You can take away a cook's tabletop grill, the utilitarian food processor or the elaborate KitchenAid mixer, but most of us wouldn't part with our slow cookers.
For 40 years, cooks have come home to ready-made hot meals, thanks to the inexpensive slow cooker. A $29.99 appliance still gets the job done, but to get perfectly cooked meals, Cook's Illustrated recommends the more expensive models.
The testing staff's "highly recommended" slow cooker is the Crock-Pot Touchscreen for $129.99. The appliance has a control panel that is extremely easy to use, and the timer counted up to 20 hours, even on high, according to the Cook's Illustrated review that appeared in the August issue of Cook's Country.
The product testers liked slow cookers that have programmable timers and warming modes, clear glass lids to assess the food as it cooks, inserts that have handles, and liners that can be washed in the dishwasher. The best control panel is one that is simple to set and clearly indicates that the cooker was programmed.
"Slow cookers are wonderful for promoting health-conscious and budget-conscious meals," said registered dietitian Patti Geil of Lexington. "You can stretch small amounts of meat with flavorful sauces and lots of veggies to pack in flavor and cut back calories. Leaner, less fatty cuts of meat still turn out tender in a slow cooker, and you can use less salt and oil because the flavors have more time to meld together while cooking.
"For the cost-conscious cook, slow-cooker recipes are ideal for serving a delicious hot meal with plenty of 'planned overs' that can be enjoyed for several days," Geil said. "Knowing there's something ready to eat in your slow cooker at home is just the incentive many of us need to skip the fast-food drive-through after work."
Faith Hacker of Lexington, who owns FaithfulDinners.com, a menu-planning subscription service, said it's important to have a good slow cooker, "one with various times and temperatures, and one that goes to 'keep warm' after your dish has finished cooking. This way you can avoid overcooking your food."
Whitney Carman of Lexington, director of consumer affairs for the Kentucky Beef Council, said, "Slow cookers have always made for easy and convenient cooking. With fast-paced lifestyles, families can enjoy an economical, home-cooked beef meal that requires minimal attention. Since beef offers many lean roasts, you can be confident that you are making a healthy choice."
Tamara Sapp of Hazard said her best slow- cooker tip is to do all your prep and, if possible, load the crock the night before. Mornings are usually hectic, and trying to cram extra stuff into the schedule can make life a lot more difficult than it needs to be. If you already have the crock loaded, you can just take it out of the fridge, set it in the base, push the button, and "life is good," said Sapp, manager of the appalachian Artisan Center Café in Hindman.
"My favorite uses for my slow cooker are red beans and rice," the lunch special at the café during Mardi Gras week, "and homemade yogurt," she said. "You can get dedicated yogurt makers, but I have a hard time justifying the use of space when my slow cooker works just as well."