THE SLOW COOKER is the only kitchen appliance designed to be patient enough to braise a tough cut of meat until it reaches filet-mignon tenderness or simmer a stew all day without turning up the heat.
The slow cooker -- which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year -- may not be the only kitchen appliance you'll ever need but it can do more than gather dust in the pantry. It's an ideal tool for working people who have just enough energy to start dinner in the morning and eat it at night.
The slow cooker is also a handy tool for latch-key kids who can serve themselves a nourishing meal before mom or dad returns from work. One-quart slow cookers are small enough for singles and seniors with smaller appetites, while the 6-quart size is better suited to larger families or making quantities for entertaining.
Slow cookers are also a good appliance for lazy cooks. They beg to be neglected. A cook who fusses with the slow cooker frequently, lifting the lid or stirring the contents, releases heat and causes the appliance to cook less efficiently.
The best way to use a slow cooker is to throw all the hearty ingredients into the pot at one time and let them simmer for up to 12 hours. Stir in delicate ingredients such as mushrooms or peas, liqueurs, fresh herbs, cream and sour cream, a few moments before serving.
Slow cookers are suited to recipes that don't require lots of labor-intensive chopping, dicing and mincing. Save the fancy, flashing-knives routine for dishes to be cooked in the wok and use the slow cooker to make pasta sauces, barbecued meats and braised roasts, black bean soup, stews and big batches of red chili.
Rival, the manufacturer of the Crock-Pot, a leading brand in slow cookers, also recommends the appliance for people who are dieting. Most recipes designed for slow cookers don't call for adding extra fat or oil. Few dishes require advance browning of meat, which saves additional calories and fat.
Also, slow-cooked skinless chicken or turkey won't dry out or become stringy, and inexpensive, extra-lean meats have time to develop a rich, full flavor.
If some grease is exuded during cooking, it rises to the top where it can be skimmed off or blotted away before serving.
According to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers in Chicago, more than 62 percent of American households own some type of slow cooker. The best slow cookers are those that have removable cooking units that allow the cook to remove the food from heat without having to transfer dishes. Some brands, such as the Crock-Pot, have removable Corning Ware liners. This allows foods to be cooked, refrigerated, frozen and reheated in a microwave oven, all in the same container.
Other brands, such as the slow cooker made by West Bend, have a rectangular metal heating base which can be removed and used as a griddle for sandwiches or pancakes. Food can be stored in the cooking dish but not reheated in a microwave oven.
Regardless of the type of model, slow cookers provide a gratification you simply can't get from zapping food in a microwave oven -- the comforting aroma of a homemade meal when you open the front door.
How to convert traditional recipes for the slow cooker:
* Browning meats: Only bacon, sausage, ground beef and fatty cuts of beef or pork need to be browned and drained before being added to the slow cooker. Other types of meat, such as corned beef, brisket or pot roast don't require browning.
* Liquids: Use half the liquid called for in conventional recipe. For example, if a recipe calls for two cups of broth, one usually will be sufficient for the slow cooker. Liquids do not evaporate in a slow cooker.
* Herbs and spices: Add whole herbs and spices, such as bay leaf or cinnamon stick, at the beginning of the cooking time. Add ground herbs and spices and fresh herbs during the last 30 minutes of cooking time.
* Milk and dairy products: Milk, sour cream and cream tend to separate when cooked for extended periods. When possible, add them during the last 30 minutes of cooking time. Condensed soups can be substituted for milk if desired.
* Vegetables: Chop raw vegetables, such as onions, garlic, carrots, turnips and cabbage before adding to the slow cooker. Eggplant may need to be sauteed or parboiled. Delicate vegetables such as peas, snow peas, corn and fresh mushrooms should be added during the last 30 minutes of cooking.
* Pasta and rice: Pasta, such as macaroni or shells, should be cooked before going into the slow cooker. Rice can be cooked along with the rest of the ingredients but add 1 cup extra liquid per cup of rice. Long-grain rice holds up better than short-grain rice for extended cooking.
* Soups: Add liquid only to cover other ingredients when making soups. Thin with additional liquid just before serving if desired. Add milk or cream to soups 30 minutes before serving.
* Beans: Soak beans overnight before adding to slow cooker in fresh water or other cooking liquid. Beans also may be cooked overnight in a slow cooker, drained and then combined with other ingredients for additional cooking.
* Toppings and dumplings: Crisp toppings such as bread crumbs, fried onions or cheese should be added at the last minute or crisped under the oven broiler. Biscuit, pie dough or egg toppings need to be baked before serving. Many slow cookers have removable interiors that can be placed directly in the oven. Dumplings can be cooked directly in the slow cooker by dropping spoonfuls of batter into the simmering liquid.