HOW IT WORKS
1. The base is an exterior casing that holds the insert. You want a base that stays cool on the outside during its work hours. And remember, an appliance that's easy on the eyes may be more likely to get used. Choose one you won't tire of looking at on your countertop.
2. The insert absorbs and conducts heat and retains a constant, safe temperature. You want a dishwasher-safe stoneware insert that has heat-safe handles, which allow you to remove it easily from the base.
3. The lid tightly contains heat and moisture within the insert. You want a snug-fitting, clear glass lid, with an ovenproof handle, that lets you see the food while it's cooking.
4. The heating elements are wraparound electric coils that surround the insert for continuous indirect heat at low temperatures. You want a machine that brings food above the minimum safe temperature, 140 degrees, within four hours to be bacteria-safe. Avoid appliances with a heating element on the bottom only. They're being passed off as slow cookers when they're really just hot plates.
5. The control panel sets the temperature and cook time. You want an automatic warm setting that lets you keep food at serving temperature once it's finished cooking; a power button with a night-light signaling when the appliance is on.
RECIPES TO TRY
Go ahead and buy the cheapest cuts of meat! Shoulder, shank and ribs melt into a tender, rich meal with intense and sophisticated flavors under the long, low spell of a slow cooker's heat. Serve the family's favorite comfort foods -- minus hours of labor -- and get a head start on quality time.
Brown your meat in a heavy skillet first.
This will caramelize the meat's natural sugars for rich color and flavor. Once the ingredients are golden, add broth or wine to dissolve the flavorful brown bits left in the bottom of the pan. Add this to the slow cooker as the foundation for your sauce.
Give your vegetables a fighting chance.
Onions, carrots and potatoes can take the heat and duration of slow-cooking, but their tender, green cousins are a more sensitive bunch. Keep the life and color in your peas, fresh beans and leafy greens by adding them during the last half hour of cooking.
Choose the shape and size for you.
A 6-quart-capacity oval insert is most versatile, able to accommodate roasts, whole chickens and main course recipes that serve four or more. Smaller slow cookers take up less space and store more easily. They're great for soups, side dishes and dinner for two.
Make good gravy.
Slow-cooker recipes require little or no liquid. (The condensation from the machine and the juices from the meat form a braising liquid.) Once the cooking's done, improve this natural gravy by discarding the surface fat and transferring the liquid to a saucepan to simmer and reduce.
Nurture your food.
No matter how "smart" and independent the appliance, it won't replace your own intuition, playfulness and common sense. Know your machine (each brand cooks a little differently) and how ingredients respond -- tweak measurements, ingredients and even cook time to make the dish your own.