Slow and easy

Slow cookers, those retro appliances of yore, have made a big comeback
Sleek, modern slow cookers are a breed apart from their kitschy 1970s predecessors.Bob Pennell photo illustration

It's no miracle machine, says Beverly Fety, but a paradox: a kitchen appliance that saves time by cooking foods longer.

And if cooks knew that tapping the potential of a Crock-Pot — aka slow cooker — actually requires more planning than other techniques, slow-cooking could lose its luster.

Slow-cooker tips and tricks

Enhance flavor and texture by browning meats and onions in a skillet before slow cooking.

  • Use dried herbs, not fresh, in slow cookers. But you can punch up the flavor remarkably by adding chopped, fresh herbs at the very end, just before serving.
  • Don't peek. Every time you lift the lid, you're letting heat escape.
  • Anything that cooks on low in six to eight hours, can be cooked on high for three to four hours.
  • Even the most economical, sturdy cut of meat becomes tender and flavorful after a long, slow braise, so a slow cooker can help pare budgets. But not every food benefits from cooking in what is essentially a steam bath. Don't use expensive or delicate cuts of meat or seafood.
  • Slow cookers can be used for stews, but also risottos, polenta and desserts. Use them to keep mashed potatoes warm or hot dips toasty during parties.
  • Don't limit your slow cooker use to the chilly winter months. Use a Crock-Pot during the summer months, and you won't heat up your kitchen.

— McClatchy News Service

"You have to think in a different way," says Fety. "They're pretty sophisticated."

Just as sleek, modern slow cookers are a breed apart from their kitschy 1970s predecessors, today's home cooks are taking a fresh look at Crock-Pots, namely by filling them with fresh, whole-foods ingredients. Fety and other Family Food Education Volunteers plan to divulge their secrets for slow-cookery in a Tuesday class at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center in Central Point.

"It is as good as the things you put in it," says Fety. "There are techniques to use with the appliance so you don't come out with glop."

Cooks clearly are hungry for the topic, among the Extension's most requested in the past couple of years, says Fety. It isn't just perceived ease, but economy and eco-consciousness, that drive the slow cooker's appeal.

"We even have a method for making Greek yogurt in the Crock-Pot," says FFEV president Michele Pryse. "It's so cheap."

Slow cookers long were touted for transforming cheap, tough cuts of meat into fork-tender morsels that could be used all week in myriad dishes. The method — braising — that seems so magical in an energy-saving electric gadget actually is among the oldest ways to cook.

"It's an ancient technique really — 4,000 years plus," says Fety.

So that means the slow cooker traces its lineage from the oldest, plainest, soot-blackened cook pot — not the floral-patterned Crock-Pot trademarked in 1971 by The Rival Co. Before it was a household name, the Crock-Pot began life in the 1960s as a countertop bean cooker.

Tender, creamy, perfectly plump beans helped convince Michele Scicolone that the disdain serious cooks showed for slow cookers — with their dump-and-run instructions — was misplaced. Scicolone then wrote "The Italian Slow Cooker" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which Pryse cites as one of the genre's best cookbooks.

"So many of the older Crock-Pot books rely on cream soups," says Pryse.

Instead of packaged, convenience ingredients, ethnic spices and seasonings complement the slow cooker, say Scicolone and other experts. Develop more flavor, they say, by browning meat before dropping it in, cooking with dried herbs and adding fresh herbs at the last minute. Foods come out as authentic and complex as traditional Italian risotto or Basque-style braised chicken.

Try the recipes on Page 2C. FFEV promises numerous slow-cooked samples at Tuesday's class.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email

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