Slow cookers can offer a delicious freedom with their promise of no-hands, easy cooking. But you need to know how to use them, as the cooking method has its advantages and disadvantages.
"The tool is not designed for maximum subtlety," says Mark Scarbrough, co-author with Bruce Weinstein of "The Great American Slow Cooker Book" (Clarkson Potter, $25).
"It is much more designed for hearty complex braises and soups and stews. You can bake in it, but you can't expect high-end results."
"You can't fry in it," adds the Colebrook, Conn., resident. "But you can make a really crazy-good olive oil poached salmon or a chicken confit. The oil is kept at a perfect low temperature." Beyond reading the appliance's manual, or turning to the increasing number of slow-cooker cookbooks, here are some tips from Scarbrough and his book:
Make sure the recipe amount fits the slow cooker, which should be half to two-thirds full for best results. (Because slow cookers come in various sizes, the authors scale each recipe to fit three sizes: 2 to 31/2 quarts; 4 to 51/2 quarts, 6to 8 quarts.)
Watch the alcohol to avoid a "raw booze taste." This is particularly crucial if you are transferring a recipe used on the stovetop to the slow cooker. Use more broth or water and less alcohol than you would on the stove, Scarbrough says.
Make sure the meats and vegetables aren't chopped too fine. "They melt, lose texture and get gummy," he explains.
"Don't lift the lid. You'll be adding 30 minutes to the cooking time," Scarbrough says. "Honestly, let it go and let it do its thing." But use common sense, he adds -- if the food smells too strong or is burning, you do need to check.