Is it worthwhile buying a slow cooker?

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Winter is well and truly with us here in the Snowy Mountains.

One of the things that makes the cooler month bearable for me is the chance to get creative with slow cooked food. We’re talking stews, casseroles, soups and tajines. All those dishes that simmer away for hours, keeping you company while you do other things.

The first time I heard someone talk about their ‘Slow Cooker’, I was intrigued. As a minimalist, I’m not much of a fan of single-use kitchen appliances. But given my love of osso buco, maybe a slow cooker would be useful?

And so I conspired to include a Slow Cooking class in the curriculum for the Stonesoup Virtual Cookery School, because then I’d have to get one so I would know what I was talking about…

To be honest I haven’t been that impressed with my Slow Cooker efforts, compared with my trusty old oven. The slow cooker textures have been wonderful but I’ve found things lacking in flavour.

So, to help decide whether the slow cooker should stay, I’ve conducted a little experiment cooking the same dish at the same time using the oven and the slow cooker.

first, a few definitions…

slow cooker – A stand alone electric device designed to cook things like stews and soups at very low temperatures for long periods of time.

crock pot – brand name for a particular make of slow cooker.

pressure cooker
– a pot that is designed to be sealed so food can be cooked on the stove under pressure. The pressure increases the boiling temperature of water which in turn reduces cooking times. Think the dish that exploded on Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffanys.

the experiment

Cook a simple coq au vin (chicken & red wine casserole) in the slow cooker and in a cast iron pan the oven to compare the differences.

The oven was set to 100C (210F) and the slow cooker set to HIGH. The ingredients for both were exactly the same except I used half the amount of wine in the slow cooker, as per the instruction manual.

the results?

We had a tie, of sorts.

The Slow Cooker won on texture.
The chicken from the slow cooker was noticeably moister and more tender. Although to be fair, the oven chook was still pretty tender.

The Oven won on flavour and appearance.
While the slow cooker chicken tasted like red wine with a bit of chicken flavour, the oven sample had all the lovely richness you’d expect from a great coq au vin.

In the looks department, our slow cooked bird was so pale it would be camouflaged in a snow storm, while our oven baked friend looked plump and healthy with an almost terracotta tan.

so is it worthwhile buying a slow cooker?

It depends.

For me, No.

I can’t justify the space, given I work from home and enjoy having something in the oven to check on throughout the day.

For others, maybe, Yes?
If you work away from home and love slow cooked meals, I can imagine using the slow cooker quite a bit during the Winter. Or if you live somewhere without a decent oven…

video version of the experiment & recipe

note: In the video I used whole chickens, but I actually prefer to use chicken marylands (thighs with drumsticks attached) for this recipe.

keen to master the art of set and forget meals?

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Our Simple Slow Cooking Class starts 2nd July.

Australian residents who sign up in the next 72 hours will have a chance to win my (almost new) Electric Slow Cooker!

Click here to join us today.

coq au vin7

super simple coq au vin
serves 4

My super simple version of this classic French dish is almost the complete opposite of Julia Child’s recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Where Julia browns her chicken and cooks the onion, mushrooms and bacon separately, I like to pop them all in together and let the long, slow cooking process work its magic.

Feel free to add to this very basic recipe. A little bacon would be my first addition. Followed by a couple of bay leaves or some thyme.

In the video I’ve used whole chickens because I was too lazy to chop them up. But next time I would go to the extra effort so the chicken pieces cook more quickly and have more surface area to soak up the wine. Or use chicken marylands or thighs on the bone.

4 chicken marylands (thighs with drumstick attached)
4 small onions, peeled & halved
8-12 large button mushrooms
4 tablespoons tomato paste
3/4cup OR 1 1/2cups red wine

1. Preheat oven to 100C (210F). Or get your slow cooker ready.

2. Place chicken, onions, mushrooms and tomato paste in an ovenproof casserole dish or the bowl of your slow cooker.

3. Pour over 3/4 cup wine for the slow cooker or 1 1/2cup for the oven method.

4. Cover with a lid. Place the slow cooker on HIGH or place the casserole in the oven and cook for 5 hours. Or until the chicken is tender and the vegetables are cooked. Taste and season.

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{ 59 comments }

Paul June 20, 2011 at 11:03 pm

At $40 from Target for a slow cooker, how can you go wrong?

Unless, you’re a kitchen minimalist of course!

Alli June 20, 2011 at 11:17 pm

I was given a slow cooker as a gift and I really only make four things in it: shredded beef, pulled pork, chicken stock, and chili. During the winter it’s a godsend but it languishes on top of my fridge for the rest of the year.

sarah k. June 20, 2011 at 11:29 pm

Until very recently (learning about slow- and low-carb eating) I had no use for a slow-cooker. I thought they were for people who were too lazy to learn “real” cooking. I have changed my tune, however, and have produced some wonderfully luscious meals, including dry-rubbed baby back ribs, baked beans, and bison roast, in the slow-cooker. When the weather heats up, and the kitchen does too, it’s really nice to be able to cook something without further heating the kitchen by turning on the oven or stove, since the heat is all contained in the little apparatus. You can also make broth by tossing in your roasted chicken carcass or beef bones with water and leaving overnight.

Although my slow-cooker was a hand-me-down from my mom, and I didn’t use it for 4 years, I think it’s worth it. As far as I know, they take less energy than the oven, you don’t have to be present for stuff to cook (prepare before work, come home to dinner made), and they can save your cooling bill in the summer without having to fire up the grill.

Nis Sarup June 20, 2011 at 11:30 pm

Wouldn’t preheating the oven be a waste of energy as the temperature is low and the cooking time is so long?

I can see why preheating is necessary when you are cooking something that needs more heat in less time. But the benefits of preheating gets smaller and smaller with the lower temperature and longer cookingtime.

Satakieli June 20, 2011 at 11:32 pm

I totally agree with you. We recently downsized and my new kitchen is less than half the size of the old one. I was going through what things I wanted to throw out/give away and my enormous slow cooker was top of the list.

My mother in law bought it for me when I was first married, she uses hers every single day. I have used mine maybe 4 times in 5 years… I just don’t get the appeal and don’t really like the “sloppy” (for lack of a better word) food that comes out of it. I can’t get rid of it now, however, because she pulls it out whenever she comes to visit and lectures me about how it is covered in dust. It takes up a whole shelf all to itself in my limited space and drives me crazy.

Greg June 20, 2011 at 11:41 pm

how does the electricity usage of the slow cooker compare to the oven?

Dan @ Casual Kitchen June 21, 2011 at 12:09 am

I was the same as Sarah K–suspicious and doubtful of slow cookers. I thought they were some relic of the 1950s like bouffant hairdos and overcooked mystery meat.

Boy was I wrong. Despite the fact that we’re minimalists too and religiously avoid kitchen gadgets, this particular tool has been one of our most reliable and most heavily used.

PS to Greg on the subject of energy efficiency: a slow cooker uses a tiny fraction of the energy of an oven.

George June 21, 2011 at 12:14 am

Why does it have to be either or? I’m thinking colour everything in a pan, de-glaze and finish it all off in a low temperature and reduce sauce separately.

Also what would be the difference between the slow cooker and the oven set at, say, 70C.

Finally, for an oven cook 100 degrees is pretty low anyway! I would call it a low temperature roast. I think a temperature of 150 for a shorter amount of time would be better at contrasting the differences between the two methods (considering Maillard reactions that give lovely colour and flavour to meat occur round about that temperature).

Meg June 21, 2011 at 12:34 am

My husband gave me a slow-cooker as a graduation present (don’t worry, it was exactly what i wanted!) and I use it all the time now in the winter. Most slow-cooker recipes advise browning the meat first in a pan before cooking it, and lamb shanks cooked over 8 hours in my slow-cooker can’t be beat in terms of fall-off-the-bone-ness, and they have had so much time to absorb all the flavours of their cooking broth that they are teeming with intense deliciousness. I am still trying to find a good slow-cooker cook book though. Maybe if your class knows of any good ones, you could pass along some recommendations?

Spaarmoeder June 21, 2011 at 12:39 am

Thank you for trying both ways of cooking. I considered a slow-cooker, but I’m happy with my oven now I’ve read your blog.
I cook the “chicken au vin” on gas and put it in the oven later.
It’s more energy-efficiĆ«nt!

Laura June 21, 2011 at 1:01 am

I love, love, love my slow cooker. It is one of my favorite cooking tools – as you mentioned, I work all day – so it’s great to come home and have dinner ready to go. In the winter I make lots of roasts and stews. In the summer I use it to make ribs, BBQ pork or chicken (for sandwiches) and fillings for Mexican dishes. Actually, most things I make in the slow cooker are 5 ingredients or less!

Granny Smith June 21, 2011 at 1:02 am

It’s a shame to judge an appliance on one experiment, especially when you didn’t brown the meat first as most manuals advise. I’ve had a crockpot, then a slow cooker for over 30 years and, yes, I use it more in winter because it is so good for stews and soups. But it also does baked potatoes, corned beef, pot roasts, etc. and is useful for keeping food warm at dinner parties while earlier courses are being eaten. In the summer I often plug it in on the patio to keep as much heat out of the house as possible.

MamaCat June 21, 2011 at 1:18 am

My slow cooker has a permanent spot right on my countertop, because I use it at least several times a week. Bear in mind you can do a lot more with it than just cook a meal! For example, I cook dried beans in large batches, and then freeze them in 1 1/2 cup portions (about the same as a can of beans). I save a lot of money. This method also saves a lot of energy compared to cooking on a gas cooktop or in the oven.

While I like soups & stews in the winter, the slow cooker is also brilliant in the summer because it doesn’t heat up the kitchen. I can cook a turkey breast in there and then shred it for salads, for example.

I do work all day out of the home so this probably influences my addiction to the slow cooker. But I consider it one of the “top 5″ items in my kitchen, along with my good set of kitchen knives.

Mike Lieberman June 21, 2011 at 1:46 am

I used to have a slow cooker, but got rid of it. Thinking about getting one again, but want to look into the material used to make it. Would want to make sure it’s non-toxic and not slowly leaching poisons into the food. That would be a definite deal breaker for me.

SoRefined June 21, 2011 at 1:48 am

IMO, the summer is when the slow cooker really shines–no heating up the house with the oven.

It’s also the only way I make stock at this point.

Caren Gittleman June 21, 2011 at 3:08 am

I absolutely ADORE my slow cooker and wouldn’t be without it (primarily in the winter months)…I make soooooo many things in there and I am home all day and STILL love it!

I tend to stay away from wine in recipes (Weight Watcher’s!!) Did you ever try substituting balsamic vinegar for wine? FABULOUS! A whole new dimension!

Caren Gittleman June 21, 2011 at 3:09 am

what I meant to say was, use BALSAMIC VINEGAR INSTEAD OF WINE…fake blonde moment here

Michael Christian June 21, 2011 at 4:36 am

According to this article a slow cooker is less energy efficient that just turning on the oven.
http://www.cookingmanager.com/slow-cookers-energy-efficient/

I have a slow cooker that I very rarely use. I just can’t seem to get food to be as flavorful when using it as I can with cast iron in the oven for a like period of time.

Janet Foster June 21, 2011 at 6:39 am

I pulled out my slow cooker yesterday for the first time in 6 to 8 months. I made korean style short ribs that were tender and delicious. I bought it last Christmas on sale and I haven’t gotten alot of use out of it but that’s partly because I’m afraid to leave things cooking while I’m at work. I’m going to make an effort to use it more. since the ribs turned out so well.

Denise Smith June 21, 2011 at 7:13 am

Hi Jules
I bought a $29 3 litre Kambrook slow cooker. We’re vegetarians and I actually bought it just to make porridge – but that was horrible. I’ve recently started to collect vege slow cooker recipes – and the food is SO delicious. I have a recipe for an Indian curry where you add 5oo g brussell sprouts for the last hour – and no, they don’t come out mushy, they’re still firm but suffused with the delicious flavours from the curry sauce. Yum!!
There are just the 2 of us but I can make enough in my little cooker for 2 meals.
Cheers
Denise

Kimberley June 21, 2011 at 7:32 am

Cooking on the stove and in the oven for hours on end is fine if you work from home, and if you have a great oven. For the majority of the world, though, that just isn’t an option. We have to leave home at 7am, get home again at 6pm, and have horrible rental property or “first home owners” ovens to cope with. Slow food just ins’t possible under those circumstances without a slow cooker.

I use mine almost daily during winter, and at least once a week in the warmer months. I actually have two, and have been known to throw a frozen chicken in one, and a pile of vegies in the other in the morning, then come home to crisp everything up in the oven for twenty minutes or so. Voila – a perfectly cooked roast meal for six on a work night!

Lynda June 21, 2011 at 8:26 am

You always have the most beautiful pictures! Really enjoy reading your posts! :)

Amanda June 21, 2011 at 8:45 am

I have a slow cooker, but also have a slow combustion stove which I fire up in the winter, so I tend to use that for slow cooking. I do agree though, I find most dishes out of the slow cooker tend to have a sameness in their flavours.
It is very handy for cooking oatmeal overnight, though.

Lynne June 21, 2011 at 9:46 am

A handy tip which saves a lot of work is to use an oven roasting bag in your slow cooker.

If you have a large slow cooker like mine, the inner pot is heavy and awkward to remove and wash. With the roasting bag I just wait for the contents to go cold and congeal and then lift the entire thing out and dispose of it. Then just the lid of the slow cooker needs to be washed.

Mrs Wils June 21, 2011 at 10:50 am

I love my slow cooker but I wish it had a function that allowed you to set a time for it to change to “Keep Warm” because I work long days!

Ana June 21, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Just made your oven version of coq au vin and it is fabulous! I will never mess around with the full length French approach again. Thank you Jules. :)

Melissa June 21, 2011 at 12:46 pm

I got a slow cooker this year mainly because I’m out at least three nights a week around dinner time running kids to activities. We get home and it’s ready to dish up. I love it. I got the new type that you take the insert out and brown the meat and veggies on the stove before putting the whole thing back into the cooker. This means that the flavour you get from browning all stays in the pan.

Meaghan Keogh June 21, 2011 at 4:53 pm

WOW – was going to say thanks for confirming what I thought – stick with my trusty heavy duty casserole dish and do without – but after reading ALL the comments – seems the slow cooker has a lot of faithful users. I guess I was turned off by all the people I know who just throw the meat, veg and slow cooker packet mix in (not my style for achieving flavour). About to have 3rd baby – perhaps I’ll be rethinking the convenience side of the argument in the near future. Thanks for the thought provoking article.

jules June 21, 2011 at 5:39 pm

Meaghan
Isn’t it great to get the perspective from so many different people… actually it’s making me rethink my position too!

Congrats on the expanding family ;)

Ana
Wow you didn’t mess around… so glad you enjoyed it!

Tom June 21, 2011 at 9:14 pm

Hi Jules,

Love your minimalist approach to cooking!

I bought a $20 5-Qt Hamilton-Beach slow cooker (manual control – necessary if power cuts out to reset the slow cooker when it comes back on) in order to be able to cook sous vide according to the extension cord hack (to preserve the slow cooker’s cord) written about in the book “Cooking for Geeks” by Jeff Potter. It has a temperature probe hole in the clear top where the J-type temperature probe I have fits perfectly. An LED temperature controller and wall wart (12 volt AC/DC power supply) complete the equipment list for just a little over $100 total.

What a treat! Having so much fun – like cooking poached eggs in the shell (takes at least 45 minutes, 60 recommended), but they come out perfect – this is only a one time experiment. Normally, I use 2 poach pods (normally $10 at kitchen outlet stores for a pair) which deliver perfectly cooked poached eggs in 5 minutes.

Sorry you don’t have that much space Jules – neither do I, but I do have a 3Qt and a 7Qt slow cooker, the later for cooking Pork shoulder (aka Boston Butt) for shredding into pulled pork for sesame seed sandwiches which goes well with mac and cheese. The former is good for steel cut oats (slow cooked overnight).

Great comments!

barbara June 21, 2011 at 10:08 pm

I’ve just posted my experience with the modern slow cooker. I love it. It makes a fantastic slow roasted lamb. Browning the meat beforehand is the secret.

Jody June 21, 2011 at 11:06 pm

My slow cooker (new and upgraded from a basic model I had for a long time) has an interior pot that can be used on the stove top to brown off meats etc and then straight back into slow cooker and add ingredients and set & go. This has made all the difference in flavour as I was never one to brown in another pan! I will cook your recipe in my slow cooker and see how it goes (I have high hopes LOL).

Katie June 22, 2011 at 2:32 pm

What’s the cooking time if you cut up the chicken? Is there much difference?

KatieLovesWags June 22, 2011 at 3:53 pm

I agree with Granny Smith – the meat based slow cooker recipes really shine when the meat is browned in a pan first. A hassle yes, but the results are so worth it. You can actually buy slow cookers that have browning/fry capability but they are near on $200 compared to $50 for a good quality regular 6 litre.

jules June 22, 2011 at 7:36 pm

Katie,
Good question on the time… I’d guess the pieces would be less – at least an hour or so.

KatieLovesWags, Jodie and Granny Smith
Agree that browning first would overcome the flavour problem. Personally, I hate the hassle, even if I had a fancy slow cooker I’d struggle with it.

The good news is I’ve come up with a solution. We had my slow cooker chicken for dinner last night and I heated it up in the oven – browning and flavour all in one!

Steve June 22, 2011 at 9:47 pm

We’ve got a slow cooker recently, a pretty decent one (can’t remember but was probably ~$200?).
I’m looking forward to learning some more things to make it, as about the only thing I’ve made in it are some of your fantastic curries Jules!

It goes to warm mode after cooking, so you can put it on in the morning and it’ll be fine when you come home.

However, when I got it, I didn’t realise that the usual thing people do is brown everything first! Argh! I am looking to be a minimalist cook for pure lifestyle reasons: time! I don’t want to go cooking in a pan and then transfer to a slow cooker. What a hassle!

I have seen at least one cooking book in a bookstore that had slow cooker recipes without the need for browning, and that’s the direction I’m looking for.

Tobin June 23, 2011 at 12:38 am

I live in San Antonio, where summers are usually a hundred degrees or more. My slow cooker produces much less kitchen heat than my oven so I love using it. I use it for probably 75% of the meals we cook for our family of 8. I also use an old Westinghouse roaster (which also produces less heat in our little kitchen than the oven) that my great grandmother purchased around 1940. I would LOVE to see more roaster recipes but I also realize that they are not as popular as they used to be? I frequently use crock pot recipes in my roaster but adjust the time and temp while also being home to watch it.

Kathryn June 23, 2011 at 3:22 am

I have owned a small slow cooker for a few months now and I still haven’t gotten around to using it. I can’t seem to find a spare several hours to let it sit. If I want to let it sit while I’m at work, I’ll have to cook/prep in the morning. If I want it to cook overnight, then my dinner’s ready in the morning!

KatieLovesWags June 23, 2011 at 8:57 am

Haha, nice solution!

Maybe you could do another comparison but this time brown the meat… Ooo, maybe one of those incredible American pulled meat recipes. Yummo. Heh, I really want you to like the slow cooker – I feel bad for the thing!

Anyway, love reading :)

P.S. Yesterday I bought my 3rd pack of tofu. I’m hooked.

Tracey Gould June 23, 2011 at 9:22 am

YES, YES & YES! My thoughts exactly. I have friends who “love” their slow cooker, and while I do appreciate the convenience of it, I find that the meat lacks the flavour and caramelisation you get from slow cooking on the stovetop or in the oven (even if I brown beforehand, which I usually always do). I also don’t like cooking chicken or chicken pieces, as the bones sort of dissolve and break. I must admit, I’m not the sort of cook that is happy just chopping up whatever vegies and meat is around and shoving it in.

I do use it occasionally, mainly on a weekend when I am not home or out gardening all day and know I can come in at the end of the day to an “already prepared” meal. From time to time I might do a curry or beef casserole in it, but then reduce the sauce and re-heat in the oven the next day. And I do occasionally do a spaghetti bolognaise in there, pasta and all, if we are having lots of kids around.

Where I do love my slow cooker is for slow cooking lamb roasts (delicious!), usually marinated, or I shove anchovies or garlic slivers into the meat, and it does an awesome corned beef.

Elizabeth June 23, 2011 at 10:05 am

SO need to get a slow cooker! If only to make this recipe!

My boyfriend and I are currently consolidating our respective kitchens as we move in together. Oh dear, we have too many things for this tiny kitchen. Pressure cooker, blender, sodastream, the list goes on and on. We live in the SF Bay Area and we work in IT! How can we pass on an awesome gadget? Especially when it’s a gadget that allows us to eat delicious and nutritious food!

Any tips for organizing kitchen appliances?

ana June 23, 2011 at 4:17 pm

So glad you have tried this experiment for us, Jules. I was sceptical about slow cookers, just another gadget and so on. Everyone has firm opinions, but no-one had done the comparison work until now. As you say, it is so useful to read all of the comments. Nevertheless, I was sold on your results. The oven chicken looked excellent and Soooo easy. Must try it soon.

Katie June 23, 2011 at 5:46 pm

I made this last night & it was excellent! I made your suggested additions- bacon & thyme. I cut up a whole chicken and cooked it for 4 hours- perfect!

elm June 23, 2011 at 7:02 pm

I’ve recently bought a slow cooker and was falling in love with it until this morning.
I popped in the ingredients for carrot and lentil soup and left it on low overnight. 11 hours later, I woke up expecting delicious soupy scents, but there were none. The (grated!) carrot was still crunchy and the lentils hard, despite the pot being hot to the touch. I’ve put it on high for the morning and hope it’s done by the time I get home for lunch, but I’m not holding out any hope. I’ve got no idea what happened… :(

Jen June 23, 2011 at 11:03 pm

Like others have said, I use mine in the summer just as much as winter because it puts off less heat and uses less energy. I actually don’t have a stove/oven, just a 2 burner hot plate and a toaster oven so the crockpot (“slow cooker” if you must) is a frequently used appliance in my house. One of my most frequent dishes is simply placing a well seasoned chicken in, turn it on and after about 8 hrs on low, a melt in your mouth bird that is perfect for salads, sandwiches or eating right off the bone. No you don’t get that golden brown skin but I don’t eat the skin anyway so it doesn’t matter to me. I just push dry rubs under the skin or marinate before cooking and the flavor is wonderful.

Experiment with your cooker, there are a million things to do with it! Before I went low carb I used to make an amazing caramel bread pudding made with sweetened condensed milk….oh man was that GOOD!

Steve June 24, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Question: as it has the time while at work, would it be better to cook this recipe on LOW for a longer period?

toccata June 24, 2011 at 4:37 pm

For a working girl with odd hours the slow cooker is a wonderful addition to the kitchen. One of my favorite dishes is to chop up an eggplant, zuchinni, onion, mushrooms, and red pepper. Add tomatoes and lots of fresh ground pepper and voila supper is ready and waiting when I finally get around to it. It’s great on it’s own over rice or over noodles.

Slow cookers are not just for soups and stews though. Wrap a piece of ham in tinfoil, then stick an apple and cranberries stuffed piece of acorn squash on top with a couple of tablespoons of water and you have a full meal.

Juanita June 25, 2011 at 6:31 pm

I’m with the lovers of the slow cooker. Almost never use it for chicken (that colour is an issue), but think it is the best for fall apart red meats – my favourite is for Indian curries. Time poor with 3 kids, I just use pre-cut meat, chop up some vegies and throw it all in with a can of chopped tomatoes and curry paste from a jar. Don’t bother with browning and the best part is you can get it all together in the mornings when the kids are in a good mood rather than trying to cook at the end of the day when they’re all a bit more grumpy! I reckon it even passes the 5-ingredients, 10 minutes rule, it’s just that the meal is ready is 8 hours after the 10 minutes ended!

bee June 27, 2011 at 1:33 pm

I love my slow cooker. Nothing like waking up to the house smelling like a pot roast and veggies!

Beekguk June 28, 2011 at 1:05 am

Roasts, spaghetti sauce, sweet chili, spicy chili, curries, peanut stew, traditional beef stew, veggie “stew”, chicken stock, fish sauce, veggie stock, bread pudding, hot cider and punch for guests … I literally would be unable to cook essentially anything that takes longer than half an hour if I couldn’t prep everything the night before, then toss it in the slow cooker in the morning. It really expands what kinds of recipes I can do – which is why I honestly laughed out loud in surprise that anyone would call a slow cooker a “single-purpose appliance”.

And yes, I almost always brown my meat before putting it in.

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