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I admit it, I'm no Nora Ephron. But since she was a great cook and a smart gal in her own right, I feel Nora would agree when I paraphrase one of her best lines from “When Harry Met Sally”: Slow cookers are the worst kind—they're high maintenance but they think they're low maintenance.
What? How can this be possible? Slow cookers are meant to make your life easier, right? The whole "set it and forget it" phenomenon, where you essentially make this big plug-in casserole thing your personal chef, walk away and return 8 hours later to a perfectly cooked meal? Well, that's not my fantasy and that's not my lifestyle. I know it's a godsend for many people, but for me, a slow cooker is more of a burden and a constraint.
Here’s the thing that some people don't want to admit: in many cases, when tested against a dish cooked the old-school way, the slow cooker version doesn't pass muster. I spend a lot of time testing and tweaking recipes to make sure whatever dish I'm cooking is the best version of itself. And I hate to say it, but so many slow-cooker meals take twice as long and taste half as good.
There are exceptions, of course—the low and slow heat is perfect for turning large cuts of meat into succulent shredded pork and beef. In the same vein, soups are tailor-made for the steamy environment of a slow cooker, and baking potatoes or sweet potatoes overnight is a revelation. But if I want to make a cake or bake bread, I'll do it in the oven. I really don't see the point in waiting around for the slow cooker when I can be eating an oven-baked whatever in 45 minutes!
And slow cooker dishes are often not as easy as they seem—nor are they always one-pot recipes. To make many slow cooker recipes perform to the best of their ability, there's often an additional step involved: simmering a too-watery stew after it's been slow cooked until it thickens to the right consistency, or browning ingredients on the stove before adding them so you get that deliciously caramelized element you'll never get from a slow cooker on its own.
If we're being really petty, let's all admit that we eat with our eyes first. Slow cooker meals NEVER look as beautiful as their oven-baked counterparts—believe me, as a food writer and recipe developer who's styled many of these dishes for their photographic close-ups, it's a challenge to make them appealing enough to entice home cooks!
When I'm developing a slow-cooker recipe, I work to make it the best it can be for that particular equipment and method. But when I'm cooking for myself, I'm grabbing my trusty cast iron pan or my bright orange Dutch oven. The slow cooker stays on the shelf.