I have noted a number of disappointed reviews in response not only to this title but in response to various slow cooker recipe books to the effect that "the search continues" for better recipes. This post is an effort to get a topic going as to what makes the slow cooker so fantastic in some cases, and the cause of so many bland and unsatisfactory results in others.
For what it is worth, here's my 2¢ to get this discussion up and running:
Perhaps part of the disappointment some Amazon reviewers and home cooks experience lies in buying a cookbook sight unseen over the Internet only to realize that it doesn't go into enough depth in the food categories that appeal to them most. It seems these slow cooker cookbooks try to be all things to all people, and you know the old cliché about that (try to please everyone, end up pleasing no one at all -- or words to that effect).
Slow cooker publishers ought to consider breaking these cookbooks down into separate titles for separate food categories -- slow cooker BBQ recipes, nothing but soups, stews, beans & chili dishes, hearty main dish meals (like pot roast, pork chops, etc.), vegetarian, desserts, side dishes & appetizers, seafood, etc.
From a shopper's perspective, seeking out more specialized slow cooker books -- assuming any are on the market -- would all but eliminate the possibility of buying a gigantic slow cooker recipe book such as this 416-page Better Homes & Gardens compendium, one of several such cookbooks I own, filled with many recipes many of us may never use. (Although I take it I am in the minority because I use my slow cookers not only to make main courses but desserts, mulled apple cider, etc.)
It is my observation that slow cookers produce their best results with high-fat "comfort foods" such as pot roast. By contrast, I have had a number of seemingly promising recipes disappoint, mostly because they turn out too bland (embarrassingly enough, I served them to guests, which was a lesson learned not to serve a dish I had never taste-tested beforehand). Typically, I find my disappointment centers around the skinless chicken dishes (with the exception of BBQ), which I am assuming may have something to do with the lower fat content. Perhaps someone else can chime in here and share whether or not they think the type of meal or meat has anything to do with it, or for that matter if certain types of meals simply aren't a good match for the slow cooking process?
Another reason why recipes may flop in a slow cooker may have something to do with the push toward healthier cooking. Those who are inclined toward more healthful recipes may eliminate the fat, salt or sugar, each of which are essential to imparting the best possible flavor. As a result of either the publisher's decision to modernize the recipes or the cook's decision to limit some of the flavor-imparting ingredients in order to make the results healthier, outcomes may be a let down.
Part of the unspoken tradition of a slow cooker recipe book is that most ingredients go in right off the bat so that you can go out and run your errands or head off to your job and come back with the meal ready and waiting. This requirement could account for why starchy veggies, such as potatoes, are sometimes overly mushy. An even less appreciated reason why disappointing results may occur pertains to the fact that many newer slow cookers, even the very pricey ones, are running hotter and breaking down the starches sooner in the cooking process. I own not one but three slow cookers and the 35-year-old one with the non-removable crock produces better results, so that might be a clue right there. Sometimes it isn't a faulty recipe, it's a faulty appliance! I have had friends and family buy very expensive slow cookers, only to complain that they overcook the contents if given the heat level or time span the recipe calls for. Like automatic-drip coffee makers that fail to produce a hot enough cup-'o-joe, not all heating elements are created equally, apparently.
Part of the solution is to get to know the peculiarities of your particular slow cooker, and secondly to make certain you are using the right size slow cooker for the amount of ingredients called for in the recipe. Some of these cookbooks will post this information at the front of the book and won't mention again later that you might be better off using a 3-quart instead of a 6. A relatively recent solution are the 3-in-1 slow cooker models that are now available in stores. Companies such as Hamilton Beach are offering three separate sizes of removable crockery that rests in the same base. Genius!
On certain slow cookers the difference between a good outcome and a not-so-good dish may be as simple as choosing the longer cooking cycle rather than the faster one (or vise versa). Typically, recipe books provide the cook time for both the High and Low temperature settings. In other cases, some people find that it is better to add less liquid and/or drop in certain veggies later in the cooking process so they do not become too mushy.
No matter the cause of the disappointing results, the best solution is to learn how to adapt recipes. Use the recipes in books like this as a general guide. If they look too bland, doctor them up. Alternately, if you are like my Mom, leave out any onion, garlic or hot pepper the recipe calls for. The point being, there is nothing saying you MUST take each and every recipe literally. Take liberties to experiment, and you just might be the one to author the world's best slow cooker cookbook some day!
If most recipes in a given cookbook fail to deliver on your expectations despite your best efforts, it may be that this form of cooking is not a good match for you or your household. Keep in mind that this cooking format started out as a timesaver for busy moms entering the workforce en masse 40-some years ago. American tastes were generally more conservative back then, and many of the slow cooker recipes that have been handed down and reprinted over the years reflect that.
In closing, a note about reviewing cookbooks of this type: What some customers crave is what their mothers and grandmothers made using those inexpensive food staples such as cream of mushroom soup. They will rate a cookbook like this highly if they see familiar, budget-minded, quick-and-easy recipes appear. Still other cooks and Amazon reviewers have come up on the Food Network and celebrity TV chefs, and may rate a slow cooker recipe book poorly for the same reason someone else rates it highly -- too many processed ingredients, not adventurous enough, etc. For the latter crowd, I highly suggest taking the title of the cookbook you are contemplating under due consideration: If it uses words such as "gourmet" or "Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook", you will probably be happier using recipes from those as opposed to purchasing a catch-all title that starts off with "Biggest Book Of...". Better Homes & Gardens, after all, is a publishing company that came up with our grandmothers and/or mothers and in many ways is still set to appeal to traditional American cooks.
Slow cooking is a fantastic way to fill your home with the wonderful aroma of a hot, home-cooked meal on the way in the door after a busy day at work. A slow cooker's ability to satisfy gourmet cooks and foodies, is limited, however. By its very nature, slow cooking process tends to homogenize certain food textures, which will not appeal to all pallets. This *may* be one reason why celebrity and professional chefs have yet to sing the slow cooker's praises to the degree that home cooks have. In many ways, a slow cooker is a tool of convenience and compromise. It is possible that no amount of recipe collecting can overcome this, although taking time to browse cookbooks at your local bookstore in person can eliminate much of the unwelcome surprise of receiving a book too heavy on seafood when you wanted chili recipes, or too heavy on meat when you were after vegan. Whatever the case, there are certain types of ingredients that seem better suited than others for the slow cooker format, including pot roasts, stews and chili. It comes down to figuring out for yourself what a slow cooker recipe book can and cannot deliver based upon the nature of the cooking process.
For what they are worth, I hope these considerations help make it possible to make the most of your slow cooker cookbook and/or the slow cooker itself. Should anyone reading this have any tips, tricks or thoughts to add to this topic, by all means share them!