Cook All Day to Save Time: Notes On Slow Cookers

I resisted Crock Pots or slow cookers for years because I thought they’d make everything taste like boiled blah. I have come around to like them quite a bit for certain dishes. The key to successful all-day slow cooking is to know it’s strengths and weaknesses.

My goal is to put raw food in a crock pot in the morning and cook it all day so dinner is ready when I get home. I’d rather not use a crock pot for food that has to cook only a few hours. This doesn’t help much on a work day. And I can do that on the stove or in the oven thank-you-very-much. (But a Crock Pot can be an option if it’s hot out and you don’t want to turn on an oven.) Also, I sure don’t want to pre-cook any of the food before I put it in a cooker except under very special circumstances. That’s what the cooker is for — cooking.

A while ago I promised a recipe for Misc Mex Meat Goop. That will be my next post, but first i wanted to get a few notes on slow cookers out there. 

Slow-Cookers: The Good, The Bad (and the, hopefully, not too ugly)

Weaknesses — cooking tender meats to the point of mush. Same goes for slow-cooked rice or pasta. Don’t leave any of those in a crock all day long unless you’re trying to make paste. (You can make lasagna in a Crock Pot, but cook only a few hours — not all day.) There is also the risk that food will taste “boiled” and blah. “Yay, boiled chicken!” Said no one ever (except in sarcasm or out of starvation). You might need to watch your liquids and add extra seasoning to make slow-cooked food more flavorful. In most cases only a little water will cook out of your slow-cooked dishes. You may even end up with more liquid than you started with as juices run from the meat or veggies, so gauge seasonings accordingly. Tough spices like whole cloves or bay leaves may put out a lot of flavor over time. Salt can be added later if needed.

Generally slow cookers don’t brown or crisp foods like baking, sautéing, grilling, or pan frying. So use appropriate cooking methods if browning or crispiness are essential to a dish or do some browning later. 

There are, perhaps, a few too many recipes that rely on canned soup and chicken going in a crock. Prepared soup can be a pretty quick meal on its own without relying on all-day cooking. But some of these recipes aren’t bad in certain circumstances. 

Also, sizes, styles, and heat vary among slow cookers. So you might get different results from a recipe unless you know you’re using a similar slow cooker. Even regular ovens can vary in terms of temperature and heat distribution, but with slow cookers this is even more so. You can end up with burnt food or watery boiled food. This can, however, be a good thing if you know what to do. It gives you options to cook a little differently depending on your goals. This brings me to …

Slow Cooking Strengths — cooking cheap, tough meats to pull-apart tenderness. Yes! Slow-cooking a pot full of hard veggies like carrots or winter squash to a sweet tenderness that still retains some color and texture since the heat stays fairly low and you don’t have to use a lot of liquid. Yes! You can start a dish in the morning and have dinner ready in the evening without needing to be there to do anything to the pot. Yes! That is a big win for any working or busy human out there. 

Know your slow cooker. Different slow cookers are going to deal with heat and liquids differently.  A deep, round slow cooker will usually result in deeper liquid and less evaporation since there’s less surface area. This is great for soups or for cooking super tough meats. Shallow, oval, and/or larger cookers will usually mean fewer inches of liquid for the food to sit in (per cup of liquid). Food will seem less “boiled.” The liquid can spread out at the bottom and evaporate since there’s more surface area. A good lid (which you should always have anyway with a slow cooker) will keep it from drying out. You need some liquid in there to prevent burnt or scorched food.  

Likewise if your cooker gets too hot, you may end up with a burnt mess at the end of the day. D’uh, right. Before leaving your cooker for all-day cooking, try it out on weekend so you can at least peek through the lid and smell for burning food.

Most cookers have Low and High heat settings. Low will almost always be best for all-day slow cooking. But I might suggest High when cooking reconstituted dried beans with lots of liquid. Does your crock have a Warm setting? Use that only after food is properly cooked or you may have a science experiment of bacteria instead dinner when you get home. You don’t want to eat that. My favorite option is a cooker that can be set to cook for a number of hours and then switch to Warm until you’re ready to eat. 

When thinking of cheap, tough cuts of meat, there are a lot of options – beef, pork, chicken, and even turkey. Perhaps I shouldn’t call any meat “cheap.” Less expensive is more like it. 

There are tasty BBQ recipes that slow cook meats like ribs or pork butt in a crock pot to tenderize all day and then pop under a broiler for a few minutes to caramelize and brown at the end. Not a bad option when you can’t actually grill or BBQ properly. Liquid smoke can do wonders in a crock pot. Browning before putting food in a slow cooker may add some flavor, but crispiness will vanish in the moist heat of a slow cooker and most of the browned edges on food will wash away too. 

Chicken can be a good option. A lot of people may not think about different kinds of chicken, but with slow cookers you might want to. Larger, older chickens usually cost less and are less tender. This can be the perfect option for slow cooking. 

Look for Roaster or Stewing Chickens. You may even find a tough old rooster at some specialty or Asian markets. Broilers and Fryers are types of younger chickens. They are smaller, more tender, and usually more expensive. These are great for frying or for the oven (as the names suggest). Yummy but not really your slow-cooking friends. Slow cooking is the perfect option to make a Stewing Chicken pull-apart tender. You don’t even have to limit your options to just stews and soups.  

Check out the recipe for Misc Mex Meat