(PCM) January is all about enjoying hot things. Unfortunately, we don’t always have time to make something warm and hearty when we really need it. Maybe that was the inspiration for National Slow Cooker Month; thanks to this miraculous appliance, you can have hot, homemade meals even after a long, hard day out in the cold. All you need is some pre-planning, a little prep-time, and an outlet to plug your slow cooker in.
The slow cooker (Crock-Pot is actually a trademarked product name) is a portable food heating device patented in 1939 by Irving Naxon. Slow cookers were increasingly popular in the 1970s and ’80s as working women sought ways to balance the demands of their jobs and families.
Slow cookers continue to be relevant today for the very same reasons; in this fast-paced, no-time-to-dine world, they offer healthier, homier alternatives to fast food or microwave dinners.
The idea of using slow cookers may be intimidating if you’ve never tried one before; when you’re pressed for time, who wants to pre-plan meals or chop vegetables first thing in the morning? But slow cooking converts will tell you that the slow cooker can be a real countertop lifesaver. Here are some tips for getting started, and getting the most out of yours:
– Soups are great for slow cooking beginners – and fitting, since January is also National Soup Month! How about loaded bake potato soup, beef stew, or mixed beans with ham? The internet is bubbling over with easy starter recipes to try.
– In general, dishes adapted for the slow cooker call for less liquid than stovetop versions, so avoid the temptation to add too much stock, water, or wine (save that for all the extra you-time you’ll be enjoying later).
– Experts also recommend keeping your ingredients to a more or less uniform size, for even cooking. Layer components so that longer-cooking foods like meat or thick root vegetables will be closer to the heating element.
– Pay special attention to stated cooking times in your recipes; while you may not have to worry about burning slow-cooked meals, overcooking may lead to less-than-yummy mushiness (and an unfortunate loss of nutrients).
– Slow cookers are renowned for producing moist, tender meals. Even tougher cuts of meat can come out melt-in-your-mouth ready after hours in the crock. To boost your flavors even more, consider browning your components first in a bit of butter or oil before adding to them the pot, along with cooking juices and caramelized bits.
– To thicken slow cooker meals, try starting with a bit of seasoned flour (rub on raw meat or dust the bottom of your pot), add pasta or starchy vegetables, or mix in a slurry of cornstarch to the finished product. You can also reduce an overly wet dish by cooking with the lid off to allow moisture to escape. This retards the cooking process, however, so don’t do it before your ingredients are cooked through.
– While slow cookers are safe to leave running unattended (that’s what they’re for), they do generate heat. Set your slow cookers on a flat, hard surface when in use, and keep the area around them clear of clutter, especially plastics and flammable materials like towels, placemats or curtains. Always use potholders when handling active slow cookers, and keep your face away from the steam when lifting the lid.
With a little practice, you may just find that slow cookers are the kitchen bestie you’ve been looking for – not just for dinners but for breakfast, hot drinks, desserts… Get creative! You can rely on your slow cooker for any meal, any time of year.