Slow cookers are the Rodney Dangerfield of kitchen gadgets. Hidden behind the second-string food processor in the darkest cupboard recesses, too often they are only called upon to keep warm a party's worth of Swedish meatballs or chili.
But the stereotype of slow cookers as the one-trick ponies of the appliance world is as outdated as goldenrod and avocado decor. Today's models can be outrageously useful for people who want to cook some of their meals while paying attention to other things.
What hasn't changed is the slow cooker's ability to act as a time machine, of sorts. Put apples, oatmeal and fixings inside, and go to sleep -- and wake up to a hot breakfast in a house that smells delicious. Load it with seasoned hunks of beef chuck, and forget about it. Go to work -- and come home to dinner.
Yesterday's slow cookers had three heat settings -- low, high and warm. If you pay for the features, the new slow cookers can turn themselves on, cook a roast to its target internal temperature with computer-controlled precision, then switch to a holding temperature.
Many recipes for roasts and other dishes require browning the meat in a stovetop skillet before proceeding with the recipe. Older slow cookers, with their fragile ceramic inserts, needed you to dirty a skillet too -- but a new class of cookers uses stovetop-safe metal inserts. Saute your vegetables and spices, or sear that pot roast -- and just lift it into the cooker, put on the lid and let it go.
The state of the art in Crock-Pot cookery has advanced as well. Slow cooker specialists have learned to use their units as energy-efficient countertop ovens. In 2007, Stephanie O'Day made a New Year's resolution to use her slow cooker daily, and share her experiences and recipes at her blog, crockpot365.blogspot.com. One of her triumphs, detailed in her book "Make It Fast, Cook It Slow" (Hyperion, 464 pages, $19.99) was turning the cooker into a water bath to bake creme brulee.
For reliable recipes and a well-researched masters course in slow cookery, "Slow Cooker Revolution," by America's Test Kitchen (326 pages, $26.95), is hard to beat. Its experimental approach suggests making custardy desserts like Rum-Raisin Bread Pudding in your slow cooker. Lining the crock with heavy-duty aluminum foil that serves as extraction handles makes retrieving the finished product relatively easy.
The slow cooker also excels at dishes that normally demand hours of stirring to prevent scorching. There's no end of tomato-based, meat-fortified Italian "Sunday sauce" recipes for slow cookers. But America's Test Kitchen's Big-Batch Bolognese Sauce simplifies the process of enriching the ground meat with cream, by mashing it with bread first.
Pork loin normally gets roasted in the oven, but the slow cooker produces a pleasantly moist result as well. Simmer the cooking juices to reduce them, and it makes a fine glaze for this Pork Loin with Cranberries and Orange.
Repeated trial runs conducted by America's Test Kitchen, involving 20 cookers, found that "high" and "low" meant significantly different temperatures, depending on the model. That's why slow cooker recipes typically offer a time range. So if you're using an unfamiliar cooker, check for doneness on the early side the first few runs, to get a sense of how its temperatures measure up.
>Big-Batch Bolognese Sauce
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 onion, minced
1 carrot, peeled and minced
1/4 cup minced celery
1/4 cup tomato paste
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme or 1/4 teaspoon dried
1/2 cup dry white wine (or water in a pinch)
2 (28-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
3 slices high-quality white sandwich bread, torn into quarters (about 1 cup)
1 cup heavy cream
3 pounds meatloaf mix, or 1 1/2 pounds ground chuck and 1 1/2 pounds ground pork
Salt and pepper
Melt butter in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion, carrot, celery, tomato paste, garlic, and thyme and cook until vegetables are softened and lightly browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in wine, scraping up any browned bits; transfer to slow cooker. Stir tomatoes into slow cooker.
Mash bread and heavy cream into paste in large bowl using fork. Mix in meat, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper using hands. Stir meat mixture into slow cooker, breaking up any large pieces. Cover and cook until beef is tender, 9 to 11 hours on low or 5 to 7 hours on high.
Let sauce settle for 5 minutes, then remove fat from surface using large spoon. Break up any remaining large pieces of meat with spoon. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve tossed with fettucine or other broad pasta; top with shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano or other hard cheese.
Will sauce 3 pounds of pasta; freezes well. (From "Slow Cooker Revolution," America's Test Kitchen.)
>Pork Loin with Cranberries and Orange
1 (4 1/2 to 5 pound) boneless pork loin roast, trimmed and tied at 1-inch intervals
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 (14-ounce) can whole berry cranberry sauce
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup orange juice
3 (3-inch-long) strips orange zest, trimmed of white pith
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Dry pork with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Heat oil in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Brown pork well on all sides, 7 to 10 minutes.
Stir cranberry sauce, cranberries, orange juice, orange zest, and cinnamon into slow cooker. Cover and cook until pork is tender and registers 140 to 145 degrees on instant-read thermometer, 3 to 4 hours on low.
Transfer pork to cutting board, tent loosely with aluminum foil, and let rest for 10 minutes. Let braising liquid settle for 5 minutes, then remove fat from surface using large spoon. Discard orange zest. Transfer braising liquid to saucepan and simmer until reduced to 2 cups, about 12 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Remove twine from pork, slice into 1/2 -inch-thick slices, and arrange on serving platter. Spoon 1 cup sauce over meat, and serve with remaining sauce. (From "Slow Cooker Revolution," America's Test Kitchen.)
>Crock-Pot Creme Brulee
2 cups heavy cream
5 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar (baker's or other fine sugar preferred)
1 tablespoon good vanilla
1/4 cup raw sugar (for topping)
Find a heat-resistant dish that fits inside of your slow cooker's stoneware insert. Fit it in, and using a cup or pitcher, pour water around the edges so there is water one half to three quarters of the way up the sides of the dish. Push it down with your hand if it starts to float up.
Take the dish back out. If you have separate dessert ramekins, pour the water after nestling them all inside.
Whip the five egg yolks in a medium-sized bowl. Slowly add the cream and baker's sugar and vanilla while mixing. Pour mixture into the dish, and carefully lower into the stoneware without sloshing water into the dish.
Cover and cook on high for 2 to 4 hours. If you are using little ramekins, check after an hour. Custard should be set with the center still a bit jiggly. Touch lightly with your finger to check. Unlike an oven, it will be difficult to overcook this. Try not to worry.
Use oven gloves to carefully remove dish. Let cool completely on counter, then chill in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 hours.
Sprinkle the 1/4 cup of raw sugar evenly over the top of the custard. On top oven rack, broil for 3 to 10 minutes, checking often. (Or use a blowtorch.) The sugar will boil and brown.
Cool again in the fridge for a few hours before serving. (From crockpot365.blogspot.com.)