If you are busy with work, a family, or both, you probably own (or have been very tempted by) a slow cooker. The promise is that no matter how frantic your day, your family will be greeted at the end with a home-y whiff of pot roast or stew, and that your cares will be forgotten as you sit around the table together enjoying a hearty repast that was thrown together by mom in minutes between removing her Whitestrips and finding Suzy’s poster outlining The Life of the Mayans.
If you are an astute observer of modern culinary culture, you will notice that you find slow cooker recipes in womens’ “home” magazines, and in cookbooks dedicated either to the slow cooker or to recipes for harried families. You will rarely, if ever, see a slow cooker recipe in “Gourmet,” “Bon Appetit,” “Food & Wine,” or “Saveur.” You are equally unlikely to see Christopher Kimball, Ina Garten or Tyler Florence using the slow cooker to cook on TV. It is possible that you might see Sandra Lee using one. That isn’t (just) because of elitism or snobbery; its because in most cases food is better prepared using any of a myriad of other methods.
My “case,” and I do have one, is that a slow cooker can save you time, and help you to make healthy and delicious meals with less hands-on time than other methods, but there are many things that should not be prepared by slow cooking. The problem is that many sources encourage us to believe that everything can be cooked in a slow cooker either by using special recipes or by making adjustments to “regular” recipes. I have no doubt that it is possible, physically to cook anything in a crock pot, but sometimes its just the wrong thing to do. Here are some reasons:
1. With the exception of some foods (about which more later) that benefit from really long, slow cooking, most dishes are really, thoroughly cooked in a slow cooker in 4-6 hours. That’s great if you are at home during the day and can put dinner together at 12:00 or 2:00 to be ready for dinner at 6:00, but if you work all day outside the home, that’s impractical. In order for the slow cooker to be a true convenience if you are busy during the day, you must put food in the cooker at 8:00 or 9:00 or some time before you head out for the day; the meal then remains either on “low” or “warm” for as many as 10 hours until dinner time. Noodles turn back into flour paste, vegetables turn limp and mushy, and many cuts of meat (boneless, skinless chicken breasts, for example) break down so much that they resemble a meat paste.
2. About those vegetables: the process of slow cooking causes loss of vitamins and other nutrients , so they are not only visually unappealing but less healthy than if they were served raw, blanched, roasted, grilled or steamed.
3. In many cases, even if you use one of those clever plastic liners, your dish will develop a layer of slightly to massively burnt crust around the bottom and outer edges where the pot gets hottest. Its obviously best if you can catch dinner before the crust forms, but the whole idea of using the slow cooker is that while you are at a meeting, or picking up from soccer practice and flute lessons, dinner will be taking care of itself without any intervention on your part.
4. Although there are recipes for all sorts of “normal” dinner options that can be prepared in the slow cooker, many of them are so substantially different in appearance and texture that you may have an uphill battle getting your family to accept them. I have made meat loaf, lasagne, enchilada casserole and scalloped potatoes with ham in the slow cooker. All of these things tasted okay, but the lasagne noodles and tortillas basically disintegrated into mush, and the meat in all cases became something so soft and lacking in distinct flavor that it more closely resembled baby food meat. For me, part of the beauty of a dish like lasagne or enchiladas is the contrast of flavors and textures. I like the ham in my scalloped potatoes to be firmer and chewier than the potatoes.
All of that being said, I have learned to use my slow cooker to do some very good and useful things. Since I gave you four “negatives,” I’ll give you four good ideas for using your slow cooker:
Poaching chicken is a fabulous thing to do in a slow cooker. Here’s how:
- Spray the crock with non-stick spray
- In the bottom of the cooker place several stalks of celery (this is a great use for gnarly, bendy old celery), a few carrots, and an onion cut in half. No need to peel carrots or celery.
- Atop the vegetables, place 4-6 bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts. Turn cooker on “Low.”
- Check back starting in about 4 hours. Chicken should be tender but not mushy, and juices should run completely clear. If you’re unsure, give it another hour but don’t take the lid off sooner than that as every removal of the lid causes heat loss and dramatically slows cooking.
- When chicken is thoroughly cooked, fill a bowl of water or one side of your sink with cold water and ice. Place the chicken pieces in a plastic bag and cool in icy water before refrigerating. (This will keep the hot chicken from raising the temperature in your refrigerator while allowing it to begin cooling).
- When the chicken is cool enough to handle, skin it, remove bones, and store. You now have flavorful, tender cooked chicken for casseroles, enchiladas, soups, or salads. This chicken can be frozen; I freeze it in one-cup portions as recipes tend to call for (___ cups cubed, cooked chicken).
- Bonus: at the bottom of the slow cooker, under the vegetables, you will find liquid. This is a delicious essence of chicken-y, vegetable-y goodness. First strain the contents of the crockpot through a sieve to separate the liquid from the vegetables and miscellaneous bone and skin pieces that have fallen off during cooking. Place “juice” in a container overnight. The following day, use a spoon to remove the layer of fat and other flotsam that will have formed on the top of what will look like tan jelly. That jelly (which is kind of like consomme but not really), heated and mixed with some water to taste, will make a delicious chicken broth for use in soup, risotto or other dishes. And its free!!!!
Large, tough cuts of meat benefit greatly from long, slow, moist cooking. There are lots of recipes out there for slow cooker pot roast, but my method is simply to brown the meat on all sides with some onion, make a “bed” of peeled potatoes and carrots in the crock, place the meat and onion on top of the vegetables, add about 1 cup water or beef stock and cook on “slow” for at least 8 hours. You can make gravy out of the liquid in the bottom if you like, and mash the potatoes which should be quite soft by the end of the day. You can also make great pulled, barbecue beef or pork to serve in sandwiches.
Bean soups, baked beans stews and chilis are all natural choices for the slow cooker. I always make my pea soup in the slow cooker, and I usually cook baked beans in it, as well. Chili or stew made with tough little chunks of meat will come out tender and flavorful (although I add carrots to mt stew half way through to avoid mushiness) and a soup, stew or chili made with fatty meat can be prepared the day before, refrigerated, skimmed of fat and reheated in its crock. I often make pea soup a day ahead, as well, and then put the crock right back on “low” the next day; I find that the flavor and texture improve dramatically during a night in the refrigerator.
Applesauce made in the slow cooker will be delicious and make your house smell heavenly. Apples are coming into season now; buy a bunch, then peel, seed, core and cut into chunks. (Note: if you buy transparent apples, you may not need to peel them. I often leave the skins on anyway, because that’s where all the fiber is).
Spray the slow cooker with cooking spray, fill the crock with apples and add about 1/2 cup of water – remember that apples contain a great deal of water, and the slow cooker does not allow evaporation, so the apples will contribute a fair amount of liquid. Cook on “low” for about 4 hours (longer if necessary; nothing bad will happen) and then stir, add liquid if necessary, and taste. At this point, if you like, add some sugar but no spices, yet. In 2-4 hours check again, stir if needed, and add water if necessary. When the sauce is done to your liking, add cinnamon and (if you like) a grate or two of nutmeg.