Getting to Be Fast Friends With My Slow Cooker

Start a pot of Chipotle Black-Bean Vegetable Soup at breakfast and it'll be ready by lunch.
Start a pot of Chipotle Black-Bean Vegetable Soup at breakfast and it'll be ready by lunch. (By James M. Thresher For The Washington Post)
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By Candy Sagon
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Cook dinner while you sleep! Cook dinner while you're away at work! Cook dinner while you run errands, schlep the kids, plow the back 40 and re-caulk your bathtub!

It's the siren song of the slow cooker, and I have finally succumbed. Up to now, I felt like just about the only American who didn't own one. About 83 percent of American kitchens contain a slow cooker, according to the 2008 Kitchen Audit by market research firm NPD Group, meaning cookers are as common in our homes as coffee makers, says NPD's Peter Goldman.

It makes sense. Slow cookers are a multi-tasker's dream, burbling away on the counter while we're off doing -- whatever. I mean, who wouldn't want to come home at the end of a tough day to a house full of mouthwatering aromas and dinner ready to serve?

Plus, slow cookers take cheap, tough cuts of meat and braise them into tender, aromatic submission. And they use less electricity than ovens do. Perfect for these lean economic times.

Slow cookers were introduced in 1971 by Rival, which dubbed its squat little appliance the Crock-Pot. Since then, a host of other companies have also begun making slow cookers at prices that range from about $20 for a simple model to $280 for a top-of-the-line unit from All-Clad.

So why haven't I owned one all these years? A mild case of shortsighted stubbornness. I had been given one the approximate size of the Hindenburg when I got married many years ago. I thought it was a tad large for just two people, so I gave it to a neighbor. Besides, I had a nice, heavy Dutch oven that I figured would work just as well.

But we grow, we mature, we burn the chili, things become clearer. Plus, the current models of slow cookers do everything but drive you to the market to buy the groceries.

You can now find programmable slow cookers with capacities from 1 1/2 to seven quarts and optional features such as containers that can be used on the stovetop, an oval shape to better fit a whole chicken or large roast, a temperature probe and lockable lids to make the container safely portable.

Since I bought my new five-quart, programmable cooker (a $40 model from Hamilton Beach), I've been experimenting, and this is what I've discovered:

· It's easy to convert traditional recipes to slow-cooker versions. Just follow this simple rule from Betty Byrne, test kitchen manager of Hamilton Beach: For every 30 minutes of cooking time in a traditional recipe, cook one hour on high or two hours on low in the slow cooker. (For example, a soup recipe that calls for an hour on the stovetop needs two hours on high or four hours on low in a slow cooker.) Because there's little to no evaporation with slow cookers, reduce by about a third the amount of liquid called for in a traditional recipe.

· If they're newer, they're hotter. Because of food safety concerns, slow cookers today heat up faster and cook at higher temperatures than ones bought a decade or more ago. Andrew Schloss, author of "Art of the Slow Cooker" (Chronicle, 2008), found that low settings on newer cookers reach 185 to 200 degrees, while the high setting heats at 250 to 300 degrees. Settings on older machines generally are 15 to 20 degrees lower, and the machines heat up more slowly. If you have an older slow cooker cookbook and a new machine (or vice versa), you will have to adjust the timing in your recipes.

· Yes, you can peek (once). For years, manufacturers have warned us not to lift the lid during cooking, but Natalie Haughton, author of "Slow & Easy" (Wiley, 2008), says that's a bunch of bunk, and I basically agree. Don't do it while the cooker is heating up (it will slow the process), but it won't hurt to uncover for a quick stir midway.

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