"You put it on, come back later, and dinner's done. That's the magic of [slow cookers]," says chef Howie Velie, who, as associate dean for culinary specializations at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA), is one busy man and a fan of slow-cooker convenience. 

But, according to Velie, not every dish works in a slow cooker. You need to look for dishes that are best when cooked long and slow – like bigger pieces of meat, cassoulet, or sauces such as Bolognese. Fatty, tough, and dark meats from high-activity muscle such as turkey legs, chicken thighs, pork shoulders, chuck roasts, short ribs, and lamb shanks – especially if they’re browned beforehand – give the most flavorful, juiciest results and reward you with fall-off-the-bone tenderness. Stay away from breasts or fillets because they tend to dry out. 

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With these cuts, you'll avoid the bland results some users complain of. You also need to be "bold with spices and flavors," says Velie. Add plenty of hard spices from the beginning – more than you may be used to – but delicate green herbs lose their flavor over time, so add those in the last 15 minutes. Below, Velie shares a little of his polyglot past – working in Hilton hotels, for Nestlé, in the Far East, in the Caribbean, in his own restaurant in Virginia – with a recipe for the mildest of the spicy Thai curries, Massaman. 

Howie Velie's Slow-Cooker Massaman Beef Curry 
Makes 5 servings

Ingredients
5 cups coconut milk
2 pounds boneless beef chuck, cut in 2-inch chunks (or substitute boneless, skinless chicken thighs)
1/3 cup Massaman curry paste (or Thai red curry paste or, in a pinch, garam masala)
3 tbsp fish sauce, plus more as needed (available in supermarkets)
3 tbsp tamarind pulp (can be left out if unavailable)
2 tbsp palm sugar, plus more as needed (or substitute panela or piloncillo cane sugars, or dark brown sugar)
6 cinnamon sticks
1 tsp ground cardamom
3/4 cup large-dice yellow onion
4 cups large-dice potatoes
Optional: 2 cups additional vegetables, such as cubed carrots and okra, and peas
1/2 cup pan-roasted peanuts
2 tsp-plus lime juice, as needed
1–2 Thai bird's eye chilies, chopped very fine (or other hot chilies, such as serrano, jalapeño, Scotch bonnet, or habanero)

Instructions

  • Place all ingredients, except potatoes, into your slow cooker, and cook on low till meat is tender, typically 3–4 hours or as many as 6.
  • When meat is tender, add potatoes and, if desired, additional vegetables such as carrots, okra, and peas; cook for an additional 30 minutes (15 minutes for peas) or till potatoes are tender.
  • If desired, add 1–2 Thai bird's eye peppers for spice. Season to taste with additional fish sauce, palm sugar, and lime juice. The finished curry should have a good balance of sweet, sour, and salty. Can be served with steamed rice, if desired.