Dairy products are not treated kindly by the slow cooker. Cheeses, cream, and milk tend to curdle or separate after even a few hours of low heat. One solution is to use processed cheeses, such as American cheese or Velveeta instead of natural cheeses. I don't like the taste of processed cheeses, so they're not listed in many of these recipes. The alternative is to add cheese at the end of the cooking process and cook it just long enough to melt it.
Condensed or evaporated milk hold up a little better than regular milk and cream, if you want to use these in your dishes instead. Stock holds up even better; that's why the cream soup recipes in this book use stock as a medium to cook the ingredients, then the cream is added to smooth out the flavors at the end of the cooking time.
Slowing Down Family Favorites
Once you feel comfortable with your slow cooker, you'll probably want to use it to prepare your favorite recipes you now cook on the stove or in the oven. The best recipes to convert are "wet" ones with a lot of liquid, like stews, soups, chilies, and other braised foods. Make sure the food fills the slow cooker at least half-way to ensure food safety. If it's a smaller quantity, you might want to increase the size of the batch.
The easiest way to convert your recipes is to find a similar one and use its cooking time for guidance. When looking for a similar recipe, take into account the amount of liquid specified as well as the quantity of food. The liquid transfers the heat from the walls of the insert into the food itself, and the liquid heats in direct proportion to its measure.
Not all dishes can be easily converted to slow cooked dishes. Even if a dish calls for liquid, if it's supposed to be cooked or baked uncovered, chances are it will not be successfully transformed to a slow cooker recipe, because the food will not brown and the liquid will not evaporate.
You should look for similar recipes as well as keep in mind some general guidelines:
- Most any stew or roast takes 8 to 12 hours on Low and 4 to 6 hours on High.
- Chicken dishes cook more rapidly. Count on 6 to 8 hours on Low and 3 to 4 hours on High.
- Quadruple the time from conventional cooking to cooking on Low, and at least double it for cooking on High.
Retooling the Recipe
The quantity of ingredients and when to add them also change when converting recipes to the slow cooker. Here are some considerations:
- Cut back on the amount of liquid used in stews and other braised dishes by about half. Unlike cooking on the stove or in the oven, there is little to no evaporation in the slow cooker.
- If the food isn't totally covered with liquid when you start to cook, don't worry. Ingredients like meat, chicken, and many vegetables give off their own juices as they cook.
- For soups, cut back on the liquid by one third if the soup is supposed to simmer uncovered, and cut back by one fourth if the soup is simmered covered. Even when covered, a soup that is simmering on the stove has more evaporation than one cooked in the slow cooker.
- Put the vegetables in the slow cooker first, at the bottom. They take longer to cook than the meat.
- Use leaf versions of herbs such as thyme and rosemary rather than ground versions. Ground herbs tend to lose potency during many hours in the slow cooker.
- Season the dishes with pepper at the end of cooking, because it can become harsh.
- Remember, this dish is cooking in your slow cooker, so don't peek at or stir it.
Ellen on Edibles
To reduce is to make something smaller, and when the word is used in cooking, it means to cut down on the volume of liquid by applying heat, which speeds evaporation. Simmering a gravy or sauce evaporates some of the water, which concentrates the flavor of the resulting liquid. Many recipes call for liquid to be reduced by half, but it can be a greater or smaller amount.
You might find that even though you cut back on liquid, a dish still doesn't have the intense flavor it did when it was cooked on the stove. Don't fret. After the dish has finished cooking, remove as much liquid as possible from the slow cooker with a bulb baster or strain the liquid from the solids in a colander. Reduce the liquid in a saucepan on the stove until it has the right flavor and consistency. Then add it back into the slow cooker before serving.
If rice or small pasta is part of a recipe, add it only during the last 2 hours of cooking on Low or 1 hour on High. The same rules apply to tender vegetables and dairy products. Add them at the end of the cooking time.