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Tips on Buying and Using a Slow Cooker

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Hamilton Beach Classic Chrome 5-Quart Slow Cooker

Hamilton Beach Classic Chrome 5-Quart Slow Cooker

Image courtesy Hamilton Beach

Inexpensive and easy to use, a slow cooker could quickly become one of your most-used pieces of cooking equipment. Use these tips on buying and using your slow cooker to get the most out of your slow cooker purchase.

Choosing a Slow Cooker

Slow cookers can range in price from $20 to $150, yet most have pretty similar features. They consist of the base, which contains the heating element, a removable stoneware insert, which is what you put the food in, and a lid, usually glass. The most important choice you need to make when you buy your slow cooker is what size to get. They range in size from tiny cookers that are good for one-person recipes or to use for heating or cooking dips, to large-capacity cookers (6 or 7 quarts or larger) that can prepare stew for a crowd. Keep in mind that many recipes specify the size of cooker needed. If you use a cooker that is too large, you risk burning your food. And, obviously, a cooker that's too small won't hold all of the ingredients. For a family of four, the best slow cooker is probably 3 to 4 quarts.

Slow cooker crocks come in round or oval shapes. The round shapes are best for making soups and stews, and oval shapes are good if you think you'll be making a lot of large cuts of meat, such as roasts or whole chicken.

As for features, the most basic slow cookers are pretty much the same: The controls have a high or a low setting. Many also have a "keep warm" setting, which is useful if you're using your slow cooker at a party and want the contents to stay warm for a few hours, or if you want to keep meals warm for latecoming family members. Some slow cookers also have a feature in which you can program the amount of cooking time, after which the cooker will automatically turn to the "keep warm" setting.

Slow Cookers to Consider:

Learning How to Use Your Slow Cooker

A slow cooker cooks food at a low, steady heat (between 170˚ to 280˚F). The tight-fitting lid creates an enclosed environment that traps heat and moisture. It's an ideal cooking method for tough, inexpensive cuts of meat (the slow and low cooking method makes them fork-tender), long-simmering stews, and beans and grains that require a lengthy cooking time to soften.

Read your instruction manual thoroughly to familiarize yourself with your machine. It's also a good idea to invest in a slow-cooker cookbook, like the excellent Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook for Entertaining, which will give you a wealth of information about the slow-cooking method, and plenty of recipes to try out.

A simple dish like pulled chicken (here's a step by step tutorial for how to make pulled chicken) will be a good first effort if you've never used a slow cooker.

Here are some general rules for getting the best results from your slow cooker:

  • User the proper size of slow cooker for the recipe. The slow cooker should be between one-half and three-fourths full. Filling it too less will burn or dry out your food; filling it too much might cause your cooker to overflow if the food expands during cooking.
  • Cut up vegetables and pieces of meat into uniformly sized chunks so that everything cooks evenly.
  • If you have time, browning chicken or beef in a pan on the stove before putting it in the slow cooker will add a depth of flavor to your finished dish.
  • If possible, turn the slow cooker on high for the first hour of cooking, then turn it down to low (and deduct about an hour from the cooking time given in a recipe if it recommends cooking it entirely on the low setting). This brings food up to a safe temperature (over 140˚F) more quickly.
  • Because the type of slow cooker you're using, your location, ingredients and other factors can affect the speed at which food cooks, start checking your dish for doneness several hours before the recipe suggests. Consult a temperature chart to learn the safe temperatures of cooked meat.
  • Food cooks roughly twice as fast on the high setting as it does on the low setting.

Recipes to Try

Using a slow cooker is easy and gratifying. Once you've learned how to use it, you'll find plenty of recipes for main courses, side dishes, soups and stews that allow you to use this convenient and economical appliance. A slow cooker can even be used to make desserts.

Here are some recipes to start with:

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