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Slow and I, Now We're Fast Friends

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.

· Slow cookers can overcook food. Don't assume that a few more hours of cooking or warming time won't affect a recipe. I learned that the hard way with an overly dry teriyaki chicken dish left on the warm setting for two hours longer than the recipe recommended. In general, large pieces of meat, bean and lentil soups, and chili and stew made with beef or lamb are the most forgiving if you're going to exceed a recipe's time guidelines.

· Go skinless. If you're cooking chicken parts, remove the skin. It just comes off during the long cooking and gets flabby and disgusting.

· About the dump/don't dump debate: It's tempting to just dump the raw meat and the rest of the ingredients into the slow cooker, turn it on and leave, but don't. I'm lazy, too, but it's worth taking 10 minutes or so to brown the meat and saute some of the vegetables (such as onions and garlic) before adding them to the cooker. Not only does it jump-start the cooking process, but the flavor and the finished appearance will be better.

· Remember food safety. I was horrified to read in an online recipe discussion that some people use frozen meat in their cookers, thinking it will safely defrost as the cooker heats up. Uh, no. Frozen meat doesn't heat quickly enough to offset bacteria growth. Always thaw meat or poultry first, according to the government's Food Safety and Inspection Service tipsheet on slow cookers. And here's another tip for those who want to avoid food poisoning: Always brown ground beef first to avoid harmful bacteria. Finally, if you're transporting your slow cooker, don't let your food stay in the unplugged cooker for longer than an hour.

So am I in love with my sleek new slow cooker? After an intense five-month relationship, I'd say we're good friends. A slow cooker is definitely handy to have around, but it has limitations.

For example, only a few dishes can successfully cook for 10 hours or longer while you're away at work without turning into unappetizing mush. A better way to use a slow cooker might be to cook with it on the weekend and then reheat during the week.

Also, the cooker's closed system keeps ingredients moist and allows you to use less liquid to start with, but it also keeps flavors from concentrating, because the water doesn't evaporate. A slow-cooker dish often benefits if you cook down the liquid on the stovetop to thicken and intensify it before serving, a little extra step that's not always mentioned.

Still, I enjoy using my cooker to stock the freezer with soups and stews for reheatable weeknight dinners. And whereas I gave away my original cooker to a long-ago neighbor, this time around I'm giving my current neighbor something better: extra portions of my favorite slow-cooker recipes.

Candy Sagon is a former Food section staff writer who lives in Herndon.

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