There are few things better than having a home cooked meal ready and waiting for you after a long day. Too bad we all can’t have a personal chef on staff.
That’s the promise that a slow cooker is based on. It’s the promise of a perfectly cooked beef stew waiting and ready. A well-timed lasagna all ready to eat. And with most of us that grew up with slow cookers in the 80′s and 90′s, we know that the promise a big, soggy lie.
Because a slow cooker is more like a slow steamer. There is nothing brown or crunchy in sight. (Unless you’re counting the undercooked pasta in that terrible one-pot casserole recipe your mom used to make.) But once you can surrender to this fact, this undeniable reality of convenience cooking, you can actually embrace the idea and step in a new world of slow cooker cooking. One that’s filled with love, nourishment and fairy dust.
There are only two rules for slow cooking in my world. A dish has to take advantage of at least one of these to make it worth my time to drag out the slow cooker.
Take advantage of the time. Slow cooking takes time, and that means using the slow cooker to make anything you would normally take lots of time to do in the oven or the stove. Sometimes, it’s not going to come out perfectly the same. But in my mind, if it frees you up to do other things than stand over the stove for all that time, it’s a win.
- Caramelized onions. Finish them in the pan on high for a little more crisping.
- Meat broth or vegetable stock.
- Bread. Seems crazy, but cuts your oven time down to 10 minutes.
- Baked potatoes. Mashed potatoes. Even a variation on boiled potatoes. If you’re Danish, or just into that sort of thing.
- Actually, any kind of root vegetable soup. Like this carrot & parsnip soup with tarragon that my friend Sarah is nuts about.
Take advantage of the steamer effect. Unlike an open pot on the stove, slow cookers keep most of the moisture locked in. Which means you should cut back the liquid in certain conventional recipes when you make it in a slow cooker. Keep track of wet vegetables like tomatoes that will also add more liquid to the finished dish. And even better, use the whole thing like a long, slow steamer or pressure cooker.
- Crockpot-roasted veggies.
- Almost any kind of curry. Try chicken curry, or a vegetable & chickpea curry.
- Steam a Christmas pudding in time for a Doctor Who marathon.
- The holy grail of steamed foods, IMO: tamales.
I love online recipes and cooking blogs. A Year of Slow Cooking is possibly the most well-known slow cooker blogs out there, and my personal favorite.
Occasionally, browsing books is still the best idea generator. I often recommend America’s Test Kitchen’s Slow Cooker Revolution, but with the caveat that, while they have improved on the end result of slow cooker food, the techniques often involve more steps than most people want to take on a busy morning before heading off to work. Still, their methodology is so sound, and the finished product so much better, that I think it’s a worthwhile read for anyone wielding a slow cooker.
Being married to a (mostly) vegetarian / (sometimes) vegan, I often thought of vegetarian or vegan slow cooking as an oxymoron, or codeword for endless bean soups. Meh. There are actually some really interesting vegetarian and vegan slow cooker recipes out there. I rely on my books first for this category, as I feel they’re better tested; Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker and Quick and Easy Vegan Slow Cooking are great places to start.
If all this is making your mouth water and you have somehow made it to adulthood without owning a slow cooker… hats off to you, my friend. I have two, one large & one small, and they are handy things to have around. I often use the little one for small meat soups for just myself, or for keeping hot cider hot around the winter months. (Plus, it makes the house smell amazing.)
Some features to think about: timer. Yes, you could just plug it into an external timer, but that’s not going to help keep it warm until you get home. Then again, my ‘warm’ setting runs pretty hot, so I factor that in to the cooking time. Mine also has a locking lid for transporting the whole thing. Never used it, but I’m sure it’ll come in handy one day. (Famous last words.)