Easy to use and great for making dinner ahead, slow cookers are a kitchen essential
When the slow-cooker arrived in our kitchen, we were skeptical. We admit, we're as eager as the next person to streamline our recipes, but could cooking for hours, not minutes, be the answer? We fretted about the possibility of stringy chicken and mushy potatoes but decided that the prospect of coming home to a cooked meal was enough to give it a try.
We began our testing with slow-cooked stews and soups, recipes that need plenty of time at a low simmer to develop flavor, and in the end were impressed with the results. Chicken thighs cooked with tomatoes and peanut butter were perfect over broad noodles, sweet Italian sausages braised with slivered vegetables in ale worked well with mashed potatoes, and a pork stew with dried apricots was tender and delicious. Feeling heady with success, we decided to try rice pudding in the slow-cooker. One morning we put three ingredients—rice, sugar and milk—in a slow cooker and went shopping. While we were out, the cooker had transformed them into a creamy rice pudding that thickened as it cooled.
Slow-cookers are ridiculously easy to use. There are only two settings, LOW and HIGH, and recipes specify which to use. Slow-cooker professionals say it's possible to convert cooking times to match your schedule; the rule of thumb is 1 hour on HIGH equals about 1 1/2 to 2 hours on LOW. (When cooking time on HIGH is more than 6 hours, calculate 1 1/2 hours at LOW per hour on HIGH. For shorter times on HIGH, figure about 2 hours on LOW per hour on HIGH).
Size: Choosing the right slow cooker depends entirely on how you expect to use it. Slow cookers come in small, medium, and large; the best size depends on how much food you plan to cook. Medium cookers have a capacity of 3 to 4 1/2 quarts and hold 4 to 6 servings. They're the right size for a 3 to 3 1/2 pound roast or cut-up chicken and are perfect for two people who like leftovers. Larger slow cookers (5 to 6 quart) are for recipes that feed a crowd and are great for soups and bigger pieces of meat. Also, slow cookers work best when they are half to three-quarters full so you have to allow for this when choosing one. Some models have extra features; we liked one with a timer and "keep warm" setting. If you're not around when the food is done, or are not ready to eat, the cooker will automatically switch into the warm mode. Liquid: One of the first things you may notice about slow-cooker recipes is that they have less liquid than recipes for standard stove-top or oven cooking. Slow cooker lids fit snugly and prevent evaporation that normally occurs when food simmers. So if you're converting a standard recipe to one for a slow-cooker, the amount of liquid should be reduced by about half. For making soup, it can stay the same.