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A slow cooker can be a wonderful thing. It makes cooking a lot easier; and in fact, it's great for people who don't actually like to cook, or don't know how to cook. Often, it just involves prepping a bunch of ingredients, perhaps browning an item or two, and then putting everything in your appliance.
I always loved using my slow cooker, but I certainly didn't use it on a daily basis. Until, however, I was tasked with writing a cookbook — a slow-cooker cookbook, to be exact. Nearly 100 recipes, from appetizers to desserts to drinks, all made in the slow cooker. Due in six months.
I became very, very intimate with my slow cooker (actually, my three slow cookers) during those 182 days. I often had three recipes cooking simultaneously, nearly round the clock. Sometimes I would put ingredients in the cooker before I went to bed, then wake up in the morning and taste my creations. It was a non-stop, all-consuming process.
Here are eight things I learned while spending half a year (aka 182 days; aka 4,368 hours; aka 262,080 minutes) with my slow cookers.
1. Always use your slow cooker for entertaining
I have a six-quart slow cooker, which makes a lot of food — perfect if you're having a group of people over. It's awesome because you don't need to baby-sit the dish as it cooks. As an added bonus, the slow cooker keeps your food warm for hours, so guests can just help themselves to its delicious contents throughout the party. It also saves space on your stovetop or in the oven, which is crucial when you're trying to prep a bunch of dishes and are running out of space. You can make a side dish (or even dessert) in the slow cooker, and not have to worry about the prime rib and veggies that are hogging up your oven racks.
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2. Add something extra to a slow-cooker dish before serving
Because you don't get the same concentration of flavors as you do on the stovetop or in the oven, slow cooker meals can end up tasting a little bland or muddled. In order to make the flavors pop, it's often necessary to add something fresh to the dish before serving to perk up the meal. It could be a dash of vinegar, a hit of lemon juice, a sprinkle of fresh herbs…something as small as a handful of chopped scallions can make all the difference between a so-so meal and a dinner that really wows you.
3. Outside-of-the-box slow-cooker dishes are always impressive
Everyone knows you can make chili and stew in the slow cooker. But when I told people I was making cheesecake or warm bourbon punch or monkey bread in the slow cooker, they were always amazed. It's a great way to get guests talking at your party.
4. You almost always need to add salt
It's crucial to taste your food before serving and to adjust with more salt if necessary. It's amazing the difference a little extra salt can make when it comes to boosting the flavor of a dish. Though this rule actually holds true for most food, not just for slow cooked ones, it's especially important in slow-cooker dishes, which can initially turn out a little flat.
5. It's quite comforting to have a slow cooker in the house
I'm the type of person who likes to have an abundance of food in my home, and I love leftovers. There's nothing I love more than seeing a stocked refrigerator or a freezer that's full of frozen goodies waiting to be reheated into delicious meals. So I loved the fact that there were all these potentially tasty things simmering away in my home at all times. And the appliance itself was also a comforting presence; the aromas and the knowledge that there was something warm and cozy in my kitchen was oddly soothing.
6. Put your slow-cooker to work during the summer
I developed the majority of my cookbook's recipes during the summer — June, July and August. The slow cooker is a year-round appliance, and it's actually quite handy on hot days when you don't want to turn on the oven and heat up your kitchen, or if you don't feel like standing over a hot skillet making dinner.
One thing: I don't recommend using multiple slow cookers at the same time during the summer. Let's just say I have a new appreciation for air conditioning after having three slow cookers going round the clock in a tiny NYC apartment, and then eating piping-hot meals.
7. Take some time to get to know your slow cooker
Slow cookers are finicky. Since every slow cooker cooks differently, it can initially be a bit challenging to work with one. You really need to experiment with your specific appliance to find out what works and what doesn't. For me, I was working with two slow cookers that were the same model; they cooked evenly and were great. My third slow cooker, I quickly realized, cooked unevenly; when I tried to make baked goods, part of the cake would come out burnt, while the other would come out perfectly. So I learned to save that cooker for things like soups and stews, where uneven cooking wouldn't matter. Once you've figured out your appliance's quirks and how to adjust for them, you'll be good to go.
8. Use a recipe that's been tested by other cooks
Remember that slow cookers are...slow. After six or eight hours of cooking, you want to have a payoff of a really delicious dish — not a pile of brown mush. After spending 182 days developing nearly 100 recipes, I know the disappointing feeling of discovering that a recipe is a complete failure, starting over, waiting for more hours, and repeating, until it's finally right. I don't want you to go through that process. That's why choosing a slow-cooker recipe that's been tested multiple times by other people is key. Cookbooks, magazines and solid food websites like TODAY Food are great sources for excellent slow-cooker recipes that have been tested and perfected.