'This isn't your mother's slow cooker,' says Ginny Bean, publisher and founder of Ginny's catalog and Ginnys.com. 'Beyond coming in bright colors and stunning designs, many of today's models are programmable, with digital timers that start automatically, and a self-adjust feature that switches the temperature to 'keep warm' at the end of cooking.'
While replacing your 20-year-old slow cooker with a newer model may be a logical place to start, Bean offers these additional tips for preparing perfect slow-cooker meals.
* Plan ahead. If you want to use your slow cooker first thing in the morning, cut and trim meat, chop vegetables, measure out dry ingredients and prepare sauce the night before; then refrigerate ingredients in separate containers. Don't refrigerate in the slow-cooker insert, as a cold insert takes too long to heat up, affecting cooking time and, potentially, food safety. In the morning, add ingredients to the cooker according to the recipe. Reheat any sauce to a simmer before adding.
* Size matters. Slow cookers are available in sizes from 1 quart to 8 1/2 quarts. If you're using a different size cooker than that called for in the recipe, adjust your ingredient quantities proportionately. Most manufacturers recommend filling a slow cooker one-half to two-thirds full. Foods will not cook properly if the pot is filled to the brim. Conversely, if the food and liquid level is too low, meals will cook too quickly.
* Keep a lid on it. Resist the urge to lift the lid to stir or peek at your meal. Each time you remove the lid, enough heat escapes to lengthen cooking time by 20 to 30 minutes. Only open it once, within the final hour of cooking, to check doneness.
* Check your temperature. For safety, food being cooked needs to reach 140 F. If you're at home while your meal is cooking, use a meat thermometer to check that food temperature is at least 140 degrees, after four hours of cooking on low. If it isn't, there's a problem with your slow cooker and you should get a new one. Also, don't put frozen ingredients into a slow cooker, as it takes too long for them to escape the food safety 'danger zone' between 40 and 140 F.
* Use cheaper cuts of meat. Not only do you save money, but these cuts are actually better suited to slow cooking, because they have less fat. Fat causes slow-cooker meals to cook too quickly, and can carry an unpleasant texture. So remove skin from poultry and trim excess fat from other meats for optimal slow-cooker results.
* Brown when you can. While not necessary, browning meat and vegetables before adding them to a slow cooker provides color and a richer flavor to finished dishes. Time permitting, Bean likes to 'deglaze' her browning pan with the recipe's liquid and add the flavorful, caramelized bits into her slow cooker.
* Follow layering instructions. Vegetables do not cook as quickly as meat, so they should be placed in the bottom of the slow cooker, where food cooks fastest.
* Stir in spices in the final hour. Most spices lose flavor when cooked for a long time. Cayenne pepper and Tabasco sauce actually become bitter, and should be used sparingly.
To shop for slow cookers and hundreds of other home, kitchen and gift items, browse seasonal tips and recipes, or request a copy of the Ginny's catalog, log on to Ginnys.com or call (800) 693-0809. You can also find Ginny's on Facebook.
Just as slow cookers themselves have changed over the decades, so has the quality and quantity of recipes available. There are dozens of slow-cooker recipes on Ginnys.com, including one of founder Ginny Bean's personal favorites for melt-in-your-mouth pot roast.
Gourmet beef pot roast
3 potatoes, sliced thinly
2 carrots, sliced thinly
1 onion, sliced
1 teaspoon garlic salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 package instant onion soup
3-4 pounds beef brisket, rump roast or pot roast
1/2 cup dry red wine
Put vegetables in bottom of a 6 1/2-quart slow cooker. Salt and pepper the meat and place on top of the vegetables. Mix tgether the onion soup mix and wine and pour over the meat. Cover and cook on low for 10 to 12 hours, or on high for 5 to 6 hours.
Makes 10 to 12 servings.