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Book Review: *Slow Cooker Revolution* from America's Test Kitchen

  • Slow Cooker Revolution from the editors of America’s Test Kitchen
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Boston Common Press (February 15, 2011)
  • ISBN-13: 978-1933615691

Back-of-the-book blurb: Who doesn’t like the idea of throwing ingredients into a slow cooker and coming back hours later to a finished meal? Too bad most slow cooker recipes deliver mediocre results you’d rather forget than fix again. A team of ten test cooks at America’s Test Kitchen spent a year developing recipes, and what they discovered will change the way you use your slow cooker.

Did you know that onions garlic, and spices should be bloomed in the microwave for five minutes before they go into the slow cooker? This simple step intensifies their flavor and requires no extra work. Did you know that a little soy sauce mixed with tomato paste adds meaty flavors to almost any stew and can often replace the tedious step of browning the meat? And do you know the secret to a moist slow-cooker chicken? Start the bird upside down to protect the delicate white meat from drying out.

She Is Too Fond of Books’ review: I purchased this book as a direct result of reading Caite’s review over at A Lovely Shore Breeze. With a family of six, I

Old-Fashioned Tamale Pie from "Slow Cooker Revolution"

love the idea of using my Crock-Pot once a week on those nights where I have to be four places at once – prep in the morning or early afternoon, turn on the slow cooker, and get through the day until dinner time.  The challenge for me has been finding recipes that aren’t gloppy, or start with “open a can of Campbell’s thus-and-such.”  I’ve shared my slow cooker recipes for barbeque pulled pork sandwiches,  and for plum pork; other than these and a couple more … I’m out of ideas.  All that’s about to change!

Are you familiar with America’s Test Kitchen?  I think of them as the Consumer Reports of cooking – they test techniques, recipes, equipment, and ingredients, reporting back in their magazines, website, and television shows.  They explain why techniques work (and why they don’t), why one brand of instant rice is preferable to another, and what fancy (and simple) kitchen gadgets are worth the cost.

In the preface to Slow Cooker Revolution, Christopher Kimball – founder and editor of Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country, as well as host of ATK’s two television programs – explains that slow cookers aren’t a fad item, they can really be a successful workhorse in the kitchen.  This cookbook explains how to extract flavor in the prep work, tells which cuts of meat are most suited for slow cookers, and gives tips and tricks like using a foil sling to remove a meatloaf or lasagna from the Crock-Pot.  He adds:

I do love my slow cooker because it does so many things well … but most of all, it means that dinner is done ahead of time, before I go to work or head outside for the day in the summer.  I love that it makes me think ahead so when evening comes I have little to do but enjoy a glass of wine in good company.

Amen!  Now, on to the ‘meat’ of the cookbook:

This is a chunky paperback with French flaps.  There’s a bit of an intro and overview of some of the “revolutionary” tips introduced in the book.  America’s Test Kitchen ran equipment tests and has a recommendation of the best value slow cooker (not the least expensive; the highest value/price ratio) … no, I’m not going to tell you which one, you’ll have to get the book to find out (not the model currently in my kitchen, but that may change!).

Recipes run from the usual soups and stews to braises, chilis, barbeque, pasta sauces, meatballs/meatloaves, Mexican foods, casseroles, side dishes, brunch items, and desserts -wow!  A section called “The Basics” has recipes for staples like gravy, broths, applesauce, and orange marmalade (yum!).  That list alone put my 4-recipe slow cooker rotation to shame!  Most recipes have full-page/full-color photos, and all have easy-to-follow step-by step directions and explanations.

The recipe I tested, Old-Fashioned Tamale Pie, called for 4 cups of shredded cooked chicken.  A “quick prep tip” at the bottom of the page showed me how to make “easy poached chicken,” which shredded easily with two forks after cooling slightly.  Other sidebars/break-outs include “on the side” and “smart shopping” (I was fascinated by a discussion about saffron, which I have never purchased  - have you seen the price of saffron threads?!?  Now I know how to correctly substitute the less expensive powered saffron for threads).  There’s a wealthy of smart consumer information in Slow Cooker Revolution, aside from tasty recipes.

Here’s the recipe for Old-Fashioned Tamale Pie, starting with the ‘easy poached chicken.’   ATK asks that recipes are share in my own words, not copied verbatim from the cookbook; I’ve added personal comments/feedback in square brackets.  Their recipe layout is a more traditional listing of ingredients in one column, with instructions in a separate column.

1. prepare 4 cups shredded chicken: Intro notes indicate I could use leftover chicken, rotisserie chicken from the grocery store, or follow theseinstructions for prepping ‘easy poached chicken’:  season 2 pounds boneless/skinless chicken breasts with salt and pepper.  Heat 1 Tbl vegetable oil in skillet and add chicken; leave on first side and cook 6-8 minutes until well browned.  Turn chicken over, add 1/2 cup water to skillet, and cover.  Reduce heat and cook another 5-7 minutes until cooked thru [160-165 on instant-read thermometer, but I also do the "cut and check" test as well].  Remove chicken from skillet and allow to cool a few minutes before shredding with forks. [another page has a 'quick prep tip' for shredding meat.  I love this cookbook - how to's are cross-referenced, so I can easily look up what I need to learn].

2. make the polenta topping: [I had never before purchased polenta. A 'smart shopping' sidebar helped me differentiate between traditional, instant, and precooked] Combine 2/14 cups water, 3/4 cup instant polenta, and 1 tsp salt in microwavable bowl [I used the Pampered Chef batter bowl which looks like a big glass measuring cup], cover and microwave 6-8 minutes, until most of the water is absorbed. Stir, microwave another 1-3 minutes.  Stir in 1 cup (4 oz) shredded cheddar cheese, 1 Tbl butter [recipe calls for unsalted; my unsalted butter was frozen solid, I used 'lightly salted' with no ill effects]. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then cover to keep warm.

3. prep aromatics in microwave: [This is one of the methods ATK explains in the cookbook - microwaving allows the flavor to "bloom" before addingcertain ingredients to the slow cooker, creating a more flavorful dish] Combine 1 minced onion, 1 Tbl vegetable oil, 3 cloves minced garlic [I use the jarred minced garlic], 1 Tbl chili powder [feedback from my family is that it was a bit too spicy for their palates; I'l use 1/2 - 3/4 Tbl next time], and 1 tsp ground cumin in microwavable bowl.  Cook (stirring occasionally) for about 5 minutes, until onion is softened.

4.  add ingredients to slow cooker: Put onion mixture from Step 3 into slow cooker.  Add 4 cups shredded chicken, 1 (15-oz) can black beans [I use Progresso, but now I'll be searching the ATK archives to see if they've tested canned beans!], 1 (15-oz) can creamed corn, 1 (10-oz) can enchilada sauce, 2 Tbl Minute tapioca.  Stir to combine, then smoothe into even layer.  Spoon polenta mixture on top, smoothing with spatula.  Cover and cook about 4 hours on low, until heated through.

Note:  Slow Cooker Revolution instructions call for minced fresh cilantro and lime wedges for garnish and additional flavor when serving.  Fresh cilantro tastes like soap to me, so I avoid it.  Admittedly, my photo would look more colorful with the splashes of green (presentation can mean so much!).

This meal was a hit with the entire family – J and all four kids liked it (with the note that I may reduce the amount of chili powder).  The recipe indicates it serves 6-8; I got 8 servings, and we had it with a side salad.  I’ve been told “it’s a keeper, Mom!”  And, I look forward to choosing this week’s slow cooker recipe from Slow Cooker Revolution!

For more food-related posts, head over to Beth Fish Reads’ round-up of cooking-related posts at Weekend Cooking. You may find a cookbook review, recipe, kitchen tip, or baking adventure over there.  As she says, “if your post is vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend.”

22 comments to Book Review: *Slow Cooker Revolution* from America’s Test Kitchen

  • I love polenta!!! So you won me on that alone. But ATK has been in my kitchen from before they were even ATK (meaning the old Cook’s magazine from decades ago). I’ve been meaning to pick up a copy of this book and every time I see a recipe from it or read a review, I *know* I’ll love it.

    I use organic black beans (Edam brand?) that have no added salt and not much liquid. In fact, I love all their beans. But I often make beans in the slow cooker or pressure cooker and freeze them for future use (cheaper).

    Any recipe that can please four kids has got to be a winner.

  • Oh, another slow cooker lover. If this goes on for another few weekends I WILL have to buy one of those.

  • I’ve been looking for a slow cooker cookbook that doesn’t call for a can of cream of mushroom/spinach/etc. soup in every recipe. This looks like the way to go! Thanks so much for the review.

  • Beth F – I have a feeling I’ll be willing to try new-to-me ingredients and techniques with the help of the ATK books. I think our store carries Edam, I’ll try them when I make the Tamale Pie a second time.

    Rikki – it’s really worthwhile. My purchase is from reading Caite’s review, and I’m so happy with the book.

    Swapna – I remember you were looking for one last May; I think SLOW COOKER REVOLUTION is a great book. It’s not just recipes, it’s new ways of prepping to get the best flavor. May be a little more time in prep, but a much more satisfying result as well.

  • My crockpot has gotten a lot of use this winter! Stephanie O’Dea’s Make It Fast, Cook It Slow is my new favorite slow-cooker cookbook, but I’ll be borrowing this from the library for a ‘test run’. Thanks.

  • I’m going to have to buy this one. It sounds great! I use my slow cooker a lot. I make huge batches of chili quite often. I like that this book doesn’t use canned soup in everything as most of the books do. The tamales sound so good. I’m a polenta fan so anything with it would be good to me. I just mix up batches of it on the stove with onions and garlic and it makes a great side dish. Thanks for sharing Dawn!

  • This looks good, yet it seems like more work than just “throwing everything into a slow cooker.” In the final analysis, I need a live-in cook….

  • I am happy that you liked the cook. I love that you can read through their cookbooks and learn so much.
    But then “French flaps’…I never knew they were called that!

  • hmmm..should have read “loved the BOOK”…lol

  • This looks so good that I ordered a copy.

  • Caite’s review made me put this book on my to-buy list. Now you are sending me out the door. I love ATK, especially Cook’s Illustrated.

  • I have added this book to my shopping list at the bookstore. I enjoyed both yours and Caite’s reviews and love to use my slow cookers. I now need one of the small ones to make dips and such.

  • WOW! Great tips! My crockpot is my favorite kitchen appliance so I’m adding this to my list of must buy’s.

    You can visit my Weekend Cooking HERE

  • I have never cooked with polenta and I would never have thought about trying to cook something in the slow cooker where you would want to keep the layers in tact like this.

  • Between you and Caite, I feel like I HAVE to get hold of this cookbook.

  • I love polenta :) Seems that the slow cooker is really making its comeback through Weekend cooking! It’s great that everyone in your family loved it!

  • Nan

    I just put some cannellini beans and wheat berries in the crockpot with cumin, black pepper, and tumeric. I’ll add some potatoes and tomato sauce later. We love it.

  • I love the slow cooker and use it for all sorts of recipes. The ease of preparing something while you are away at other business really works for me. As a matter of fact, I am about to tuck into some corned beef that has been in the slow cooker all day. It gets nice and tender and it is just wonderful with some potatoes and cabbage. This is one book that I definitely need to grab!

  • [...] by America’s Test Kitchen, in the store, I immediately thought of Caite‘s and Dawn‘s reviews, and knew I had to see what the book was all about.  Carl and I looked through it [...]

  • [...] about 1 minute. This was interesting, adding the spices before any liquid; reminds me of the way America’s Test Kitchen instructs us to prep these aromatic items in the microwave to release the “bloom” of [...]

  • [...] to Slow Cooker Revolution (my love letter to this book from America’s Test Kitchen is here), I have an entire cookbook full of tips, techniques, and meals. I also have a handful of pre-SCR [...]

  • Melissa

    I don’t have a microwave. Is there a way to bloom the onion, garlic or spices in an oven?

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