by guest blogger Rich Baringer,
This time of year is perfect for cooking in a Crock Pot—stews, soups, tender meats, even desserts—with minimum effort. You come in from the cold to a house full of delicious smells and a steaming bowl of true comfort food waiting for you to dig in.
Some may not realize that “Crock Pot” is Rival’s registered trademark for their slow cooker. “Crock Pot” has become one of those names that have defined its products (like “Kleenex” and “Xerox”). But no matter what you call it, it’s a useful and versatile piece of kitchen equipment.
As I usually do, I turn to Cook’s Illustrated for useful information (actually, in this case I am using their other magazine, Cook’s Country). According to their testing of slow cookers, you want to find one that is no smaller than 6 quarts, has a power light and a “keep warm” setting. You also would want to look for a dishwasher-safe crock and lid, insert handles to lift the crock out and a clear lid so you can see what’s going on inside. The Crock-Pot Touchscreen Slow Cooker was their winner.
I found it interesting that in most of the slow cookers they tested, the maximum temperature (about 200° F) was reached on both the “high” and “low” settings. (One model even got hotter on the “low” setting.) They suggest that these settings should be changed to “fast” and “slow”.
There’s no shortage of slow cooker recipes either in cookbooks or online. Many of them are the “dump and go” type of recipe—put a bunch of stuff in the cooker and turn it on. Done. Many of these are very tasty (in addition to easy), but many are not so great. Probably the best recipes require a little more hands-on time to get things ready for cooking.
Contrary to what you may think, though, you don’t need a special slow cooker recipe. For the most part, you can convert a favorite recipe from oven or stovetop to the Crock Pot with just a few adjustments. Consider these tips:
- Recipe: If you have a slow cooker cookbook, see if you can find a recipe in it that is similar to the one you want to cook. This will give you some guidelines to follow.
- Meat: In a slow cooker, you want to use tougher cuts of meat like beef chuck, pork blade roast, ribs, etc. The fat in these cuts melts during the slow cooking and makes the meat tender and moist. If there is a large amount of fat on the outside, you should trim that off. Browning the meat before putting in the cooker—as in the stew recipe that follows—gives the best flavor (deglaze the pan with water or wine and add that liquid for even more flavor), but if you’re in a hurry, it’s not necessary.
- Veggies: Surprisingly, vegetables cook slower than meat in a Crock Pot, so you should cut them (especially hard veggies like carrots, potatoes, etc) in 1-inch pieces and put them on the bottom of the cooker, topped with the roast. Cook’s has created a trick to avoid overcooked veggies in a stew that’s part of the following recipe.
- Liquid: Unless the recipe calls for long-grain rice, cut the liquid by about a quarter from your original recipe. (If you have a similar slow cooker recipe, you can use this as a guide.) Water works fine, but using broth, wine or juice adds great flavor and moistness.
- Rice: Converted long-grain rice is best to use for slow cooker recipes. Don’t reduce the amount of liquid from your recipe if rice is included.
- Herbs: If you’re using fresh herbs, add them toward the end so they don’t spend their entire flavor before the dish is finished. You can add dried herbs earlier in the cooking (use about half the amount of dried herbs as a substitute for fresh).
- Dairy: These products can break down during the long cooking time, so they should be added in the last hour. Condensed cream soups are a decent substitute that can be added at the beginning.
- Flavor Boosters: Since liquid in a slow cooker can’t evaporate and reduce, the flavor of a sauce may be a bit tepid. Add 2-3 tablespoons of soy or Worcestershire sauce to chicken or meat dishes to kick up the flavor. If the recipe calls for tomato paste, sauté it briefly to concentrate the flavor before adding. For mushroom dishes, add a handful of rehydrated dried mushrooms for more mushroom flavor.
- Thickener: Many recipes call for flour and cornstarch to thicken sauces in traditional recipes, but they tend to loose their thickening power over time. Your best bet for a thick and silky sauce in a slow cooker is to add Minute tapioca instead.
- Finishing: Add delicate ingredients like fresh herbs, pasta, peas, corn, Swiss chard, etc. at the end of the cooking process.
- Cooking Time: Generally, if your traditional recipe has a cooking time of 15 – 30 minutes, cook in the slow cooker for 4 – 6 hours on Low, or 1 ½ – 2 hours on High. A cooking time of 35 – 45 minutes translates to 6 – 8 hours on Low, or 3 – 4 hours on High for the slow cooker. Cooking times of 50 minutes or more on the stove or in the oven should stay in the Crock Pot for 8 – 16 hours on Low, or 4 – 6 hours on High.
Here are two recipes for you to try in your slow cooker. The first, a little more hands-on, is from Cook’s Country. The other—more of a “dump and go” recipe—is from Better Homes & Gardens Biggest Book of Slow Cooker Recipes.
Slow-Cooker Hearty Beef Stew
5 lbs boneless beef chuck, cut into 1 ½-inch pieces
Salt and pepper
¼ cup vegetable oil
4 onions, chopped fine
1 (6-oz) can tomato paste
2 cups low-sodium chicken or beef broth
3 Tbsp soy sauce
2 bay leaves
1 lb carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 lb parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 lb red potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 ½ tsp minced fresh thyme
2 Tbsp Minute tapioca
2 cups frozen peas, thawed
- BROWN MEAT: Pat beef dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Heat 1 Tbsp oil in large skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Cook half of beef until well browned all over, about 8 minutes. Transfer to slow cooker insert and repeat with additional 1 Tbsp oil and remaining beef.
- BROWN ONIONS: Add onions, 1 Tbsp oil and ¼ tsp salt to now-empty skillet and cook until browned, 6-8 minutes. Add tomato paste and cook, stirring frequently, until paste begins to darken, about 2 minutes. Slowly stir in broth, soy sauce and bay leaves and bring to boil. Transfer to slow cooker.
- WRAP VEGETABLES: Toss carrots, parsnips, potatoes, remaining oil, ½ tsp thyme, ½ tsp salt and ½ tsp pepper in large bowl. Place vegetables on one side of large piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Fold foil over vegetables to form packet that will fit in slow cooker; set vegetable packet on top of beef.
- SLOW COOK: Cover and cook on high until beef is tender, 6-7 hours (or cook on low 10-11 hours). Discard bay leaves and transfer vegetable packet to bowl. Carefully open packet (watch for steam) and return vegetable and any accumulated juices to slow cooker. Stir in remaining thyme and peas, cover, and let stand until heated through, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Serve.
Barbecue Pork Ribs
3-3 ½ lbs pork country-style ribs (bone-in or boneless)
1 cup ketchup
½ cup onion, chopped fine
¼ cup packed brown sugar
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
½ tsp chili powder
½ tsp liquid smoke
¼ tsp garlic powder
¼ tsp hot pepper sauce (or more to taste)
- Trim ribs of any large pieces of fat. Place in slow cooker.
- In a small bowl, combine the remaining ingredients. Pour sauce over ribs, turning to coat. Cover; cook on low for 10-12 hours or on high for 5-6 hours.
- Transfer ribs to a serving platter; cover with foil to keep warm. Skim fat from surface of sauce; pour sauce into a medium saucepan. Bring sauce to boiling; reduce heat slightly. Boil gently, uncovered, until thickened to desired consistency, 5-7 minutes (should make about 1 cup).
- Serve ribs with sauce. (You can also shred the rib meat and serve on buns as a tasty sandwich.)
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