The Year of the Slow Cooker

Right now, as I type this, there is a pot of Basque chicken slowly but surely cooking away on the counter back at my house, about 26 miles from where I sit at this moment—an entire cut-up chicken mingling around with sautéed onions and garlic, tomatoes, peppers, kosher salt, paprika, and thyme.

And while I won’t be home from work until about 8pm tonight, when I open the door, that simmering pot of chicken is going to hit my nostrils and make my husband and me happy, hungry, giddy and really well-fed in the time it takes to grab a couple of forks and dishes. Behold, the genius of the slow-cooker.

And as we fork into this falling-off-bone, tender, incredibly flavorful meal, I will be thanking cookbook-writing genius, Michele Scicolone, author of two of my recent favorite tomes, The Italian Slow Cooker (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and, released just today, The French Slow Cooker (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)– books that made me see that once dust-covered device in my house as a way to not just be two places at once, but really get the creative juices flowing—and melding and braising and muddling together into a fairly extraordinary meal.

On this—the week of her new book’s debut—I caught up with Scicolone to talk slow cookin’, the best machines to use, and how to do everything from cake-baking to cassoulet. Here’s what she had to say:

A: What’s the different between a Crockpot and a slow cooker?

Scicolone: It’s something people are often confused about. Crockpot is a brand name like Kleenex or Thermos – it’s proprietary for large company; in this case for Rival, the company who made slow cookers famous. Slow cooker is generic. It first came out in the ‘60s, I believe, and introduced as a bean cooker. Then somebody got an idea: Well, if you can make beans, you can make rice and other things. Then they gave it a clever name and marketing and it took off in ‘70s.

Q: But slow-cooking as a technique is even older than that, isn’t it?

Scicolone: Of course. What you’re really doing is braising in a slow cooker, which is an ancient form of cooking --from France, to Italy, to all over world, different cultures use this method, just not in an electric pot, but on top of a stove or in an oven.

Q: What inspired you to up the ante on slow-cooker meals for the Italian Slow Cooker and, now, The French Slow Cooker?

Scicolone: Somehow, slow-cookers became separate from the idea of braising, and instead just a way to cook chili or beans. It’s become mundane. Not that those things can’t be delicious, but the slow-cooker has become more about convenience. People tell me all the time things like, 'I love to make beef stew in the slow-cooker, but it always tastes the same.' So I started thinking one day – if you put good stuff in it, you will get good stuff out of it.

A sort of, 'If you cook it, they will come (and eat).'

Scicolone: Absolutely – there’s no reason to be stuck in rut of chili and baked beans and beef strew. Those things are great, but we can take convenience to another level. The slow cooker has a tremendous breadth of uses. I find it supplements regular kitchen equipment, and stands in for things that you might not have. Many of the recipes I’ve come up with, like risotto, is just not what one would think about with this gadget.

Q: How did you develop these?

Scicolone: I just thought about what dishes I could typically braise in a stew pot on the stove or in the oven and things that take well to moist cooking, and I gave it a whirl. Some are born out of accident.

Q: Like which ones?

Scicolone:: Many years ago when starting my career, I was baking cakes for a gourmet shop and put two chocolate cakes in oven to bake and when I opened the oven an hour later, they were raw – the oven wasn’t working. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t borrow an oven and I didn’t want to waste the batter, so I came up with the idea of steaming them and they came out great! Thick and fudgy, like pudding cake. That happy accident was always in the back of mind.  In the slow cooker, the application of heat works the same way, and cakes come out great.

Q: How about some slow-cooking tips – like, what’s the difference in using the low and high settings that are typical on most slow cookers?

Scicolone: I always cook meats on low and things like eggs or cakes on high, because things with eggs in them you want to cook through and through; and you don't want to put food in there that cooks so slowly that bacteria develops. That’s also why it’s important not to overload your pot. There’s a danger that what you’re making won’t heat through if you decide to cram in a double batch of, say, chicken, with a recipe that calls only for a certain amount – it’s very important to follow the temperature instructions and never overload.

Q: Are all slow cookers created equal?

Scicolone: Different brands are indeed different, and that’s the challenge of developing recipes for a cooker. But just like anything, you have to be flexible. If it’s not done, cook it a little longer. Some slow cookers go as high as 300 degrees Fahrenheit on high; some are 20 to 40 degrees lower. Generally, you can assume that slow cookers will be approximately between 180 – 200 degrees on low, and between 260 – 300 degrees Fahrenheit on high. All are different, though. I’ve worked with eight different brands over the years, and I appreciate the differences between them and I learned to be more flexible.

Q: What features should you look for when buying a slow cookers?

Scicolone: I have a very basic one and a couple of fancy ones, too; but it’s a simple mechanism. The more complicated the machine, the more problems I find it has. But nice features to have are a timer -- one that switches automatically from high to low to warm. That’s important. A see-through lid is good, too. Also, larger capacity slow cookers are better than small. I’d rather have leftovers or than have just enough. Some have clamps to close so you can bring a dish to party and not worry about sloshing around. I’m not usually happy with the versions that offer the option to cook on the stovetop. After a year, the non-stick liner in the one I had bubbled up and I was afraid to cook in it anymore. Another had hot spots from beginning, and things would brown on one side and not cook on another. So my advice is to stick with the regular version that don’t’ go on stove top

Q: Can you give me any great recipes that might help people to save some time and toil in the kitchen?

Scicolone: I have a couple of wonderful French pates that are just terrific for parties. They’re a little sophisticated, but doing them in the slow cooker makes it easy. For more informal gatherings, meatballs are great for watching the game or taking the tree down. Another dishes that’s sophisticated and great this time of year is cassoulet-- a hearty French bean and meat stew.It’s a really easy thing to do and so, so good in slow cooker.