I am a huge fan of the slow cooker. It's not for everyone, but for me, I love being able to assemble a slow cooker meal in the morning (when I have time) and know that it will be hot and delicious by dinner (when time is in short commodity). I've gotten pretty good at spotting recipes with slow cooker potential over the years. Here's my best advice.
1. Pick the Right Recipe: Soups, braises, even many casseroles — these are slow cooker gold. Look for a recipe that has a cooking time of a solid hour or more, one that bubbles away on a back burner or warm oven without needing your attention very often. You can nearly always follow these recipes exactly, and just swap out the stovetop or oven cooking for an afternoon in the slow cooker.
2. When (and What) to Pre-Cook: I love slow cooker recipes that involve nothing more than piling everything in the pot and pressing a button to cook, but this doesn't work with every recipe. Here's what I do:
- Large Pieces of Meat: Big shoulder roasts, leg roasts, chuck roasts, and so on do not need to be pre-cooked. They will cook all the way through in the slow cooker, becoming fork-tender and silky in the process. If I have time, I sear the outside of the meat for extra flavor, but it's not a hard and fast rule.
- Small Pieces of Meat and Ground Meat: Small, bite-sized pieces of meat, like slices of sausage or crumbles of hamburger, do better and taste better if they are browned on the stovetop before going in the slow cooker. If you don't, the texture is often funny and the dish ends up overly fatty.
- Onions and Garlic: I find that cooking onions and garlic on the stovetop gives them a better flavor and texture, plus you avoid getting an overly oniony or garlicky flavor in the dish. Pre-cooking isn't 100% necessary and I skip it if I'm strapped for time, but I always like the flavor of the final dish better when I do.
- All Other Vegetables: Nah. Don't pre-cook these. Pre-cooked vegetales will only end up over-cooking in the slow cooker, and mushy veggies are nobody's idea of a tasty meal.
3. Choosing High or Low Heat Setting: Slow cookers work by slowly coming up to temperature (about 210°F on most cookers), and then holding that temperature for however long you tell it to. On the "HIGH" setting, the slow cooker comes up to temperature quickly; on the "LOW" setting, it warms more slowly — either way the end result is the same. What really matters is how long you want to cook the food, which takes us to the next tip.
4. How Long to Cook the Dish: For cooking time, go by your original recipe. If the original cooking time was about an hour, I usually cook for 4 hours on HIGH in the slow cooker, and definitely no more than 6 hours — usually pasta casseroles, quick soups, chicken or seafood dishes, and vegetarian dishes. If the original recipe was for more than an hour, then the recipe often does well when cooked for 8 hours or more on LOW — usually meat braises and slow-simmered stews like chili.
5. When To Add Vegetables: Vegetables in a slow-cooked dish can be tricky since many of them turn to mush after just a few hours of cooking. Onions, potatoes, carrots, winter squash, and other hard vegetables can be added at the beginning of cooking and do well for any length of cooking. Vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower can handle a few hours of cooking — add them at the beginning when cooking a dish for 4-6 hours or add them in the middle when cooking something longer. Delicate, quick-cooking vegetables like peas, corn, spinach, and other greens should only be added to the slow cooker in the last half hour of cooking.
Do you have any other tips for converting recipes to the slow cooker? And particularly successful recipes to share?!