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April 10, 2013

Slow cooker lamb without the machine

I have two issues with slow cookers, and both are deal breakers.

First, I resent the fact that if I want my meat browned — and therefore flavorful — I must sear it in another pan before adding it to the slow cooker. And yes, I know that a small number of (typically very expensive) slow cookers do have the ability to sear meat. But the reality is, most of us don’t own those. To me, much of the convenience of a slow cooker is the ability to do everything in one pot. If I can’t, it’s a lot less convenient.

Second, I distrust how evenly they heat. While there are some dishes for which uneven heating — and even a bit of overheating — isn’t a major deal (I’m talking to you, chili), most meals aren’t that forgiving. I have rendered far too many recipes inedible by misjudging how intense (or not) my slow cooker would cook. I much prefer the precision of my stovetop, which I can tweak to perfection.

It’s for these reasons I’ve recently become enamored with one of the original slow cookers — the tagine.

At heart, these conical cooking pots from Morocco are similar to a Dutch oven, at least in terms of how they are intended to be used. The base is shallow, similar to a saute pan. This is topped with a cone-shaped lid. The base is heated directly on the stove, giving the cook not only the ability to sear meat, but also to finely tune the temperature. Many tagines are ceramic, but some are cast iron.

Once the ingredients are seared and liquid is added, the lid is placed on the base, the heat is adjusted to maintain a simmer and the cook can walk away. The shape of the lid is designed to allow steam to gather and condense at the top, then drip back down into the food. The result is near flawless slow cooking that results in moist, tender meats.

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