Your cooking equipment can make a difference in how easy it is to prepare foods. Buy the best you can afford. Better pan construction equals more even heat distribution, which translates to reduced cooking time and more even cooking.
Better doesn't always have to be the newest and most expensive pan on the market. The stovetop pan named in a recipe is only a suggestion. Cooks used to working with a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet may prefer using that instead of a nonstick skillet. That's okay. Use whatever pan you believe will help you achieve the result called for in the recipe.
A slow cooker is one of the easiest fix-it-and-forget-it options for today's busy cook. You add the ingredients, usually simply in the order that they're listed in the ingredients list, turn the cooker to the desired setting, and come back several hours later to a fully cooked dish.
The most efficient slow cookers have a removable stoneware cooking pot or crock. The stoneware is good at holding the heat. The food stays warm when you remove the crock and serve the meal directly from it. A stoneware crock is also easier to clean because it can go into the dishwasher.
Programmable slow cookers like Cuisinart's 4-quart and 6½-quart slow cookers let you start the cooking process at one temperature and will then automatically switch to a different setting according to how you've programmed the cooker. For example, if you haven't had time to thaw the foods you're putting in the cooker, you have the option of starting it out on high for a couple of hours, and then switching it to low heat for the appropriate number of hours. When the cooking time is completed, the cooker automatically switches to the “keep warm” setting, which holds the food at serving temperature until you're ready to serve it.
The option of having a “keep warm” setting is an important one for foods that can scorch or take on an unpleasant taste or texture if they're cooked too long. For that reason, even if you don't buy a slow cooker with all the bells and whistles, at least look for one that lets you set a cooking time and then automatically switches over to a warm setting when the cooking time is done.
Help ensure that meat cooked in the slow cooker is done to your liking by using a thermometer with a probe that goes into the food and is attached to a programmable unit that sits outside the slow cooker (see Appendix B for suggestions). The thermometer's display unit should show the current internal temperature and have an alarm that goes off when the meat reaches the correct internal temperature.
There are a number of factors that can affect cooking time, such as the temperature of the food when you add it to the slow cooker. Another important consideration is the size and shape of meat, the amount of fat and bone, and whether or not the meat was aged.
The best way to ensure that meat is cooked to your liking is to use the suggested cooking time given in a recipe as a gauge to time when you can have your meal ready to serve, and set a programmable thermometer so you'll know when it's actually ready. As a general rule, internal meat temperatures indicate:
130°F to 140°F for medium rare
145°F to 150°F for medium
155°F to 165°F for well done
For example, referring to those temperature suggestions will prevent you from ending up with pork loin that's too dry. Any recipe that calls for you to shred the meat or cook until the meat is tender generally means that you'll cook the meat beyond those cooking temperature.
Most recipes calling for meat to be combined with other ingredients take into consideration that the meat may be cooked beyond the temperature that would be ideal had it been cooked by itself. In casseroles and other dishes in which the meat is cooked together with other food, the dish isn't done until all of the food is cooked. Even so, using a probe thermometer lets you know that the meat has cooked to the temperature at which it is safe to serve. Or it can let you know when you should remove meat such as a pork loin, wrap it in foil, and maintain its temperature in a warm oven while you wait for the other ingredients to cook through.
As you prepare the dishes in this cookbook, make notes in the margins about which ones you and your family preferred. If you think a recipe would benefit by adding a bit more seasoning, then note that too. Making such notes now will mean that someday, when you're ready to write out recipe cards, you'll be able to have an entire slow cooker section in the recipe box.
Foods cooked on top of the stove usually need a little more attention than those made using other methods. This is especially true if you're not used to using your stove. Use the heat settings suggested in the recipes, but until you become familiar at what temperatures are required to achieve the desired affect (like browning meat), plan on babysitting the pan on the stove. Accidentally burning food can not only ruin a meal, it can cause an even bigger disaster by causing a fire.
The cooking vessels you use will make a difference, too. Food will burn more easily in an inexpensive discount-store nonstick skillet than it will in heavier cast-iron, multiclad stainless, or hard anodized steel cookware. How well your cooking pan conducts the heat will make a difference on how high you set the burner temperature.
But with some practice, you'll soon learn the perfect heat settings for each of your pans: It might take a medium-high setting to sauté food in an inexpensive skillet and lots more stirring to prevent the food from burning, but you can accomplish the same task in your triple-ply nonstick stainless steel skillet over medium-low heat and with less frequent stirring.
Once you've moved the meat and other ingredients you've cooked in the pan and rid the pan of any excess remaining fat, you deglaze it by putting it over a medium-high heat and then adding enough cooking liquid to let you scrape up any browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Doing this step before you add the other ingredients for your sauce or gravy gives more flavor and color to the result.
On the flipside, a heavier pan will retain the heat longer once it's removed from the burner than will an inexpensive skillet, so to prevent it from overcooking, food cooked to perfection in a heavier pan must be moved to the slow cooker more quickly.
This is especially true of foods like gravy that tend to thicken the longer they sit. For example, a loose gravy meant to be added to the slow cooker can turn from a succulent liquid to one big lump if it stays on the heat too long, even when that heat is only that retained by the skillet.
The stovetop cooking steps called for in the slow cooker recipes don't have to be intimidating. Once you become familiar with the quirks associated with how each of your pans performs on your particular stovetop, you'll begin to intuit how much time will be needed to sauté or brown foods before you add them to the slow cooker.