Some 80% of American households own a slow cooker, according to Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann, coauthors of three slow-cook cookbooks, including Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker Recipes for Entertaining (Harvard Common Press, 2007). Yet most pull out their Crock-Pot only for soups and stews, missing lots of opportunities for easy cooking. Check out the slow-cooker recipes at www.EatBetterAmerica.com and try these ideas to help make your slow cooker work harder for you.
Choose the right cooker. Today, high-tech “smart pots” allow you to program start and stop times. But even your low-budget, basic Crock-Pot can do more than you might imagine. An oval cooker works well for beef roasts, chicken, and for meat loaf. Tall, round ones are best for soup, stew, and chili. Small cookers make perfect meals for one or two.
Avoid making mush. “You have to abandon the idea that you can leave everything on all day,” says Kaufmann. “Not everything is an eight- to 10-hour recipe.” Avoid overcooking, and be sure to add tender ingredients (snap peas, seafood, tomatoes) late in the process so everything comes out cooked to the proper consistency.
Watch the water. “We found that slow cookers tend to work best with either very little liquid (a tablespoon or 2 to 1 cup, as in braising) or submerged in a lot (as in stewing),” says Kaufmann.
Wake up to a real breakfast. Slow cook great jams and granola or perfect porridges and steel-cut oatmeal. Simply toss in the ingredients the night before, set on low, then awake to delicious smells. Since big cookers have excess surface area, Kaufmann suggests buying a small one (1 1/2- to 3-quart size, $10 to $20) if you’ll be eating lots of steel-cut oats and other breakfast grains.
Slow cook great veggies. Your slow cooker is perfect for roasting beets or little potatoes in a small amount of olive oil, salt, and herbs. If you slow cook corn on the cob standing upright in the husks (minus the silks) in 1/2 cup of water, it creates a combination of roasting and steaming, says Kaufmann, which avoids the waterlogged effect you may get from boiling.
Make meals you wouldn’t expect. In addition to making great soup stocks and chili, the slow cooker comes in handy for dried beans and even steamed brown bread. Cook a healthy and hearty turkey meat loaf in your Crock-Pot and it’ll stay moister than an oven-cooked version.
Don’t forget dessert. Slow cook a steamed persimmon pudding or a low-fat and moist cake. Or try caramel apples for a yummy treat. For poaching pears use an oval cooker or a round one big enough to avoid stacking the pears. Then adapt your favorite stove-top poached-pear recipe using apricot or raspberry jam, cinnamon and cloves, orange peel, or ginger.
Pull it out for the party. “If you don’t want guests standing at the stove for the entire party dipping up hot cider or mulled wine, move your big slow cooker to the another room, plug it in, and keep beverages warm,” says Kaufmann. “It’s like a mobile punch bowl.”