How To: Use Your Slow Cooker Like a Pro

Posted by on Sunday Jan 15th, 2012 | Print

If you’re thinking about investing in a slow cooker or you own one but it’s tucked away on a shelf, this week is tailor made for you.From Monday til Friday, here, on Small Kitchen College, The Naptime Chef , and the sites of our wonderful partners, we’re plumbing the depths of the electric slow cooker, as well as slowly cooked food (in the oven, on the stove) in general. Slow-cooked food gets incredibly tasty, tough meats grow rich and soft, and soups come away with extraordinary flavor. You have to plan ahead, but you get to do less work at the last minute. Welcome to the world (or at least the week) of slow cooking!

Don’t forget to enter the giveaway here, and tune in later in the week for more great recipes, tips, and tricks!

**How To: Use Your Slow Cooker Like a Pro**

Size it up. If you’re buying a slow cooker, you’ll want to think carefully about the size that’s best to own. A 3-quart cooker is great for making beans or a small amount of stock, but you’re not going to be able to fit a whole chicken or a big pork butt in that little pot. If you’re thinking more along the lines of chili for a crowd or chicken-stock for the freezer, you’ll want to opt for a 6-quart cooker. Just make sure you have the counter and the cabinet space to house it! We’ll be talking more about pot size later in the week.

Practice makes perfect. Even the most intuitive cook might want to start with some recipes when working with a slow cooker for the first time. The slow braise might change proportions or need different spice ratios that you’re used to. Here are some great recipes to start with: Slow-Cooker Carnitas and Brisket from TheKitchn; Slow-Cooker Beef Stew with Red Wine from BGSK; Beef and Barley Stew and Short Ribs Provencale from The Naptime Chef; Slow-Cooker Marinara from Budget Bytes; Slow-Cooker Greek Stuffed Peppers from Martha Stewart.

Ask the pivotal question. Once you’re ready to improvise, there’s an important criterion you’ll need to consider as you adapt recipes for the crock pot. Think: “Will it taste better cold?” You’ve probably noticed that many dishes, particularly stews and curries, taste better after a night in the fridge–and not just out of delight from forking cold leftovers into your mouth. The flavors come together better. And the same effect is what happens in a slow cooker. So pass on the delicate soups and al dente pasta and choose dishes you know improve with time.

Waste not. If you plan to make a large quantity of a single food, take a deep breath and calmly assess whether you’ve got enough stomach real estate to make use of it. On Sunday you might imagine you’ll want to eat chili con carne for lunch and dinner all week; but when by Wednesday even mint toothpaste can’t shake the lingering flavor of cumin, some of that chili might pass wind up in the trash. Either invite over some friends, or scale down the size of your slow-cooked creation so that it’s manageable. (However, if you have a 6-quart cooker, remember you can’t make tiny amounts of food.) If you’re good with the freezer, plan to freeze some of your slow-cooked yield.

Think exotic. Slow cookers and rib-stickin’ American favorites do have an affinity, but there’s no reason not to branch out. Think of chili as step one (here are two favorites); then head to Thai curries, Moroccan chicken, and Cuban black beans.

Don’t forget about staples. Especially if you’re making an enormous batch, you may want to stick with a dish you eat a lot of anyway. Oatmeal is a brilliant one (here’s Alton’s recipe)–combine ingredients before bed and wake up to a ready breakfast. Brown rice works reasonably well and can be the base of a week’s worth of meals. Slow-cooked beans are a brilliant alternative to filling your pantry with cans (we’ll be talking more about them on Wednesday). Don’t overlook tomato sauce to top your Sunday night pasta. Chicken stock is a perfect contender too. What other staples have you made in the slow cooker?

Fast cook first. Many slow-cooked recipes have instructions that read like this: “Take all ingredients. Put them in the slow-cooker. Cook for 8 hours. Eat.” While we appreciate the absolute minimalism of these steps, we’d argue that for best flavor, it’s often best to start your slow-cooked dishes as you would anything else, by warming some oil in a pan on the stove and sautéing your onions or browning your meat. Then, transfer your flavor-filled base to the slow cooker with the rest of the ingredients, wash your extra dishes, and relax.

Keep warm. Even if you don’t use your slow cooker for cooking, you can use it for warmth. It’ll keep a stew or a pot of mulled cider warm while you entertain friends–and you’ll feel better knowing the stove’s not on.

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  • Ewallace2992

    Love those slow cookers, the bigger the better that’s for sure

  • Cassandra Zink

    I have a question. I’m out of my apartment 12 hours a day (and can’t leave work to swing by the apartment). Can I still make a slow cooker work for me during the week?

  • http://movitabeaucoup.com/ movita beaucoup

    Ah, the slow cooker. It just doesn’t get any better. Throw stuff in a pot, let it cook itself… awesome! We’re addicted to ours, and I’m loving your little ode to the crock pot here!

  • CJ McD

    @google-608398311e54af6a5964416483fd82e5:disqus -  I think cooking something for 12 hours might be too long for most things.  When I know I’ll be away from home for long periods of the day, I often cook overnight while I sleep.  When I wake up, I remove the crock to cool, make coffee, shower, dress and pop the cooled food into the refrigerator before I leave for work.  Then just a quick reheat on the stove top or microwave and viola!, dinner is served.

  • http://www.kdcuk.co.uk/ John Batt

    I love the slow cooker! It’s amazing how there aren’t more people using a slow cooker, as it isn’t only time saving but you can use cheap cuts of meat that will taste better than your boring chicken breast.
    Definitely need more slow-cooking!

  • Ashley Arnold

    I just moved into my first apartment and someone gave me a crockpot as a housewarming gift, so I know I’ll be checking out all the recipes. I’ve never been a big cook, so this should be a lot of fun to start things up for me! 

  • Ashley Arnold

    I just moved into my first apartment and someone gave me a crockpot as a housewarming gift, so I know I’ll be checking out all the recipes. I’ve never been a big cook, so this should be a lot of fun to start things up for me! 

  • Sophie

    my boyfriend gave me one for christmas and i can’t wait to use it! thanks for the recipes!

  • Sophie

    my boyfriend gave me one for christmas and i can’t wait to use it! thanks for the recipes!

  • louisejackob

    I’m vegetarian- besides beans, does it really make sense to get one?

  • Sara

    Use your slow cooker in your nice kitchen with laminate flooring in Boca Raton.