Cook a recipe overnight and refrigerate until ready to serve.
A Low-Tech Appliance
Slow cookers are amazingly low tech. The appliance usually consists of a metal casing and a stoneware insert with a tight-fitting lid. For convenience, you should be able to remove the insert from the metal casing. This makes it easier to clean and increases its versatility, not only as a vessel for refrigerating some dishes that have been prepared to the Make Ahead stage but also as a serving dish. The casing contains the heat source, electrical coil that usually surrounds the stoneware insert. These coils do their work on the energy it takes to power a lOO-watt light bulb. Because the slow cooker operates on such a small amount of energy, you can safely leave it turned on while you are away from home. However, if you've assembled the dish in the stoneware and refrigerated it overnight (appropriate for some dishes), do not turn the slow cooker on before dropping the stoneware into the casing. The dramatic temperature change could crack the stoneware.
Slow Cooker Basics
Slow cookers are generally round or oval in shape and range in size from 1 to 7 quarts. The small round ones are ideal for dips and fondues, as well as some soups, main courses and desserts. The larger sizes, usually oval in shape, are necessary to cook big-batch dishes and those that need to be cooked in a dish or pan that fits into the stoneware.
Because I use my slow cookers a lot for entertaining, I feel there is a benefit to having two: a smaller (3- to 4-quart size) one, which is ideal for preparing dips, roasting nuts or making recipes with smaller yields, and a larger (6-quart) oval one, which I use most of the time to cook recipes with large yields as well as for those calling for a baking dish or pan, which is set inside the stoneware. Once you begin using your slow cooker, you will get a sense of what your own needs are.
Some manufacturers sell a "slow cooker" that is actually a multi-cooker. These have a heating element at the bottom and, in my experience, they cook faster than traditional slow cookers. Also, since the heat source is at the bottom, during the long cooking time it is possible that the food will scorch unless it is stirred.
Your slow cooker should come with a booklet that explains how to use the appliance. I recommend that you read this carefully and/or visit the manufacturer's website for specific information on the model you purchased. I've used a variety of slow cookers and have found that cooking times can vary substantially from one to another. Although it may not seem particularly helpful if you're just starting out, the only firm advice I can give is: Know your slow cooker. After trying a few of these recipes, you will get a sense of whether your slow cooker is faster or slower than the ones I use and you will be able to adjust the cooking times accordingly.
Other variables that can affect cooking time are extreme humidity, power fluctuations and high altitudes. Be extra vigilant if any of these circumstances affect you.
Cooking Great-Tasting Food
The slow cooker's less-is-better approach is, in many ways, the secret of its success. The appliance does its work by cooking foods very slowly -- from about 200°F (100°C) on the Low setting to 300°F (150°C) on High. This slow, moist cooking environment (remember the tight-fitting lid) enables the appliance to produce mouth-watering pot roasts, briskets, chilies and many other kinds of soups and stews. It also helps to ensure success with delicate puddings and custards, among other dishes. In fact, I'm so pleased with the slow cooker's strengths that there are many dishes I wouldn't cook any other way -- for instance, pot roast, beefbrisket or short ribs, chilies and many kinds of stew. I also love to make cheesecakes in my slow cooker because they emerge from this damp cocoon perfectly cooked every time. They don't dry out or crack, which happens all too easily in the oven.