Thursday, December 30, 2010

So Much To Know, Even with a Slow Cooker

I still have so much to learn.  Being in the kitchen, sometimes, proves it to me.

Even with the simplest of kitchen tools, to know how to properly use the item is a must. Just when I think I've mastered an appliance, it becomes a mystery I wasn't even aware needed to be unraveled.  And so was the case with my Slow Cooker.

Who doesn't love their Slow Cooker?  Mine is put to work throughout the year.  Whether it's for a warm meal ready and awaiting my arrival home from work, preparing a meal for guests freeing me up to enjoy their company or cooking on a hot day while trying to avoid heating the kitchen any further...it's my "go to" appliance.

I, like so many others, just plug in my cooker, dump the ingredients in the liner  and walk away not giving it a second thought.  Many, many times.  But not too long ago, as I was dishing out my tasty Mu Shu Pork in a fairly new Kitchen Aide Slow Cooker, I observed this particular preparation was drier than I had remembered.  Odd.  Not until I was transferring the leftovers did I discover there was a hairline crack in the ceramic liner.  All the moisture missing from the meal had leaked into the shell of the cooker.  What a mess!  What had gone wrong?

It's difficult not to ask myself, "did I do something to prompt its failure?"    The answer is maybe.  The liner should not be exposed to dramatic changes in temperature.  I'm guessing I'm not the only one to have left my warm leftovers in the liner and put it directly in the refrigerator.  A big no, no.  I'm also betting I'm not the only one to have put cold ingredients straight from the fridge into the Cooker as it's warming up.  Apparently, I've been testing fate for years. 

Lucky for me, the Kitchen Aide was still under warranty and the company promised a new ceramic liner would be shipped as soon as they had them back in stock.  About 8 weeks, I was told.  Really?  It turns out with this particular model the heating elements in the case surrounding the ceramic liner did not heat evenly.  Kitchen Aide was scrambling to replace hundreds, maybe thousands of liners across the country.  In waiting for my slow cooker replacement, I decided to do some reading and discovered not all slow cookers are the same. Learning from my mistakes, if you want to ensure a long life with your slow cooker I recommend following these tips:
  • Don't put really cold items in a warming slow cooker. The shock could make it crack.
  • To refrigerate your leftovers don't use the slow cooker ceramic or porcelain lining; alternately use a casserole or other container. Bottom line, putting your liner in extreme conditions could cause it to shatter.
  • Hand wash the lid and the vacuum seal. The seal could stretch out in the dishwasher lessening its effectiveness in future cooking.  It's probably overkill, I now hand wash my liner too...to be on the safe side.
  • If following a recipe for a Slow Cooker with a specifically treated liner for browning on the stove top and you don't have that treated liner, don't brown on the stove top.  You will surely break it.
Speaking of browning meat, I've always wondered why crock pot/slow cooker recipes instruct the reader to brown the meat prior to starting the slow cooker.   I dug further to find out why.  It is so that one can achieve maximum flavor and texture since the slow cooker environment can't provide the same result.  This reaction I just described is named the Maillard reaction.  Maillard was a physician who discovered that cooking in a high temperature, low moisture levels, and alkaline conditions all promote the flavorful reaction by changing the sugars and proteins on the surface. Low moisture levels are necessary mainly because water boils into steam at 212 °F (100 °C), whereas the Maillard reaction happens noticeably around 310 °F (154 °C): by the time something is in fact browning, all the water is vaporized.  With too much moisture in the environment it actually inhibits browning and hence flavor.  If a recipes says brown the meat first, don't skip this step.  Do it!  You'll be so much more pleased with the outcome.

The more lessons I learn, even the small ones of learning about an appliance, reinforces the phrase I've appreciated recently from Elena Kagan, "with age comes wisdom."  Then bring on the age (just not too fast)!

2 comments:

  1. I love your observation that we always have more to learn in the kitchen! So true. I, too, love my slow cooker and had used it for years before learning the importance of browning meat. Rather than get a pan dirty, I brown it on the grill. I love the idea that dinner is well on its way first thing in the morning. One of Ric's first times using the slow cooker was for a pork roast. The recipe read to add two cloves of garlic and Ric thought a garlic clove was the WHOLE group of cloves. Imagine the aroma! - Barbara

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  2. Grilling the meat...brilliant Barbara!

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