Is a slow cooker one of those items you have in your garage and which you never use? Or, do you associate it only with pot roast? Maybe you just need some tips and a few good recipes. The slow cooker can be used to rehydrate dried beans, cook a whole chicken, and even make dessert and lasagna. The trick is knowing how to optimize the one you have.
The crock pot or slow cooker is one of the best time saving appliances in the kitchen. It's great for beginning cooks because all you have to do is place items in the bowl and press a few buttons. Hours later, you come home to a house filled with wonderful smells and dinner ready for the table.
In the “old days”, the brand most recognized was the Rival crock pot (that is their name; everything else is a slow cooker). It was round and had a smaller bowl; you can almost picture it filled with bbq meatballs or chili. Nowadays, there are many options in regards to size and features. Slow cookers that enable you to select the temperature (Low and High) separately from the time, seem to be the best. You may want to cook beans on High for 2 hours and then change it to Low for 3 hours.
How does a slow cooker work? A slow cooker is like a little oven. The outer compartment heats up which in turn heats the bowl. When you cook a pot roast on the stove, for example, the heat only comes from the bottom. Or, when a pot roast is cooked in the oven, the heat comes from all around but it’s not concentrated. Because the pot gets very hot in the slow cooker, any moisture in the pot rises and then falls back into the pot, which helps to create more liquid since it is not evaporating. The one thing that you generally do not get in a slow cooker that you get in an oven is browning (for example, like a roast). The side of the food which is touching the pot will brown, but not the top of the food.
You don’t need much liquid to cook the food either. For example, when you cook a whole chicken, you only need about 1 cup of water. If you use more than that, you will basically be boiling which gives food a different texture when completed.
The best meats to cook in a slow cooker are ones that have fat as opposed to lean meats. The fat helps tenderize the meat and by cooking it slowly, the meat braises. For example, a pot roast also known as a chuck roast, becomes very tender when cooked low and slow. On the other hand, lean meat, like chicken breast, can be cooked in a slow cooker but not for a long period of time; otherwise it gets tough.
You can make soups as well but they usually do not take as long as meat. Generally, the soup will taste better if you sauté the vegetables first but it’s not necessary. You can cook chili in the crock pot; just brown the meat first or the chili might turn out greasy. Also, the meat will not look as good (brown versus gray).
Here are some basic tips about using your slow cooker.
- Cooking on the low heat setting generally, but not always, takes about twice the time of high heat.
- Foods placed on the bottom of the slow cooker cook faster and will be moister because they are immersed in the simmering liquid.
- For best results, ground meats should be browned in a skillet before cooking in the slow cooker.
- Seafood should be added during the last hour of cooking time, or it will overcook and have a rubbery texture.
- Add tender vegetables like fresh tomatoes, mushrooms, spinach, kale and zucchini during the last 45 minutes of cooking time so they don't overcook.
- Liquids do not boil away in the slow cooker, so if you are making a recipe that wasn't specifically developed for the slow cooker, reduce the liquid by 1/3 to 1/2 unless you are cooking rice or making soup.
- Browning or searing meat and some cuts of poultry before placing them in the slow cooker adds immensely to the finished flavor. Dredging them in flour or cornstarch before browning thickens the cooking liquid into a sauce; you might need to skim some additional fat. While some foods will brown during the cooking process (particularly if they are not submerged in liquid), they will not develop the same color and flavor that they get when browned first on the stovetop. If you can find the time for this step, the results are worth the effort.
- Pasta and rice can be cooked in the slow cooker. Both need plenty of liquid to cook properly, and should be added during the last hour of cooking time, depending on the consistency of doneness you prefer.
Not My Mom's Pot Roast (get the recipe from Amy's blog)
Crock Pot Chicken (see Amy's video in the media box to the right of this article)
Slow Cooker Lasagna
1 lb whole milk ricotta
1/2 c milk
1/2 c grated parmesan cheese
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground pepper
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1 1/2 jars tomato sauce mixed with 1/2-1 c water (if sauce is thick, use more water)
8-10 oz no-bake lasagna noodles
1/2 c shredded mozzarella
Note: It is important that there is enough liquid as the noodles need moisture in order to soften.
- Mix all ingredients of the ricotta filling in a bowl.
- In a large slow cooker, add about 3/4 c of the diluted tomato sauce.
- Layer with about 2-3 noodles, broken up slightly. Add enough sauce to cover noodles. Top with half of the ricotta filling.
- Repeat step 3.
- Top with noodles and sauce.
- Place cover on the slow cooker. Cook on High for 2-3 hours or Low for 4-5 hours. At the very end, top with remaining shredded mozzarella and let rest about 10 minutes or until cheese is melted.
- Optionally serve with more sauce if necessary.