As an author of slow-cooker cookbooks, I often get reader questions about ingredient substitutions. I'll hear comments groaning that certain family members "don’t like beans" or other common ingredients in slow-cooker recipes — and that’s okay! My very favorite thing about slow cooking is how customizable the recipes can be to fit your food needs and preferences.
Here are five tips for adapting non-slow-cooker recipes, as well as sizing up any slow-cooker recipe and making the necessary changes to fit your preferences.
5 Tips for Adapting Slow-Cooker Recipes
Cooking should be fun. When there are too many rules, I lose interest. I really like to think of the slow cooker as an Easy-Bake Oven for grownups. Go ahead, play!
1. Learn the types of dishes that can easily be adapted for the slow cooker (and record what you do!).
The first rule of adapting non-slow-cooker dishes to the slow cooker is to learn the signs of what will be a good fit. I think we all understand that slow-cooked braised dishes — like pot roasts, stews, and chilis — are good fits for the slow cooker. But think beyond that — what else benefits from slow, low cooking in a moist environment? Well, for one: desserts such as crème brûlée, cheesecake, or any other dessert that needs to be cooked in a bain marie (or water bath) over low, steady heat. One of my favorite desserts is crème brûlée; I used to only have it a few times a year at a neighborhood French restaurant, but now I make it about once a month in my slow cooker.
When adapting a favorite non-slow-cooker recipe to the slow cooker, prepare the dish as usual, then load it into the slow cooker. Cook on a high temperature and check the dish every half hour or so until it's finished baking. Record how long it took — now that you've made the recipe once, you can use that cooking time for your next batch, so you won't have to check so frequently!
2. Switch ingredients for others in the same family.
What about ingredient swaps when adapting slow-cooker recipes? We happen to be a gluten-free family, so I'm constantly making little swaps to adapt recipes for our needs. Here's the first place to start: the obvious. As a rule of thumb, swap "like" ingredients for "like" ingredients — ones that cook in a similar manner. For instance, swap barley for another grain like brown rice — not for pasta. Swap a chuck roast for another tough cut of meat, like a bottom round roast — not fish or tofu.
Condiments and seasonings can almost always be used interchangeably, like cider vinegar for white wine vinegar, or fresh sage for fresh thyme. Trust your instincts and taste on small or easily transferrable swaps like these.
3. Memorize this easy substitute for "cream of" soups.
Many old-school — and dearly loved — recipes for slow-cooker fare call for a can of cream of chicken or cream of mushroom soup. I don’t stock this kind of soup in our pantry, but I do appreciate the flavor and creaminess it can supply a casserole or pot roast. Memorize this alternative if you want to adapt an otherwise good recipe for one that doesn't use this type of product.
"Cream of" Soup Substitute
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 tablespoons flour, gluten-free is fine
1/2 cup milk, any fat content is fine
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Make a roux on the stovetop with the butter and flour, then slowly whisk in the milk and chicken broth until the mixture is smooth. Remove from heat and season to taste with salt and pepper. This makes about 1 cup and you can use it as you would the soup in any recipe.
4. Use less liquid than you think you need.
What if a recipe calls for a liquid you don't want to use, like wine or boxed broth? If a recipe calls for a cooking liquid you want to swap out for personal preference or because you are out of it at the moment, err on the side of less liquid than more, and remember that water is always an acceptable substitute.
Back in the "old days" of slow cooking, home cooks were instructed to add about one cup of cooking liquid per pound of meat. This simply is not necessary anymore, and results in wet and soggy food.
I’ve found that many times just a tiny bit of cooking liquid is needed, and in a recipe such as pulled pork or roasted chicken, no additional moisture is required. Because of the way the lid is designed, all moisture remains in the pot and essentially "rains" back down, ensuring your food stays moist and flavorful.
5. Learn this trick for making small batches in a big pot.
Slow cookers work best when they are 2/3 to 3/4 full when in use. If you're scaling down a recipe but have a larger pot, use this trick: Simply place an oven-safe dish (like Pyrex or Corningware) into your slow-cooker insert, and then load your food into it.
This creates a smaller cooking vessel, which protects your food from overcooking or drying out. There is no need to add water around the cooking dish; simply place your slow-cooker lid on top and cook according to the recipe instructions.
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Those are just five of my favorite strategies for adapting a slow-cooker recipe to fit my family's preferences and needs. They don't like beans? Use chickpeas, or leave them out entirely. Need to avoid soy sauce? Use a gluten-free alternative. In the end, the more familiar you are as a cook with your ingredients and how they work, the more confident you'll be in making swaps that work for you.
What other tips have you found useful in adapting slow-cooker recipes to fit your own dietary needs or time constraints?