Take Your Time

Posted: March 12, 2014

By The Book

I’ve often written about slow-cooker cookbooks in this space. I’m a fan, and it’s obvious — judging by the articles and new cookbooks — that these venerable kitchen appliances have many users.

It’s easy to understand the appeal: Assemble a few things in the morning, come home to the wonderful fragrance of dinner cooking and enjoy a hot meal.

But complaints also plague slow cooker recipes, specifically regarding health implications. Many recipes are high in fat and sodium and use ingredients that taste like the can from which they came, no matter how long they cook.

On the other end of the scale, people don’t like the idea of going to extra work either before or after the long cooking time: After all, the whole idea is to save time and effort.

The third question has to do with ingredients. Most slow cooker recipes are geared toward cooking meat, which is certainly understandable. Meat benefits more than almost anything else from long exposure to controlled heat. Vegetables, other than dried beans, usually don’t fare so well. Buried under the meat, they’re tender but mushy; on their own, they seem to either undercook or overcook, depending on density.

I decided to look around to see what was new and different, and sent away for two slow-cooker cookbooks that seemed especially promising. I expected that “The Slow Cooker Revolution” by the editors of America’s Test Kitchen would approach the subject in a painstaking, scientific, sometimes maddening way, and indeed it did. For those of you unfamiliar with the methods of these culinary scientists, their technique is to try everything many times, making minute adjustments and recording minor differences, presenting the finished products to a gang of carefully-selected tasters and then revise based on comments.

I learned quite a bit from these fastidious folks, and the cookbook is worth buying. Among the things that I never would have thought about are some work-arounds that eliminate the typical preliminary browning, both of meat and vegetables. Want to use onions and garlic? Rather than sautéing them in a bit of oil, the authors tell you how to microwave them briefly before adding them to the pot, a much simpler and less messy procedure than getting out the sauté pan, and it has the advantage of reducing the fat content. And, they say, you can eliminate browning the meat by simply adding a bit of soy sauce and tomato paste, which corrects both the color and flavor.

In spite of these time-saving tips, readers were vocal in their criticism, mostly about the amount of extra preparation that the type-A authors seemed to expect. After all, readers said, if you have to wash a bunch of pots and pans, did you really save any time?

The test kitchen gang must have been listening. Volume 2 is titled “The Slow Cooker Revolution: The Easy Prep Edition.” I found it very helpful, as did most of its readers. One thing that I noticed is that some of the dishes cook in a couple of hours, making them less ideal for those of us who work. Still, there’s plenty to choose from, and many of the Volume 1 recipes are repeated. Neither book will satisfy everyone’s needs, but there are so many recipes in each that any reader could find either one very helpful.

Theresa Curry blogs with Lily Lemontree.