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Take it slow and easy!
EVERYDAY CHEAPSKATE

Take it slow and easy!

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Mary Hunt

That slow cooker you keep on reserve for the cold months of winter is a perfect solution for summer, too — especially during these days when you just cannot look another takeout meal in the face.

Think about it: A slow cooker creates very little heat and costs only pennies a day to operate. And with energy costs skyrocketing, slow cooking is good news for your grocery budget and your electricity bill, too.

But, you may protest, I’ve tried to use a slow cooker, and the results have been disappointing at best. That might be because you are not sure what you’re doing. You need a crash course in slow cookery!

Know your cooker. The slow cooker, also known as a Crock-Pot, is a kitchen appliance where the heat surrounds the stone cooking insert (crock) in some models or where the heat comes from underneath in others. The most common models have a removable pot insert. Generally, the two heat settings are low (200 degrees) and high (300 degrees).

Slow cooker recipes. Until you become slow cooker proficient (soon!), stick closely to a recipe that has been specifically developed for slow cooking. My favorite resource is the website Allrecipes.com. When you get there, search “slow cooker” in the search bar. You’ll discover more than 2,000 slow cooker specific recipes.

Curb the urge. Resist the impulse to peek inside the Crock-Pot, unless the recipe directs you to stir partway through. Every time you lift the lid, you will need to add about 20 minutes cooking time.

Leave space. Don’t fill the insert so much that the lid doesn’t fit tightly. Without a tight fit, a vacuum will not form, and that can dramatically affect cooking time.

Brown it first. Browning meat (remember the cheapest cuts are the best candidates for slow cooking) and some cuts of poultry in a stovetop skillet before placing them in the slow cooker adds immensely to the finished flavor. If you can find the time for this step, the results are worth the effort.

Vegetables on the bottom. Root vegetables take longer to cook in a slow cooker than meat. Root vegetables, like potatoes, carrots and turnips, should be cut in small pieces, about 1 inch, and layered on the bottom of the cooker so they will start to cook as soon as the liquid heats.

High altitudes. When cooking at a high altitude, allow an additional 30 minutes for each hour of cooking time specified in the recipe. Legumes typically take twice as long to cook at high altitude as at sea level.

All that liquid. Slow cooking produces a lot of liquid because there is no evaporation during cooking. You can drain it into in a small saucepan and simmer until it has reduced to an appropriate amount. Adjust seasonings after this reduction takes place, since reducing the liquid will intensify the flavors.

Forget the fish. Fish and seafood are not good candidates for slow cookers, unless added into stews or chowders at the very end of the cooking process.

If you have a slow cooker, start using it! If you don’t have one, think about getting one. It will be an excellent investment into your family and also the food budget.

Mary Hunt writes this column for Creators Syndicate. She is the founder of www.EverydayCheapskate.com, a lifestyle blog, and the author of “Debt-Proof Living.” Submit comments or tips or address questions on her website.

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