Craving comforting, convenient meals for those still-cold early spring nights? When your schedule is particularly perplexing, and your days tedious and tiring, using a slow cooker is a marvelous method of preparing warm, welcoming meals. “Setting and forgetting,” the hallmark of slow cooker capability, slowly melds ingredients into delectable dishes that will be ready to serve the moment you return from a long day.

Perfect for long-simmering dishes such as fragrant chicken soup, spicy pulled pork, rich braised beef, or peppery pot roast, slow cookers are immensely versatile, and can also be used to prepare delicious dips, such as creamy caramelized onion dip or zesty nacho dip, bracing beverages like mulled cider and homemade hot chocolate, or decadent desserts, including cinnamon-scented apple crisp, gooey chocolate cake, and maple bread pudding.

A popular mode of meal prep since the 1970s, slow cookers significantly reduce mealtime stress when used properly. First-time users are advised to purchase a programmable slow cooker and be sure to read and follow both the slow cooker manual and recipes carefully, following each direction exactly as noted. Remember to place the slow cooker on a flat, heat-safe surface, such as the kitchen countertop, away from water sources and loose papers or towels.

For the most tender, tasty results, do not overfill or underfill your slow cooker with food and liquid. A properly filled slow cooker, never more than half to three-quarters full, allows for proper circulation of heat and a steady temperature. Stick to the recommended times and temperature settings for each recipe. Refrain from opening the lid during cooking, unless directed to do so by the recipe. Doing so will cause the slow cooker to lose heat and can throw off the timing of the recipe, as it takes a bit of time for the appliance to return to the proper temperature.

Slow cookers, commonly known by the brand name “Crock Pot,” are available in a variety of sizes. If you have many mouths to feed or enjoy making big batches of soup or braising large cuts of meat, an eight-quart or larger is your go-to size. For a smaller family, four- to six-quart sizes may be sufficient. For petite purposes, such as dips or sauces, slow cookers are available in one- to three-quart sizes.

As with all cooking projects and techniques, practice makes perfect. As you work with your slow cooker more frequently, you will come to appreciate the limitless luxury of this amazing appliance.

Cozy Chicken Soup
(Serves 4 to 6)

Ingredients:
1 ½ pounds boneless chicken breast
3 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
3 stalks of celery, peeled and chopped
1 parsnip, peeled and chopped (optional)
1 medium sweet onion, peeled and chopped
3 large cloves of garlic, finely minced
6 cups chicken broth
1 cup water or white wine
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
2 cups cheese tortellini
Chopped fresh parsley and dill for serving, if desired
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions:
Add all ingredients to the slow cooker, except for the tortellini, parsley, dill, and salt and pepper. Cook on low for 6 hours. Remove the chicken breasts from the slow cooker, let cool a bit, then shred chicken and return to the slow cooker. Add the tortellini and cook for an additional 15-20 minutes, until cooked through. Taste and season with salt and pepper, then serve, garnishing with parsley and dill.

Slow Cooker Chocolate Cake
(Serves 4 to 6)

Ingredients:
1 16.25 oz. box white cake mix
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
½ tablespoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
½ cup butter, melted
1 ¼ cups strong, hot coffee
3 large eggs
1 (12 oz.) can evaporated milk
1 (10 oz.) package chocolate chips, semi-sweet or dark
Vegetable cooking spray

Directions:
Whisk together cake mix and next 7 ingredients. Line bottom and sides of a 6-quart slow cooker with aluminum foil, hanging foil 2-3 inches over the sides. Lightly grease foil with cooking spray. Add half of batter and scatter chocolate morsels over batter. Top with remaining batter. Cover and cook on high for 1 ½ hours or until set. Remove lid, let stand for 30 minutes. Lift cake from slow cooker, using aluminum foil sides as handles.

Serve warm with whipped cream.