Kathy Hester's 5 Essentials for Fun, Healthy, and Delicious Slow Cooking

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Kathy Hester is a self-proclaimed member of Slow Cookers Anonymous. Over the years she has owned somewhere around 30 to 35 slow cookers and has written three slow cooker books. Her area of expertise is vegan slow cooking but the five essentials for slow cooking that she shares with us today apply to all diets, so no one will miss out on these helpful tips. This woman really knows her way around a slow cooker!

Kathy's books are The Vegan Slow Cooker, The Great Vegan Book and her most recent title, Vegan Slow Cooking for Two or Just You, which we featured here. While her books are geared towards vegan cooking, 30-40% of the people who buy her books aren't vegan and not even vegetarian.

Kathy lives with two cats that would rather not live together, two dogs with belly-rub addictions, and her very own picky eater. She is a self-taught home cook who willingly tries all sorts of things, even if she's not sure they will work. She lives in Durham, NC and has written for many publications including Chickpea, One Green Planet, and Everything Mom.

Kathy's 5 Essentials for Fun, Healthy, and Delicious Slow Cooking

1. Get to know your slow cooker. "It's like dating: every time you get a new slow cooker, you have to get to know it, you have to start from the beginning. Over my lifetime, I've had maybe 30 to 35 slow cookers and I can guarantee that if you were to go to Target and purchase two slow cookers — same brand, same model — they will each cook a little differently.

"It's important to find out if your slow cooker cooks hot or if it cooks cool. People send me questions all the time saying things like 'this recipe can't be right because it turned out watery' or 'it almost burned' which has everything to do with how their slow cooker functions. As much as I wish all slow cookers were the same, the truth is they cook at different temperatures not only from brand to brand but also from cooker to cooker.

"For instance, most older models are built to cook at a lower temperature than newer models. You can still cook with them, of course, but you may need to take anywhere from 1/2 to 1 cup of the liquid out of a recipe. Or if your pot boils when it's on its low setting, then you're probably going to have to add another cup or cup and a half of the liquid so that you can make it through your work day and not come home to burnt stew."

How do you go about finding this out? Are there any tests you can perform? "Yes, to a point. It's not always so extreme — your cooker might be only a little hot on low, so it might not show up until you do something like bake in it or make a casserole."

"My main piece of advice is that the first time you use your slow cooker, be it an old one you inherited or bought at the thrift store, or a brand new one, is to be at home when you use it for the first time. And cook something with a little more liquid like a soup or a stew. You have to try hard to to burn a soup!"

"Another way to know more about your cooker is to bake something in it. In my new book, I have a recipe for cookies that you bake on the bottom of a 2-quart cooker. (This is something you will need to be around for as it takes less than an hour to cook.) But the great thing about it is that you can see if your cooker has any hot spots. If you do, then you know to turn the crock halfway through so it cooks more evenly."

"If you do purchase a used slow cooker, you don't have to worry that it will burn your house down, but you should keep an eye on it. I have never had a slow cooker that gets too hot but I know people who have."

2. Choose the right recipe. "You can modify cooking times to fit your schedule by choosing the right recipe. Most of my recipes take 7 to 9 hours but if you're not sure, if maybe you'll be gone 12 to 13 hours, then you should choose a soup or a stew.

"Once you know your slow cooker really well, then you will instinctively adjust recipes to fit your schedule. You will know that adding an extra 1/2 cup of liquid will be a good cushion if you have to work overtime that night. But if you're new, then choose the more flexible soup or stew. That way you won't be disappointed when you come home from a hard day's work to find something you can't eat. A soup or a chili or a stew can usually cook longer."

"Also, make sure your slow cooker is the size that's called for in the recipe. You can almost always double or triple a stew or soup recipe if the recipe was developed for a 4-quart model and you have a 6-quart, for instance. It doesn't hurt to add more liquid. The worst that can happen is that you'll have to put it on the stove and boil off some of the extra liquid. Whereas if you didn't add extra liquid, you'll possibly burn your dish."

3. Add ingredients at different times. Add long-cooking vegetables such as sweet potatoes, carrots, potatoes, celeriac in the morning as they can cook all day. But quicker cooking vegetables such as light greens, fresh peas, green beans, fresh herbs can go in about 30 minutes before you serve the dish.

If your family isn't into greens like kale, collards, Swiss chard, then try finely mincing them, almost like parsley, and putting them towards the end — they'll have no idea they're in there and eat them right up, which is awesome!

4. Solutions for adding flavor. People tend to say that all slow cooker food tastes the same. There are a few things you can do about that. The first is to be sure that you sauté your onions as this really adds a lot of flavor. The good news is that you don't have to sauté your onions in the morning, a time when most people are too rushed for this step. You can sauté them the night before (and cut up all of your vegetables, too!)

"One trick is to sauté a big batch of onions on the weekend and freeze them in ice cube trays, and then you just pop in one to four cubes into your cooker. You can also slow cook a big batch of onions in your slow cooker (there's a recipe for this in my new book) until they're caramelized and then freeze or refrigerate them.

"You can brown your protein, of course, and that helps add some flavor. But a big thing to do is to taste your food before you serve it and reseason it as needed. We do this with regular cooking, so of course we should do this with slow cooking. In all of my recipes I say to taste and reseason if needed. There is no shame in adding a little extra chili powder or some oregano, as well as salt and pepper. I sometimes add half my fresh ginger in the beginning of a recipe and save the rest for when its nearly done."

5. If one slow cooker is good, then two or three are even better! "I promise I'm not trying to get people in my slow cookers anonymous group! Much depends on the size of your family but a 3.5 to 4-quart size will suit many people's needs as it will serve about 4 to 6 people. Or two people with leftovers for lunch."

But I believe strongly that everyone needs a 1.5 to 2-quart slow cooker as well because that's how you wake up to breakfast. On my blog, I have about 60 different healthy slow cooker oatmeal recipes. Oatmeal is not boring! You can also cook grits in the smaller cooker, you can cook rice cereal, you can cook cream of wheat, or any of those mixed grain cereals. If you find that there's a skin on top, just add about 1/4 to 1/2 cup more water next time, although my dogs just love it so it's not a problem in my house!"

"You can also use the smaller cooker to make dips and you can make desserts like rice pudding, cookies and cakes for two, hot chocolate (which will stay nice and warm.) A small family can make full meals by putting parchment between things in order to make a protein and two sides. Recently I did a black pepper portabella with vegetables on the side and I seasoned them all separately, wrapped them in parchment paper and put them on top of one another in a 2-quart cooker. You can add a little water in the bottom if you think you'll be gone a while."

"If you don't want to own three (or more!) slow cookers, then look for a three-in-one model. It has one base and three different sized pots, so its as if you're only storing one cooker. It's round and has 6-, 4-, and 2-quart bowls. They're getting a little harder to find."

Additional safety tips: Always place your slow cookers on a trivet, just in case it gets a little too hot. It's rare for this to happen, but why not take the precaution. Those metal trivets with the little legs that lift things off of the counter are the best but you could use cork, too. Don't use a pot holder or a dish towel! Keep plastics or any meltables at least 6 inches away from the sides of the cooker. If you have any kids or pets, keep the cooker out of reach and the cords out of reach.

And again, it's really fine to leave the house with your slow cooker on as long as you know it really well.

Modifying recipes: Some people say that when you're modifying a stovetop recipe for your slow cooker, you should cut the liquid in half. But remember to also adjust to your specific cooker. You may need to keep a little more liquid if it cooks hot, or less if it cooks slow.

A few fun things to try:
"If you have a big, 6-quart cooker, cook a pie pumpkin! Take a small pie pumpkin, wash it off, and poke a few small holes in it. Put it in the your cooker. (It needs to be small enough that it will fit, of course.) Cook it for about 6 to 8 hours and then let it cool. It cuts open like butter and you just scoop out the seeds. You don't even have to puree it, the flesh will be so cooked that it will just mash up on its own. This works for all squashes like butternut and acorn — any of those hard winer squashes that you hate to cut through. Since pie pumpkins are usually only available in the fall, you can cook up a whole bunch and then freeze in 1.5 cup portions, which equals one can.

"You can bake potatoes and sweet potatoes, too, using any sized cooker. Some people wrap them in foil or spray the crock with cooking spray, but I usually just wash them and poke them all over with a fork. Throw them in the cooker in the morning before you leave for work and when you come home, you have perfectly cooked potatoes. The sweet potatoes can be used for desserts. You can put a little brown sugar and cinnamon on them — its like a pie without a crust or you can crumble gingersnaps on top for more crunch."

For more from Kathy Hester check out her blog Healthy Slow Cooking, or follow her on Facebook and Pinterest.

(Image: Kathy Hester)