Slow cookers help you create fabulous dishes with minimal amounts of time and effort. Just add in your ingredients and turn on the machine. While you go about your day, it does all the work, producing a delicious meal, stew, soup, snack or even dessert, without your having to slave over a hot stove. "Slow cooking gives a wonderful velvety texture to meatloaf, an incredible richness to osso buco Milanese, and bold and complex flavors to curried vegetables and dal simmered in Indian spices," says Andrew Schloss, author of "Art of the Slow Cooker." According to Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann, authors of "Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook," 80 percent of American households own a slow cooker.
Don't worry that a kitchen appliance running for eight or more hours wastes energy and raises electric bills; slow cookers are extremely energy-efficient, especially those marked with the Energy Star label. They also retain most of their heat, so they don't steam up your kitchen.
Slow cookers also maximize your food budget, because they tenderize cheaper cuts of meat and allow you to extract flavor from bones and vegetable stalks and leaves. And they're easy to clean because temperatures do not get very high, which would cause burning in the pot.
Here are the top do's and don'ts for creating tasty dishes using your slow cooker:
--Do experiment with your slow cooker. The experts at Hamilton Beach encourage you to try various settings and timings on a variety of recipes to familiarize yourself with your model's strength and performance.
--Do spray the inside of the slow cooker with a nonstick cooking spray before every recipe to prevent food from sticking and to make cleanup easier.
--Do fill the cooker at least halfway, but no more than three-quarters of the way to the top, so that your dish cooks well in the required amount of time and does not overcook and become dry. Most recipes, according to Hamilton Beach's experts, call for cooking on low for eight hours or on high for four hours. A well-filled slow cooker will heat ideally with those parameters.
--Do add completely thawed meat to the slow cooker for proper cooking.
--Do brown meat on the stove before adding it to the slow cooker. That will make for richer flavor and texture.
--Do precook ground meat and sausage to render out the fat before you add the meat to the slow cooker.
--Do cut root vegetables into 1-inch cubes so that they cook to the ideal texture at the same time as the meat.
--Do layer root vegetables on the bottom of the slow cooker, beneath the meat, to allow for their slower cooking time.
--Do fill your cooker with solid ingredients first, say the experts at Hamilton Beach. That way, when you pour in liquids, they will not splash.
--Do add tender vegetables, pasta, seafood and dairy products in the last 30 to 60 minutes of cooking to achieve ideal texture and temperature.
--Do add herbs during the last 30 to 60 minutes of cooking so that their flavors do not become too strong during the entire length of cooking. The Hamilton Beach experts suggest putting herbs in a cheesecloth package to gain their flavor but avoid challenging cleanup later.
--Do use evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk and processed cheese in your slow cooker recipes, because these perform better than fresh dairy products.
--Don't preheat your slow cooker unless your recipe requires you to do so. It's OK to let the meat heat with the pot.
--Don't place frozen foods directly into the slow cooker unless a recipe specifically calls for it, because frozen foods will throw off your cooking time. Run frozen vegetables under water in a colander to thaw them first.
--Don't open the lid to check on or smell the food, or the cooking temperature will drop.
--Don't stir the food unless your recipe requires it.
--Don't use a regular recipe in a slow cooker, because slow cookers require less liquid. Use a slow cooker recipe at all times.
--Don't wash the hot stoneware with cold water; it could crack.
--Don't use abrasive cleansers or tools that might scratch the slow cooker's surface.
--Don't use your slow cooker as a pot in the oven or microwave.
When serving your recipe, remember that the slow cooker's bottom and sides will be hot, so either place it on a trivet -- not directly onto your table's surface -- and warn guests about the container's temperature or transfer your cooked food to attractive serving platters or bowls. Enjoy!