The plug-in gadgets in my kitchen tend to be of the prepping variety: a food processor, a blender, a stand mixer. If I need to actually apply heat to food, the only electric doodad on my countertop that gets regular use is a toaster oven. Microwaves? Don’t have room for one. The wedding-present fondue pot? Sadly, I’ve never even slid it out of its box.
There’s something about slow cookers, however, that keeps nagging at me. I’ve got one (it was free), and I’ve even used it (with mixed results). Sure, I still do most of my cooking at the range, flipping on the gas burners and preheating the oven. But I can’t shake the feeling that, if I could only figure out the best ways to use it, the slow cooker would be a very handy gadget in my kitchen.
I grew up understanding the basic concept of a slow cooker — fill it with food in the morning, let it burble on low heat all day, and eat it in the evening — without ever once sampling its wares. (My mother preferred quick meals she could prepare at the end of the day with seasoning packets and frozen veggies.) In a slow cooker, liquidy main dishes that might take a couple of hours to cook on the stovetop — chili, stew, pot roast — could be left alone for hours with little fuss. This was supposed to liberate cooks from, I guess, cooking. You could work! Play! Or even, as one cookbook-series title promised, Fix It and Forget It!
Except that, of course, you can’t. All you’re doing with a slow cooker is cooking a dish in more time than it would normally take on the stovetop or in the oven. You still have to prep the ingredients, turn the cooker on, and make sure you’re around when the dish is finishing its cooking cycle so that it doesn’t burn (older cookers) or go bad sitting around too long (newer programmable models). Magic dinner this ain’t.
In addition, slogging through the introductory section of any slow-cooker cookbook is bound to turn most cooks off the entire concept. Warnings (mostly about food safety and equipment handling) and guidelines (mostly about liquid-to-solid ratios and timing) can be overwhelming. Recipes frequently call for messy, lengthy prepwork (searing meat, for example) followed by occasional checks on the dish and last-minute additions. Wait, you might find yourself thinking, what happened to fixing it and forgetting about it?
After a few forays into slow cookery, I decided that the slow cooker is most useful when you’re still around the house but really need to be doing something else besides keeping a steady eye on the slow-cooked dish: letting a porridge cook slowly for a week’s worth of breakfasts, for example, or simmering a soup while you dedicate the stovetop to, say, a jam-making project. If I think of my slow cooker as a prop, not a miracle, and choose my recipes judiciously, not ambitiously, then yes, it might become a tool I use every so often.
The first slow-cooker cookbook I tried was Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker Cookbook, one of a series that practically dominates the field. (Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker Recipes for Two, for singletons with smaller cookers at home, is just one of author Beth Hensperger’s many collections devoted to the gadget.) For my maiden voyage into the steamy uncharted waters of slow cooking, I made chicken paprikash, the classic Hungarian stew of chicken, paprika, and sour cream. It was delicious — although the long braising so effectively separated the thigh meat from the bones that eating the dish meant carefully navigating between tiny bits of bone and cartilage. Crunch.
As Publishers Weekly pointed out in its review of Hensperger’s book, her food aesthetic belies the book’s claim to leave Mom’s home cooking behind. Slow cooking is essentially braising — solid food cooked slowly in liquid — and that means plenty of traditional dishes; calling chicken paprikash “Poussin Paprikash” does not transform it into a fantasia of molecular gastronomy.
Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker Recipes for Two, for example, like all other slow-cooker cookbooks, offers recipes for oatmeal, chili, and nearly 20 ways to cook that cheap meat staple, turkey. Granted, Hensperger’s recipes could come from moms around the world — Turkey and Rice Congee, or Smoky Chipotle Breast — but the basic ingredients and techniques don’t change. Which is just fine, because, frankly, I don’t want to spend time fussing over my slow cooker.
The main problem with slow cookers, in fact, is time. If the machines could genuinely be left alone overnight or during the workday, they might actually be a godsend. But most slow-cooker recipes on their lowest heat setting top out at eight hours of cooking time — long, but not long enough to compete with a typical workday and commute or the scattered rush of bedtime, forty winks, and the morning routine.
As for slow-cooker cookbooks, their main problem is their sweepingly broad definition of “ordinary.” Is ordinary for you buying poussins and shallots and then throwing them into a slow cooker? Then Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker Cookbook may be for you, if you can reconcile the book’s twin expectations that you’ll hunt down pricey ingredients and then simply sling them into a stew.
Is ordinary for you buying as many packaged ingredients as possible and dumping them together in the hopes that dinner will result? Then Natalie Haughton’s Slow and Easy may be the book for you, with its heavy reliance on cake mixes, preshredded cheeses, and even “mini smoked beef sausages” to put together such old-school delights as Party Taco Dip and Hot Dog-Pineapple Bean Bake. (Only the soups and — an unusual category in a slow-cooker book — the preserves and chutneys looked remotely interesting in Haughton’s book.) Dig this prepackaged way of cooking? Phyllis Pellman Good’s series, the aforementioned Fix It and Forget It books, are also full of recipes calling for cherry-pie filling, all-purpose baking mix, and the like.
For me, “ordinary” matched best with Andrew Schloss’ Art of the Slow Cooker. Be not afraid of the gourmet overtones of the title; like all the other slow-cooker books on the market, this book covers the basics. But it covers the basics better than the other books do. For one, Schloss asks the cook to do nothing more than buy good whole foods; there’s no need to follow Hensperger’s slightly schizophrenic instructions to hunt down both poussins and boxes of biscuit mix. For two, he knows what he’s doing; his dishes are similar to many other slow-cooker recipes, but he flavors them more vividly.
Moroccan Red Lentil Soup, for example, was genuinely complex and spicy without being harsh. Tunisian Lamb Tagine with Toasted Almonds and Couscous was rich and deep, not bland or confused. And Chocolate Pudding Cake, while perhaps not as chocolatey as it could’ve been, was just as satisfyingly oozy as a steamed pudding should be. (Pudding cakes, by the way, are big in the slow-cooker world, since they provide a reliable, cake-like dessert that’s steamed instead of baked.)
I’ll still make soups and stews on the stovetop, of course; it’s simply faster, and I can futz with the recipe as I go more easily. And while I enjoyed the pudding cake, I’m more likely to stick with my oven’s more precise temperature and usability for my baking needs.
That said, I’m pretty sure I’ll be hauling out my slow cooker for weekend braising, or serving hot cider at a party. Simmer on.
Caroline Cummins is Culinate’s managing editor.
Culinate props open and ponders cookbooks, nonfiction, memoirs, and other books about food.
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