While we often describe fall as feeling the chill of early morning as we walk outdoors and hearing the crunch of leaves underfoot, the smells of fall are classic, too: roasting marshmallows over a bonfire, breathing in the steam from a mug of hot cocoa, and yes, the fragrance of stew bubbling in a slow cooker all day.
The old-fashioned slow cooker has been replaced in many homes by a multi-purpose cooking appliance, and while those appliances can cook more quickly with pressure and offer other “services” such as browning meat before cooking, an old, reliable slow cooker is less expensive to purchase and cheaper to operate than an oven or a cookstove, easy to use and allows you to fill and ignore the cooking process all day. Another bonus: Slow cooking allows you to purchase less expensive cuts of meat that must be simmered to become tender and to cook dried beans rather than purchasing more expensive canned navy or pinto beans.
If you have one in your pantry, now is the time to pull it out and dust it off for use this fall. If you are considering purchasing one, here are some tips:
Most models have a removable insert for easy cleaning. Check to be sure the model you purchase has that feature. In addition, one with a non-stick coating can be a bonus (but do recognize that you’ll need to be careful not to scratch the coating as you scoop food from the insert).
A unit with a heating element that travels up the side of the base provides more even cooking than one that has a heating unit only at the base.
An oval-shaped slow cooker can accommodate large cuts of meat easier than a round-shaped one.
A glass lid will allow you to check on the food without opening it; removing the lid does slow down the cooking process dramatically.
Features such as searing, holding after cooking, ability to program and a thermometer can be useful, but recognize that you will pay extra for them.
Size matters. Slow cookers work best when filled at least half-full but no more than three-quarters full. Most slow cooker recipes are written for a unit that holds about 6-7 quarts.