In a world of fast food and even faster meal preparation times, the increasing popularity of slow cookers would appear to defy logic. While it has been eclipsed by sexier, high-tech gadgets, the slow cooker remains one of the most popular kitchen appliances today.Slow cookers, or crock-pots, are a perfect appliance to fit anyone's lifestyle!
Original slow cooking enthusiasts were busy, young working people who needed to get good food on the table. Thirty years later, there is a second generation of cooks who are discovering the joy, too.
In fact, since the 1990s, these easy-to-use appliances have enjoyed a phenomenal increase in popularity with sales of over 4 million units in North America last year. (A price point that starts below $20 certainly has been a big help!)
Once you add the ingredients and turn it on, you can forget about it and devote your time to other activities.
Easy does it
Basically, the slow cooker (also commonly referred to as a Crock-Pot -- actually a Rival slow cooker brand name) works by simmering food at a constant, low temperature, which enhances the flavor and texture of some ingredients. The LOW setting allows food to cook slowly at 200 degrees F (90 degrees C), which is below the boiling point, and the HIGH setting cooks food at about 300 degrees F (150 degrees C). (As a general rule, 1 hour of cooking on HIGH equals 2 to 2-1/2 hours on low.)
Slow cooking tenderizes less expensive cuts of meat such as beef brisket, stewing beef and pork, pork shoulder roasts and chops. The lengthy cooking time makes these tougher cuts of meat more tender, and allows the flavors to blend -- resulting in tasty soups, stews, chilies and pot roasts.
How it works
The slow cooker consists of a metal casing with electric heating coil surrounding a heavy stoneware or ceramic bowl. The stoneware may or may not be removable; however, the removable type is generally preferred for ease of cleaning. The stoneware acts as an excellent insulator and keeps the cooking temperature even and low.
As the food begins to heat up, a seal is formed between the stoneware and the covering lid. This keeps the liquid inside from evaporating and virtually eliminates the risk of sticking and scorching. As a result, this means the food doesn't need constant attention, and can be left unattended for several hours.
A variety of shapes and sizes
Slow cookers come in round or oval shapes, and range in capacity from 2-1/2 to 6 quarts. The 2-1/2 and 3-1/2 quart sizes are usually deep and narrow, while 4- and 5-quart sizes are typically wider and rounder.
All are perfect for soups, stews, pot roasts, casseroles and everyday cooking. The large 6-quart size is best for big-batch cooking, for steamed puddings or for recipes that call for larger pieces of meat.
Not always the answer
Although great for many foods, the slow cooker doesn't cook everything well. The secret, as with all appliances, is to use it for what it does best.
- Large tender cuts of meat such as a prime rib roast do not benefit from long, slow cooking.
- Pasta will become very glutinous when added dry to the slow cooker. It is always best to parboil to the tender but firm stage, drain, then add to your slow cooker recipe.
- Fish does not hold up to long cooking times. Because it is so tender, it will fall apart, leaving you with nothing but flaked fish. If a recipe calls for fish, add it only during the last 20 minutes of cooking time.
Make the most of your slow cooker year 'round
While traditionally used during the cold weather months, a slow cooker can be used in warmer weather, when a conventional oven would make the kitchen uncomfortably warm. It will also free up valuable oven space when entertaining or cooking for a crowd. It is also ideal for cooking holiday side dishes -- and you can serve from it.
So whether you're new to the world of slow cookers or just taking another look at what that old wedding present sitting alongside all of the other kitchen tools can do, get ready to discover all the amazing food you can make with your slow cooker!