Sometimes I feel like a pariah of the food world, carrying around a dark secret that I fear will get me banished from my career and knocked off my perch as a so-called professional. Friends have laughed in my face when I've shared it with them in confidence, but I guess it's finally time to come clean. I am not in love with my slow cooker. Not by a long shot.
When I'm cooking for myself, I'm looking to get the most satisfying meal with the best-tasting results — I'm not concerned with saving time or shortcuts or any compromises in the name of less work. I want it exactly how I want it — but the thing is, I've realized that cooking in my Dutch oven on the stove or in the oven is just as easy and as much of a one-pot meal as using the slow cooker.
That's why I'll go back to the old-school methods of simmering, roasting, and braising over the set-it-and-forget-it school when given the chance every single time — except one.
3 Meal Standbys I Always Cook in a Dutch Oven
1. Baked Rice Dishes
There are many ingredients that can maintain their integrity when slow-cooked for hours: beans hold up and vegetables do fine, and we'll get to meats in a minute. But when it comes to rice, I'm too much of a picky perfectionist to throw a cup into my slow cooker and walk away.
Rice is the perfect example-slash-scapegoat for my slow-cooker frustrations; it loves to absorb liquid, and that amount can be controlled through stove or oven methods. But the slow-cooking process tends to make other added ingredients exude too much water, ending up with a soupy, overcooked mush. It certainly may be edible, but it's not fluffy and toothsome. And that's not my intention.
2. Chili and Pasta Sauces
One of the common complaints about slow cooking is the watery consistency of finished stews and sauces, and that's half of what I'm harping on here. Because of the tight-lidded seal on a slow cooker, there's no chance for any excess liquid to escape during the cooking process. All that steam drips right back into the dish you're cooking instead of giving it a chance to evaporate.
In purely scientific terms, as liquids reduce and thicken, their flavors concentrate. When I'm slowly simmering chili or my best red sauce recipe on the stove, I'm guaranteeing that I get it to the right consistency — I want it to be a sauce, not a soup!
The second element that makes me reach for the Dutch oven when making tomato-based sauces is the ability to caramelize the tomatoes' amino acids. The same Maillard reaction that occurs when browning meat also happens when cooking tomatoes, boosting those rich, savory flavor notes. Even if your slow cooker has a brown/sauté function, it doesn't maintain that temperature the same way that an insulated cast iron casserole does when simmering tomatoes over a few hours.
3. Roast Chicken
As convenient as a slow cooker may be, there's a reason why most of us aren't roasting our Thanksgiving turkeys in one (yes, it's apparently possible). Crispy skin and caramelization are what transform a run-of-the-mill clucker into something heavenly, and you need the dry, high heat of an oven to get that dang Maillard reaction going. Really! It's scientifically proven that roasting chicken produces different flavor compounds than boiling chicken does. And it's no more difficult to throw some carrots and onions into the bottom of a cast iron casserole and set a chicken on top than it is to do the same in a slow cooker.
Sure, you could slow-cook your chicken and then throw it under the broiler to turn the skin from flabby to fabulous, but why not, uh, kill two birds with one stone and take care of that crucial step while you're roasting the whole thing?
(And when it comes to Thanksgiving, I'll stick with my Breville toaster oven to pick up the slack if I'm out of space, and keep browning my bird in the big oven.)
The One Thing I Always Make in a Slow Cooker
So where does the slow cooker redeem itself, and why haven't I tossed mine in the trash yet? Because when it comes to big hunks of meat like pork shoulder and chuck roast, the slow cooker's ability to seal in moisture and liquid works in its favor. Combined with the super low-and-slow cook time, this method gives these tough cuts exactly what they need to break down their collagen and become fall-apart tender. If I'm making pulled pork or Mississippi roast to feed a whole party's worth of people — anything that I'm going to shred and devour with sauce — this is how I'm going to do it.
I know that for a lot of cooks, the convenience of a slow cooker trumps many of these concerns. And it's not an either/or proposition; in many households, weekend cooking is a time for stovetop-simmering or oven-braising, while the slow cooker comes out for weeknight use. I completely get it. But I don't mind a little more time in the kitchen when the rewards are so exponential.