Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Skinny on Slow Cookers

As promised, my cousin Kevin gives us all some important information about slow-cookers and why you should buy one immediately:

Growing up, your mom probably called it a crock pot and used it to keep sweet and sour meatballs or hot roast beef warm when you had the family over for a party. But times, they are a changing, and these days, the slow cooker is all the rage. Whether you're prepping for an intimate gathering of friends or just cranking out dinners for the next few weeks, slow cooking can be a simple – and delicious – way to compliment your culinary arsenal.

These days, slow cookers (or if you insist, crock pots) come in all shapes, colors and sizes. They also come in a dizzying array of configurations with features great and small. Each chef will have to decide what's ultimately going to work best for them, and how much cash they want to lay out for a piece of the slow cooking frenzy, but regardless of your make and model, the core features remain very much the same. At the very least, a good slow cooker should come with three settings; low, high and warm. This seems frighteningly simplistic, but at the end of the day, these are all you will need to make 99% of the slow cooker recipes out there, or to Dr. Frankenstein your own tasty creations.

I've been a slow cooker convert ever since I moved out of the family nest. There are a host of reasons to fall in love with your slow cooker, but for me, it's about convenience. I love to cook, and thanks to blogs like this one, I'm not half bad. But it's a rat race out there, and – stop me if you've heard this one – who has the time? After a long day at the office, I often find myself reluctant to do much more than toss a frozen pizza in the oven and be done with it. This is where the beauty of the slow cooker comes in; you can easily do all the prep work the night before and refrigerate your chopped, sliced, etc, ingredients and combine them before you head to work in the morning. Your dinner will simmer away while you're at the office, and when you get home, you're greeted with the aroma of a hot, ready-to-eat dinner. You may encounter those who believe leaving a slow cooker unattended is a safety hazard, but if you take a quick trip on the Google, you'll find that these cookers are actually designed for this very thing and are quite safe.

Another advantage to slow cooking is the simplicity. The majority of the "cooking" in slow cooking is chopping, cutting and other prep work with veggies and meats. You may be asked to brown ground meats prior to slow cooking, but the effort is usually very minimal and the results can be outstanding.

As you probably surmised, I could go on and on about slow cooking. Instead, here are the five things you need to know to get starting on your slow cooking adventure.

1. Slow cooking is not baking. Baking is very much a science, with precise measurements and highly specific ingredients being crucial to the success of the final product. Slow cooking is very much the opposite. I'm not saying you can throw any combination of ingredients in there and expect a gourmet dinner, but slow cooking recipes are malleable. For instance, I like to maintain a low cholesterol diet, so any time I encounter a recipe that calls for ground beef, I substitute ground turkey or chicken instead. The same can be said for most veggies as well. If your soup calls for a lot of celery, but you're not a big fan, toss in some carrots or zucchini instead. Just be sure that your substitutions are like-products; putting in a head of lettuce in place of a pork chop is not going to end well.

2. Slow cooking is, well, slow. The process is great because it really draws the flavors out of meats, vegetables and spices. However, for this very reason, exercise caution when seasoning your slow cooker creations. It's very easy to over do it with a spice or seasoning and overpower the other flavors in the recipe. This goes double if you're using fresh spices or strong flavors, such as red pepper flakes.

3. The slow cooker can also be a help with your wallet. One of the advantages of the slow cooker is that it can turn inexpensive meats that are otherwise tough to cook into delicious dishes. If you've ever seen that package of meat at your local grocery store labeled "Stew Meat" and wondered what that was about, now you know. These cuts are tough and would not work for traditional methods, but the low, continuous heat breaks down the fats in these meats, making them tender and very tasty.

4. It's true what they – size matters! I'm talking about the capacity of your slow cooker, of course. As I mentioned, slow cookers come in a variety of sizes, ranging from 2.5 quarts all the way up to larger models at 6 quarts or more. When selecting a recipe, note the amount of servings it produces and be sure it will fit in your model. If a recipe is particularly large, cut back the full list proportionally and you should be good to go.

5. There are a million and one slow cooker recipes out there. When slow cooking, you will certainly never want for more recipes and ideas to whip up at home. I recommend searching the internet for recipes – it helps to start with a single ingredient and go from there, otherwise you'll encounter a sea of recipes that will be tough to sift through. There is also no shortage of slow cooking cook books out there. While I'm sure there are many good ones, if you're truly serious about mastering the fine art of slow cooking, locate a copy of "Fix-It and Forget-It" by Phyllis Pellman Good (aka the slow cooking Bible.) This collection of recipes is second to none, and comes from a wide variety of everyday folks, so the selection is fantastic. The book also comes in a number of variations, including an edition for cooking light and another for those with diabetes. If you want to really walk on the wild side, you can pick up "Fix-It and Forget-It Big Cookbook," which features a selection of 1,400 recipes from all of the published editions.

So now you're armed with enough knowledge to start down the road to slow cooking glory. Whether it's a hearty bean soup, a three pepper pasta sauce or a Tex-Mex corn chili, slow cooking offers a little something for everyone in a simple, budget-conscious and of course, delicious way.

Fav recipe (pefect for upcoming summer months)

Southern Pulled Pork

2 lb pork roast (leaner is better)
1 medium/large vidalia onion, chopped
1/4 cup of dark brown sugar
1.5 cups of BBQ sauce of your choice
Salt & Pepper to taste

Place pork roast in slow cooker with about 1/2 inch of water in the bottom of the dish and cook on low for 8-10 hours, high for 4-6 hours or until pork is tender. Once meat is tender, remove the pork roast and shred on a cutting board using two forks. Drain any remaining water from the slow cooker and place shredded pork and other ingredients into slow cooker - cook 1 hr on high and enjoy.

Bonnie's Notes:

For your information, Kevin owns the Rival 5.5quart, Smart-Pot Crock-Pot Slow Cooker, which was also rated the Consumer Reports "Best Buy" (meaning the best functionality at the best price). Here's what Kevin has to say about his model:
"It's runs about $50, and could be considered a 'higher end' model because of the timing feature, which is why I like it. Once it completes cooking on high or low for the set time, it automatically switches to warming (which is good if you set it up and then go to work.)"

Thank you, Kevin, for all your slow-cooking wisdom! If you have any questions for Kevin, please let me know and I will pass them along.

1 comment:

  1. Bonnie! I noticed its been awhile since you have posted something so I was hoping you could give us some information and cooking for 2. Most recipes I find are for at least 4 and as a single girl I always end up wasting food!