Slow cooking made simple: tips and recipes for using a slow cooker

Looking for a quick and easy way to get a delicious dinner on the table? Try slow cooking. It seems illogical, but slow cookers and similar countertop appliances offer terrific time-saving ways to make simple, satisfying dishes. Plus, slow cookers can be used to make a remarkable array of dishes, from braised meats to irresistible desserts.

Using these devices couldn't be simpler -- just fill them up with all your yummy ingredients, select the appropriate setting, and let them work their magic for the next several hours. In other words, you pretty much can't mess it up. That said, we've come up with a list of helpful tips, as well as new additions to our slow-cooker recipe collection.

From Lynn Alley's two-part series, Gourmet Slow Cooker: Simple and Sophisticated Meals from Around the World and Gourmet Slow Cooker, Volume II: Regional Comfort-Food Classics, we're featuring two slow-cooker classics as well as two very unique ways to use this versatile appliance. We also have five fabulous new recipes developed exclusively for Epicurious by cookbook author Melissa Clark.

Slow cooking offers a wonderful opportunity to experiment in the kitchen. Try adapting some of your favorite recipes -- you may find you like them even better this way. To get you started, we've compiled guidelines to help you select recipes and make adjustments, plus a list of recommended recipes.

Get the most out of your slow cooker. Below are tips and recipes for successful slow cooking every time.

Keep it convenient

Make the slow cooker fit your schedule. Prepare a recipe in the morning and let the slow cooker work all day. Or, get everything ready the day before, cover and refrigerate overnight, and wait until morning to start slow cooking.

Use fresh ingredients

Avoid using frozen ingredients, especially meat and poultry, which take longer to cook and can disturb the overall timing of a recipe.

Stock the crock the right way

For best results, the slow cooker should be half to two-thirds full. When making soups and other dishes that need to simmer, leave a two-inch gap between the food and the top of the slow cooker. Place ingredients that take a long time to cook -- root vegetables and large cuts of meat, for example -- on the bottom of the slow cooker so they have maximum heat exposure. More delicate items, such as rice, pasta, dairy products, and certain vegetables, should be added during the last hour of cooking.

Keep the lid on, stir sparingly

In general, keep the lid securely on the slow cooker to avoid heat loss, which slows down cooking. However, it's ok to occasionally lift the lid and stir. In fact, if your slow cooker has hot spots, stirring can be helpful.

Season later, not sooner

Slow cooking tends to mellow seasoning so be sure to taste your dish to see if you need to add additional salt and pepper at the end of cooking. Better yet, wait until cooking is nearly complete to season your dish. It's also a good idea to add fresh herbs near the end, as they have a tendency to blacken when cooked for any length of time.

Be careful when baking

Baking in a slow cooker can be tricky, but it's possible. Be sure to grease the crock before adding ingredients, and halfway through baking, lift and rotate the insert to ensure even cooking.

Recipes:

Chicken Paprikash with Sour Cream

Flemish Beef Stew

Barbecue Pork Shoulder

Spicy Chickpea and Spinach Curry

Cardamom and Lemon Rice Pudding

Simple Poached Salmon

Provencal Chicken Stew

Potato, Cheddar, and Chive Soup

Chocolate Chip Cookies

If you enjoy slow cooking, the good news is that you're not limited to recipes specifically created for slow cookers.

Recipes by Melissa Clark and Lynn Alley


Lauren Salkeld is an Assistant Editor at Epicurious.com. She has also worked at Bon Appétit, Chocolatier, and Pastry Art & Design magazines. She is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute's Classic Pastry Arts Program and has worked for New York's Bruno Bakery and at the DeGustibus Cooking School, as well as the Houghton Mifflin corporation. Her favorite foods include oysters, bacon, grilled cheese, mangos, and ice cream; she detests fennel.




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