Slow Cooking

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crockpotWith the cold temperatures and shorter days of winter, it’s nice to come home to the smell of dinner being prepared. And, it’s even better, when the meal requires little effort to complete. Many appliances used in today’s kitchen save time or effort, but only one allows you to return home with dinner waiting. That appliance is the slow cooker.

The slow crock-pot not only improves the variety and flavor of the foods prepared, but it can cut the time spent in the kitchen in half. The slow cooker does not replace the stove top or oven, because it’s not suitable for all recipes, but it does offer many advantages. If you have enough discipline to think about dinner at breakfast, you can utilize a slow cooker.

Slow cookers provide people with the convenience of safely preparing meals while being away from home. The appliances are readily available and budget-friendly. There are many health benefits to using a slow cooker. Low-temperature cooking retains more vitamins in the foods. Healthier cuts of lean meat will become tender in a slow cooker without using the extra fats. Many slow cooker recipes call for condensed soups, but selecting the lower sodium versions can reduce using too much sodium. Knowing that a healthy meal is waiting at home helps reduce the temptation to choose fast foods on the drive home.

Slow cooking also provides a “greener’ option for preparing meals through energy savings. Slow cookers require less energy than traditional cooking methods. The average electric cost to prepare a meal in a slow cooker is only about 17 cents. In addition, slow cookers do not heat the home as ovens do.

The seal between the lid and the rim of the pot should not be broken during cooking until it is time to test the food. The heat inside a crock pot builds up slowly and every time the pot is uncovered, enough heat is lost to slow the cooking process by thirty minutes or more. Because the slow cooker doesn’t allow steam to escape, the food inside retains all the moisture. Ingredients should not dry out or burn, so there is not need to peek or to stir the recipe.

There has been some question whether the slow cookers cook at temperatures high enough to prevent bacteria growth. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, bacteria in foods are killed at a temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit for 2 hours or more. Slow cookers cook between 185 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit, well above the safety limit.

Follow these tips for success with slow cooking and to have meals that are ready at the right moment:

  • High altitude generally extends the cooking time one hour on low for every 4,000 feet.
  • Starting with warm or browned foods, helps compensate for the slower cooking that occurs at higher altitudes.
  • Thaw frozen meat, poultry, and other ingredients in the refrigerator before adding to the slow cooker.
  • Trim visible fat from meat and poultry.
  • Since vegetables cook the slowest, place them near the heat, at the bottom and side of the slow cooker.
  • Dried beans, especially kidney beans, contain a natural toxin that is easily destroyed by boiling. Safe steps include soaking the beans for 12 hours and then boiling for at least 10 minutes, before adding the beans to the slow cooker.
  • Preheating the crock before adding ingredients or cooking on the highest setting for the first hour will ensure a rapid heat start.
  • Do not reheat foods in the slow cooker.
  • Do not leave cooked food to cool down in the crock. Place any leftovers in shallow containers and refrigerate immediately.
  • Always follow the recommended cooking times in the manufacturer’s owner’s guide.
  • If you are not at home during the entire slow-cooking process and the power goes out, throw away the food even if it looks done.
  • Use an accurately calibrated food thermometer to test food doneness. The thermometer should be inserted in the thickest part away from the bone. A safe internal temperature for poultry is 165 degrees F and for beef, pork and lamb is 160 degrees F.

slowcookermeatloafLean Magic Meatloaf
Cooking time: Low 8-10 hours OR
High 4-6 hours

2 pounds lean ground beef
2 eggs
2/3 cup quick cooking oats
1 package dry onion soup mix
½ cup catsup

Reserve 2 tablespoons of catsup. Combine ground beef, eggs, oats, soup mix and remaining catsup. Shape into a loaf. Place in the slow-cooker. Top with remaining catsup. Cover and follow recommended cooking times.