Although slow cookers are typically brought out in the fall, when hearty soups and stews are in order, slow cookers are the ideal summertime appliance – perfect when you don’t want to turn the oven on, and are too busy in the great outdoors to spend much time in the kitchen cooking dinner.
Of all the kitchen appliances out there, it seems slow cookers are the ones people have the most questions about. What kind to buy? What can I do with it? And as always, there are myths to debunk. We consulted Phyllis Pellman Good, a New York Times bestselling author whose slow cooker cookbooks have sold nearly 10 million copies, who answered some common slow cooker questions.
5 Tips for Using Your Slow Cooker: A Friendly Year-Round Appliance
by Phyllis Pellman Good, author of Fix-it and Forget-it Cookbook: Revised & Updated: 700 Great Slow Cooker Recipes
1. What to buy.
A good standard size for a household of four is a 4-quart slow cooker. If you often cook for more, or you like to prepare sizable roasts, turkey breasts, or chicken legs and thighs, you’ll want a 6-quart cooker.
For parties or buffets a 1 1/2 to 2-quart size works well for dips and snacks.
Cookers which allow you to program “On,” the length of the cooking time, and “Off,” are convenient. If your model doesn’t include that feature, you might want to get a digital appliance timer, which gives you that option. Make sure the timer is adequate for the electrical flow that your cooker demands.
A baking insert, a cooking rack, a temperature probe, and an insulated carrying tote are all useful additions offered with some models. Or you can buy some of them separately by going to the manufacturers’ websites.
2. Learn to know your slow cooker.
Some newer slow cookers cook at a very high temperature. You can check the temperature of your slow cooker this way:
Place 2 quarts of water in your slow cooker.
Cover. Heat on Low 8 hours.
Lift the lid. Immediately check the water temp with an accurate thermometer.
The temperature of the water should be 185°F. If the temperature is higher, foods may overcook and you should reduce the overall cooking time. If the temperature is lower, your foods will probably not reach a safe temperature quickly enough, and the cooker should be discarded.
3. Maximizing what a slow cooker does best.
Slow cookers tend to work best when they’re two-thirds full. You many need to increase the cooking time if you’ve exceeded that amount, or reduce it if you’ve put in less than that.
Cut the hard veggies going into your cooker into chunks of about equal size. In other words, make your potato and carrot pieces about the same size. Then they’ll be done cooking at nearly the same time. Softer veggies, like bell peppers and zucchini, cook faster, so they don’t need to be cut as small. But again, keep them similar in size to each other so they finish together.
Because raw vegetables are notoriously tough customers in a slow cooker, layer them over the bottom and around the sides of the cooker, as much as possible. That puts them in more direct contact with the heat.
There are consequences to lifting the lid on your slow cooker while it’s cooking. To compensate for the lost heat, you should plan to add 15-20 minutes of cooking time for each time the lid was lifted off.
On the other hand, moisture gathers in a slow cooker as it works. To allow that to cook off, or to thicken the cooking juices, take the lid off during the last half hour of cooking time.
Use only the amount of liquid called for in a recipe. In contrast to an oven or a stovetop, a slow cooker tends to draw juices out of food and then harbor it.
Of course, if you sense that the food in your cooker is drying out, or browning excessively before it finishes cooking, you may want to add ½ cup of warm liquid to the cooker.
Important variables to remember that don’t show up in recipes:
- The fuller your slow cooker, the longer it will take its contents to cook.
- The more densely packed the cooker’s contents are, the longer they will take to cook.
- The larger the chunks of meat or vegetables, the more time they will need to cook.
4. Debunking the myths.
Slow cookers are a handy year-round appliance. They don’t heat up a kitchen in warm weather. They allow you to escape to the pool or lake or lawn or gardens — so why not let them work for you when it’s hot outdoors. A slow cooker fixes dinner while you’re at your child’s soccer game, too.
One more thing – a slow cooker provides a wonderful alternative if your oven is full – no matter the season.
You can overdo food in a slow cooker. If you’re tempted to stretch a recipe’s 6-hour stated cooking time to 8 or 10 hours, you may be disappointed in your dinner. Yes, these cookers work their magic using slow, moist heat. Yes, many dishes cook a long time. But these outfits have their limits.
For example, chicken can overcook in a slow cooker. Especially boneless, skinless breasts. But legs and thighs aren’t immune either. Once they go past the falling-off-the-bone stage, they are prone to move on to deeply dry.
Cooked pasta and sour cream do best if added late in the cooking process, ideally 10 minutes before the end of the cooking time if the cooker is on high; 30 minutes before the end of the cooking time if it’s on low.
A working slow cooker gets hot on the outside – and I mean the outer electrical unit as well as the inner vessel. Make sure that curious and unsuspecting children or adults don’t grab hold of either part. Use oven mitts when lifting any part of a hot cooker. To prevent a slow cooker from bubbling over, either when its sitting still on a counter, or when its traveling to a carry-in dinner, fill the cooker only two-thirds full.
If you’re going to exceed that limit, pull out your second slow cooker (what – you have only one?!) and divide the contents between them.
The above is an excerpt from the book Fix-it and Forget-it Cookbook: Revised & Updated: 700 Great Slow Cooker Recipes by Phyllis Pellman Good. © by Good Books (www.GoodBooks.com). Used by permission. All rights reserved.
A bit more about Good: her cookbooks have also appeared on the USA Today and Publishers Weekly bestseller lists. She is the author of Fix-It and Forget-It Lightly: Healthy, Low-Fat Recipes for Your Slow Cooker; Fix-It and Forget-It 5-Ingredient Favorites: Comforting Slow- Cooker Recipes; Fix-It and Forget-It Recipes for Entertaining: Slow-Cooker Favorites for all the Year Round, and Fix-It and Forget-It Diabetic Cookbook: Slow-Cooker Favorites to Include Everyone (with the American Diabetes Association), all in the series. She and her husband, Merle, live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.