Like onions and garlic, or blooming spices on the stove top first. This pre-cooking also helps kill any bacteria that may be on the surface of the food.
If you want to start a recipe in the morning and leave it cooking while you head off to work for 8 or so hours, you still have to do some cooking and prepping to get it going. This takes a bit of time. And only you can decide if browning meat and slicing onions is something you can face at 7:00 a.m.
Slow Cooker Tips
- This may be self-evident but put the bigger ingredients or the items that you think will take longer to cook (that big piece of chuck versus the sliced carrots) on the bottom and the quicker cooking foods on top.
- Don’t preheat the pot. Add the ingredients to the cold pot, some of which will be partially cooked or browned, and then turn it on, cover it, and set the timer.
- Soon after you turn on the cooker you'll see the glass cover will steam up. This condensation is a sign that it's working right.
- Some say you should resist lifting the lid because this causes an immediate drop off in temperature, defeating the machine's slow, steady, low heat cooking. But I was learning and couldn't resist peeking and saw that the cooker got quickly back to its pre-lifted-lid state. Besides, lifting the lid is how I figured out my machine was cooking too fast. Giving the contents a bit of a stir or using tongs to move the larger ingredients around is also a good idea since electric devices sometimes have hot spots and one side of your pot may cook a bit hotter than the other.
- If you want to use a slow cooker in its most iconic way -- meaning setting it before you leave for work so that you can come home to a pot of white bean and lamb stew -- practice a few times first by making recipes and watching the progress closely while you're still at home. That way you can confirm your slow cooker is functioning correctly.
- Don't fill a slow cooker to the top. Every cookbook I read said that you'll get the best results when it's filled one-third to three-quarters. Fill it less and things may burn; overfill it and everything may not completely cook.
Slow Cooking Cookbooks
Being a complete slow cooker novice, I needed help. I began at the major recipe web sites and found that AllRecipes was particularly useful, probably because this database is filled with recipes submitted by home cooks, especially ones from across the heartland where slow cookers aren't as exotic as they are in city kitchens. It has an entire special slow cooker section, complete with tips.
But I wanted to learn from chefs and food writers who had developed some practice and expertise in adapting complex recipes to be made in slow cookers. I worked with six slow cooker cookbooks. They're all different but each is outstanding:
Art of the Slow Cooker (Chronicle Books, paperback, color photos, $24.95) by Andrew Schloss may have been my favorite because it inspired me and as a beginner, it coached me with a very supportive voice. With very appealing photography by Yvonne Duivenvoorden, it has an excellent range of recipes and is full of helpful advice, tips and an extremely useful introduction with basic information about buying a slow cooker. A favorite feature is a chart that details the basic preparation, precooking and slow cook time (both at low and high) for about 50 mainstream ingredients.
Its 80 recipes are very appealing. For example, "Corn Chowder with Jalapeño," "Barbecued Pork Ribs," "Vegetable Tagine," "Slow-Roasted Beets with Walnut Gremolata," and "Chocolate Pudding Cake." We've been given the generous permission to reprint both the chowder and tagine recipes.
Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook (Harvard Common Press, paperback, no photographs, $18.95) by Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann and Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Recipes for Two (Harvard Common Press, paperback, no photographs, $12.95) by Beth Hensperger are both excellent choices for their recipe diversity and also the tips and instructions throughout the books. I particularly like how Beth Hensperger's recipes are healthy and in these two volumes, many have international flavor and inspiration.
The first book has 350 recipes, including "Our Best Pot Roast with Roots," the very first recipe I made in my new Crock Pot. It was motivating to have my premiere dish be such a success. It was as good a pot roast as I've ever made. I also liked their "Italian White Beans with Pancetta," a recipe that confirmed how dried beans are a perfect match for slow cookers. The publisher has been generous in giving us permission to reprint both recipes. The second volume was written specifically for home cooks with smaller households using smaller cookers. It has some very appealing recipes, like "Chipotle Black Bean Vegetable Soup," 10 different chilies, and "Pork Tenderloin with Rhubarb," all made in a smaller cooker, usually one that has a one-and-a-half to three-quart capacity.
The $7 A Meal Slow Cooker Cookbook by Linda Larsen (Adams Media, paperback, no photographs, $9.95) has 301 recipes and was written by a "Pillsbury Bake-Off recipe tester." These recipes sometimes use processed ingredients like canned soups, jarred salsa and frozen French fry potatoes. But nonetheless, the recipes are mostly easy, many are appealing, and once you get the hang of your cooker, you can easily make fresh substitutions for the canned or frozen stuff. Recipes include "Beef With Broccoli," "Chicken Wheatberry Casserole," and "Vegetable Barley Stew." I like how each recipe is noted with the approximate price to make the dish, plus nutritional details on calories, fat, sodium, carbohydrates and protein.
The Gourmet Slow Cooker and The Gourmet Slow Cooker Volume II (Ten Speed Press, paperback, color photographs, $18.95 each) are by Lynn Alley and these are the most elegant of the cookbooks I worked with. The first is subtitled, "Simple and Sophisticated Meals from Around the World" and Volume II is "Regional Comfort Food Classics."
These volumes inspired me to cook the more complex and sophisticated recipes and not fall back to easy stews or soups. My one squabble with both of Ms. Alley's books is her practice of including whole spices in their un-ground form. For example, recipes will call for a stick of cinnamon that you're then instructed to grind to a powder. It's not clear if it's a big stick or a little stick and if you don't have a spice grinder, you're left to your own calculation as to how to substitute powdered cinnamon. Same for every other spice -- cumin seed, fennel seed, whole cloves, etc. To be fair to Ms. Alley, this kind of commitment to best ingredients is emblematic of her refined and creative use of the slow cooker. Just anticipate that you'll either need to get a spice grinder to be prepared to use your best judgment on how to make substitutions. Her recipes include "Chicken and Dumplings," "Artichoke Risotto," "San Francisco Cioppino," and "New England Baked Beans."
Adding French Technique to A Slow Cooker
So much of the appeal of slow cooking is its simplicity. But you may still be disappointed with the result if too many corners are cut. My primary complaint during this maiden voyage was how every cookbook used the addition of flour as a way to create sauces and gravies. In each of these six cookbooks, nearly every recipe for a stew or braise says to toss the meat or poultry in flour before browning, sometimes adding even more flour to the mixture before the slow cooking begins. One veal stew recipe I tried called for a half-cup of flour for about 3 pounds of veal. That's a lot of flour. Regardless of the meat or poultry and no matter how much flour was used, every time I tried this method the result was unpleasantly gummy.
I experimented and instead of using the authors' coat-with-flour-at-the-start method, I used a technique I learned in culinary school that will let you get that gravy you want, but without the gumminess or lumps. It may sound fancy but in fact is very easy -- plus it lets you control the result.
The technique is called beurre manié and here's how it works:
- Follow your recipe to make your stew or pot roast or tagine in your slow cooker but completely omit any flour.
- The cooking liquid, whether it's added stock, wine, water or just the juices from the meat, will be clearer and broth-like throughout the cooking because you'll have eliminated the flour.
- When the dish is finished cooking, take the meat and any big ingredients out of the pot, and leaving the cover off, turn the heat up high to make the liquid come to a gentle boil.
- In a separate little bowl combine equal amounts of flour and unsalted butter; two tablespoons of each is a good amount. Use your fingers to rub the flour and butter together to make a crumbly paste-like mixture (you can do this ahead of time and keep it chilled).
- When the liquid in the slow cooker is bubbling, start adding bits of the paste, about a teaspoon at a time, and using a whisk or wooden spoon, stir rigorously so that the flour/butter paste dissolves into the liquid. The butter melts and the flour gets added to the liquid without any lumps. [Remember this method when you want to make Thanksgiving gravy with turkey stock.]
- Keep adding the beurre manié paste into the hot liquid until it develops the gravy-like appearance that you want. Want it thicker? Add more. It won't turn into a custard or get overly thick but it will develop that gravy-like viscosity. Add the other ingredients back into the pot to stay warm until serving.
With this method the foods that have cooked in the slow cooker will not have become coated in a pasty surface and yet you will transform a broth into a sauce, making it more appealing but retaining a clearer yet still rich taste.
So add a little French technique to the all American slow cooker. It's another way to explore how to fit cooking into your every day life while still enjoying special and satisfying meals.