Soups, stews, and chilis are on the minds of many as the fall cooking season rolls around. To cook up these comfort food favorites a lot of us will break out our trusty slow cookers. We all love the ease of having these foods cooking all day, unattended, so they are ready for us to eat and warm up to at dinner time.
Slow cookers are one of those small kitchen appliances that, over the years, I developed a love hate relationship with. I love the concept of them – throw all the ingredients into the crock, turn it on and poof dinner is ready hours later. However, I hate the reality of cooking with a slow cooker. Now this might only be my reality but from my experience most recipes rarely survive cooking all day in the slow cooker. My past results with all day slow cooking is usually super mushy unrecognizable vegetables, dried out stringy meat, and bland tasteless meals. Don’t even get me started with using pasta in slow cooker recipes – think play doh that has been sitting in water for a few days. Yummy!
Slow cooking and I could not find a common ground together. This was unfortunate because as a busy working mom I loved the concept.
So I gave up on my slow cooker. Even my dear husband begged me to stop using it – you know it is bad if he says that. I didn’t blame him though especially after the number of dried out meals he had to force down. I remember one time the chicken was so dry my dog would not even eat it – now that was pitiful.
After a few years of boycotting my slow cooker I decided to give it another shot. My only reason for this second (or third) chance was that a Skinny Mom’s Kitchen reader contacted me asking if I offered slow cooker recipes on my site. I shared my experiences and then shamefully said no. However, that request got me thinking. Many people use and absolutely love their slow cookers. There is actually quite the slow cooker following with many facebook pages and blogs dedicated to just slow cooking. Obviously, I was the one doing something wrong.
So I decided to give slow cooking another shot. My husband was scared and rightfully so. But I was determined – which by the way also scares my husband at times. I just knew that if I could find a way to make this small appliance work for my lifestyle it would be very helpful to me as a busy mom.
Well it has been over a year and I am proud to say that I have made many successful slow cooker recipes. Keep in my mind this was not by chance. I researched many recipes, cookbooks, and articles on slow cooking. I talked to other bloggers and paid attention to all the discussions happening on the facebook pages, forums, and blogs. Of course there still was some trial and error but far less since I was taking the time to learn instead of just dumping a bunch of ingredients in and turning it on.
To help those of you who may be where I was with slow cooking a year ago I put together a list of tips that help me create the tasty slow cooker recipes we eat today. I hope you find these helpful. If you have further tips to add please do so in the comments. I would love to hear from you.
Most meals cannot cook all day
First and foremost most meals cannot cook all day. In fact, many will dry out and/or start to lose flavor after about 6 or 7 hours. This is especially true for chicken recipes. Chicken (specifically breasts) dry out very fast and a lot of times cook completely in about 4 to 5 hours on low. I have learned to never cook chicken on high. In fact, whenever possible, I always cook slow cooker recipes on low. Also, recipes that call for lots of vegetables will turn very mushy after a full day of slow cooking. So unless you like very mushy vegetables I recommend, if possible, cooking for shorter amount of time or adding them later in the recipe. Some vegetables, like sweet potatoes or heartier root vegetables will hold up better to longer slow cooking time rather than vegetables like zucchini, peppers, or eggplant.
Recipes that can withstand longer cooking times of 8 hours or more are ones that call for dried beans and/or large chunks of beef or pork. I have also successfully slow cooked many red sauces and chilis for 8 hours or more. Therefore, when I want to cook a meal all day in the slow cooker those are the ones I turn to.
Invest in a programmable slow cooker with warm, low, and high settings
In my early slow cooking days the slow cooker I had only cooked on high and turned off manually – meaning I had to actually be home to turn it off. I am convinced this was one of the main culprits in my slow cooker dinner disasters. Today I own a couple of slow cookers both of which can be programmed to turn off and switch to warm after the recipe cooking time is complete. This is essential, especially if I am not going to be home around the time the recipe will be done.
Prep work makes all the difference
I know this is not what you want to hear and in a way defeats the concept of just dumping a bunch of ingredients in a slow cooker then setting and forgetting it. But in my experience recipes turn out so much better when prepped a little. For example browning meat or blooming aromatics (ex. cooking the onion, garlic, and spices first) will provide a much richer flavor then just throwing them in raw. Sure, it is your choice to skip this step but I highly recommend taking the extra 10 minutes to prep the ingredients ahead of time.
Of course prepping the ingredients the morning you need to make the meal can be a little cumbersome – especially if you are trying to get your kids out the door. I solve this problem by prepping slow cooker meals the night before and/or on the weekends when I have more time. If I do it on the weekends I will create them into slow cooker freezer kits. Then all I need to do is take the kit out of the freezer to thaw a day or two before it is on my menu plan. A few of my favorite slow cooker freezer kits are Thai Peanut Pork, Chicken Curry, and Chipotle Turkey.
Layer ingredients correctly
Just like prep work is important so is the way you layer the ingredients in the slow cooker. Foods that take a longer time to cook should go in first and sit on the bottom. Ingredients that tend to cook quicker should be on top. Not every recipe will mention the order you should place in the ingredients. However, in my experience this is what works best. For example, if you were cooking steak fajitas in the slow cooker you would want to place the peppers on top on the steak. This will prevent them from over cooking and turning into to mush.
Every slow cooker is different
Slow cooker recipes will almost always have a 2-3 hour cooking window time. The reason for this is every slow cooker will cook differently depending on where you live, how big it is, the amount of liquid in the recipe, and the brand you own. So it is hard to write a recipe and say for certain the amount of time it will cook. Sure for my slow cooker it might cook perfectly at 5 hours but you can have that same recipe burn cooking that amount of time in yours. For this reason you need to be cautious when making new recipes. This brings me to my next tip.
Check before cooking time is up
This goes against most of the slow cooking advice out there. We have all been told never to open the lid during the slow cooking process. However, in my experience you have to check at least once maybe twice to see if it is close to being done. Most likely you will not have to do this with recipes you are familiar with. However, a new recipe will need to be checked on. In my experience, the worse thing to do with a new recipe is just let it cook for the full amount of time without checking on it. That is just a recipe for disaster.
Serve pasta on the side
Maybe it is just me but to this day I have never had luck with cooking pasta in the slow cooker. Never! Every time it turns into a big mushy mess. I have learned that it is best to make the sauce in the slow cooker and then the pasta separately on the stove. Yes it is an extra step – one well worth it in my opinion. Mushy pasta never makes for a tempting meal. If this is a problem you never had then please share your secret.
As you can see creating a successful slow cooking recipe takes a little more technique then just dump and go. However, with the right recipes, a little prep work, and some practice this small appliance can serve as wonderful tool for busy parents.
What are some of your slow cooker tips?