Slow Cooker 101: How to buy and use one safely

I'm a pretty big fan of my slow cooker (that's my latest creation, a slow cooker yellow split pea and avocado soup, in the photo). I've had it for about a year now and I can't stop cooking with it. It's a favorite in my house because you can make almost anything with it (breakfast! dinner! even dessert!) and it couldn't possibly be easier to use.

When I was talking with a friend the other day, though, it turns out that not everyone knows the magic of the slow cooker, so I'm here to teach you. Today's lesson is Slow Cooker 101: How to Buy and Use One Safely. Then, tune in next week for the start of our new series featuring a weekly Latin slow cooker recipe! Your family's happy tummies will thank you.

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How to Buy a Slow Cooker:
The first thing you have to decide is how big you want your slow cooker to be. The smallest I've seen is 3.5 quarts, which is the kind I have since I'm typically only cooking for 2 people. If you have a bigger family or plan on making bigger meals, then choose a 5- or 6- quart slow cooker. Go to your local Bed Bath & Beyond or search for one on Amazon.com, but I do recommend you physically see it before buying it. I love my Cuisinart 3.5 Quart Programmable Slow Cooker ($60), but other good brands include Crock-Pot, Hamilton Beach, and KitchenAid.

Second, make sure that you buy a PROGRAMMABLE slow cooker. I can't stress how important this is because it is my absolute life saver. This is something available only on newer slow cookers but the reason this is important is because you can actually set it for a certain time and it will automatically switch into the "keep warm" mode. For instance, if you're working a 10 hour day but a recipe calls for 6 hours, the slow cooker will keep your food warm until you get home. Older slow cookers would just keep on cooking and, thus, dry out the food. Trust me, you do NOT want this to happen to you!

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How to Safely Use a Slow Cooker:
The first thing that people always ask me about using a slow cooker is: How do you keep it from burning down the house? Well, I highly recommend making your first few meals on a Saturday or Sunday when you're home, so that you can properly watch it cook. The more important thing, though, is to have the slow cooker on a dry, stable surface that's not touching walls or any other items on your counter. Some also recommend putting it on a baking stone but this is typically not necessary. However, you should absolutely NOT put it on laminate. If you're still nervous, you can put it on the stovetop but make sure you check with your manufacturer first.

The second concern is always about burning or spoiling food. This is why testing at home is important. The thing with slow cookers is that different brands can actually be hotter than others, so sometimes when a recipe calls for 7 hours you may actually only want to leave it for 5. Once you have that figured out, you can buy slow cooker liners if you're worried about burning food, but what I typically do is make sure to spray with cooking oil (when appropriate) and ALWAYS make sure that the bottom inch or so is covered in some sort of liquid (typically this is in the recipe).

Well, those are the basics. Please let me know if you have any other slow cooking questions in the comments below and I'll do my best to answer them in next week's Latin slow cooker guide. Come back for the recipe next Friday!

Do you use a slow cooker? What other questions do you have? Share with us in the comments below!

Image via Irina Gonzalez

Topics: latin slow cooker  traditional latin recipes