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Slow Cookers Yield Rich Flavors in No Time

There's something incredibly satisfying about coming home hungry on a snowy winter's day and breathing in the savory scent of pork braised in wine — especially when it's ready to eat when you walk in the door.

That's the beauty of the slow cooker.

I'm not sure why it took me so long to buy one. Perhaps it was memories of stringy, bland pot roasts coming out of the gaudy orange Crock-Pot of my 1970s childhood. (Sorry, Mom.)

But despite my doubts, I started thinking about how delicious and convenient a Cuban black bean stew would be for a no-fuss dinner — if I only had the guts to leave my oven on all day while I was out.

Soon enough, I bought a 6 1/2-quart stainless-steel slow cooker, and I haven't looked back.

A sunny, lemon-scented red lentil soup, chicken and garlic stew, cinnamon beef barbecue, lamb shanks with dried apricots, oatmeal with dried blueberries, cardamom-scented rice pudding, you name it. If it can stand up to long, slow, moist heat — i.e., braising — I put it in the slow cooker.

With a little planning — and in the amount of time it takes to get pizza delivered — you can prep three sophisticated yet casual main courses for a Super Bowl party (recipes below). The slow cooker does all the time-consuming work.

Plus, there's no need to worry about burning the house down or overcooking your meal, because these days, most slow cookers automatically switch to warm when the cooking time is up.

While there are dozens of slow-cooker cookbooks available to accommodate a variety of tastes and skill levels, practically any braising recipe can be adapted to the slow cooker.

All it takes is a few minutes in the morning to chop the vegetables, brown a piece of tough meat that has a decent amount of fat on it, such as pork shoulder, lamb shanks or brisket, add the liquid and seasonings of your choice to the pot, cover it and turn it on low.

Six to eight hours later, you've got a complete meal. I've found that unless you're making a stew, you should use about 50 percent less liquid than a braising recipe requires because there is less evaporation in a slow cooker than in the oven.

Although the braising technique has been around for centuries (think Moroccan tagines), the gadget known as the slow cooker began life as a humble bean pot in the 1970s, says Vikki Slavin, a marketing manager for Jarden Consumer Solutions, which owns the Crock-Pot brand.

The bean cooker was a brown, glazed ceramic dish fused inside a white-steel housing, a cord and an aluminum lid. As consumers began testing them, the company redesigned the housing and added handles and a glass lid so users could see inside, and developed more diverse recipes.

Nearly four decades later, the slow cooker includes features such as automatic timers, removable ceramic pots for easy cleaning, hinged lids that stay tight to prevent spills when transporting, and specialty models that range in size from 2 to 8 quarts and in price from about $30 to more than $150.

Perhaps the slow cooker is shedding its dowdy reputation because celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Paula Deen are catching on to the fact that it's a convenient but tasty way for home cooks to infuse tons of flavor into inexpensive cuts of meat.

Even my Mom is dragging out her Crock-Pot again, swapping the Yankee pot roast for a hoisin-glazed pork loin. Go, Mom!

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April Fulton
April Fulton is a former editor with NPR's Science Desk and a contributor to Shots, NPR's health news series.