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Everyday Cheapskate: Hail, the return of the slow cooker

The slow cooker, aka Crock-pot, is back. If you have one (a recent study says 77.8 percent of us do) now would be a great time to drag it out and give it another chance.

I know what you’re thinking: The reason that slow cooker landed where it did is because it produced overcooked, bland tasting meals that could at best be considered semi-edible. I hear you. The problem is we probably didn’t know, much less adhere to, the basic fundamental culinary techniques of slow cooking.

WHY SLOW COOK?

—Convenience. A slow cooker can be left unattended all day. You can put ingredients in in the morning and forget about it until dinnertime, without worry of burning the house down. It’s safe as a nightlight.

—Save money. The best slow-cooked ingredients are often the least expensive. Knowing dinner is all ready to go precludes unscheduled fast food runs and relieves guilt. The folks at Sunbeam say it costs only a penny to operate a slow cooker for six to eight hours.

BASIC SLOW-COOKING TECHNIQUES

—Follow a recipe. Use and carefully follow only recipes developed specifically for slow cookers. It’s a completely different way of cooking.

—Don’t overcook. Just because six hours is good doesn’t mean eight hours will be better. Overcooking results in weird textures, tough and rubbery chicken, mushy messes, and bland offerings. Yuck.

—Brown meats. For best flavor and texture, ground beef or ground turkey should be browned on top of the stove before adding to slow cooker.

—Don’t peek. Removing the lid for even a moment during cooking time allows the internal temperature to drop by up to 15 degrees. For each peek, add an additional 20 minutes cooking time.

—Start cold but not frozen. Keep perishable foods such as meats, poultry and vegetables refrigerated until it’s time to cook.

—Re-season. Flavors often become diluted with long slow cooking. So before serving any slow-cooked creation, taste and adjust the seasonings.

—Use a timer. Careful timing is key to slow cooking. If your slow cooker doesn’t have a timer, don’t give up. Simply plug it into a lamp or appliance timer device you can purchase at the home improvement store for about $12. A timer will allow you to cook a dish requiring say six hours, even though you will be away for eight. Start the cooking no longer than two hours later after placing ingredients in the cooker. For poultry, begin no longer than one hour later.

If you are anxious to make amends with your slow cooker, here is a personal favorite of mine that will give you great confidence and your family a delicious meal.

APRICOT-RUSSIAN CHICKEN

Serves 8 to 10

1 cup chunky apricot preserves

3/4 cup bottled Russian dressing

1 (1.15 ounce) envelope dry onion soup mix

12 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, trimmed of fat (about 3 1/2 to 4 pounds)

In a medium bowl, mix together the preserves, dressing and soup mix. Arrange three breasts in the bottom of a 3 1/2-quart slow cooker. Spoon one-fourth of the apricot mixture on top. Add three more layers of chicken alternating with the apricot mixture and ending with it on top.

Mary Hunt is founder of www.DebtProofLiving.com, a personal finance member website.

You can email her at mary@everydaycheapskate.com, or write to Everyday Cheapskate, P.O. Box 2099, Cypress, CA 90630.

To find out more about Mary Hunt and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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