Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough are the authors of The Great American Slow Cooker Book, which features 500 easy, everyday recipes that can be made in any size slow cooker. Each recipe includes ingredient lists for 2- to 3 1/2-quart, 4- to 5 1/2-quart, and 6- to 8-quart cookers, so you can use this book no matter which model you buy or already own.
In writing this hefty recipe collection, Weinstein and Scarbrough have become experts in the art of slow cooking. And an art it is. Yes, slow cooking is just about the easiest way to get dinner (not to mention breakfast, lunch, or dessert) on the table, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some nuances. Eager to discover the finer points of using this wildly popular kitchen appliance, we spoke to Weinstein and Scarbrough who gladly shared their expertise.
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What to Look for When Shopping for a Slow Cooker
Weinstein and Scarbrough recommend buying a slow cooker that has the “warm” or “keep warm” option, preferably one that will keep your food warm for at least two hours. “Given the nature of slow cooking—set it up and walk away to do other things—it’s great to be free from a strict time for dinner,” they explain. Also: Be careful not to over-use the warm function. It’s not safe for actual cooking and should only be used to keep food warm.
A second and “very high-end feature,” the authors recommend is the stovetop-to-cooker insert. It’s a removable insert that can go directly on the stovetop for browning and then right into the cooker for slow cooking.
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Be Careful With Booze
"Because a slow cooker works at a lower temperature, wine or liquor doesn’t boil down and reduce," the way it would on the stove or in the oven. This means that instead of the subtle wine flavors we all love, you may end up with a pronounced or "raw" alcohol flavor. To avoid this, simply cut back on the liquor used in a standard recipe. Or, instead of putting the liquor in the slow cooker, use it to deglaze the pan after browning but before the dish goes in the slow cooker.
Keep a Lid On It!
The number one mistake you can make when slow cooking is to repeatedly lift the lid. “You can add as much as 30 minutes to the cooking time every time you lift the lid,” according to Weinstein and Scarbrough. So, let the slow cooker do its thing and leave that lid be.
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Give New Life to Leftovers
Slow cooking often means extra food but after a day or two even the best dishes can wilt a little. To perk up sweet dishes, such as a morning porridge, Weinstein and Scarbrough recommend a pinch of salt. For savory dishes like soups and stews, a little bit of acid from lemon juice or vinegar will usually do the trick. A sprinkle of fresh herbs will also bump up the flavor and add a little bright green color. And if it makes sense for the dish, hot sauce is another welcome addition.