In theory, with a little effort in the morning, a slow cooker greets you at the end of the day with a home-cooked, ready-to eat-meal (martini not included). Opening the door to the smell of lasagna, chicken soup, pot roast — to almost anything — is heaven. But most recipes call for three to six hours of cooking, so for those of us who are operating on more of an eight- to 10-hour schedule, that isn't so convenient. I'm on a mission to make my slow cooker work for me, because I love coming home to a great meal. Here's how we do it.
Rule #1: Pick pot roast, pork, or pepper steak.
You know what these foods have in common? They can cook on low for eight to 10 hours, and it only makes them more tender. My favorite slow-cooker pot roast recipe is so easy a child could do it. I can even do it before I've had my coffee, and 10 hours later, it's good enough for a dinner party.
Get the Recipe: Slow Cooker Maple & Dijon Pot Roast
Rule #2: Be flexible about the outcome.
Some dishes are just as good, but different, when they cook longer. Emma's curried vegetable and chickpea stew is delicious cooked for four hours on high, but eight hours on low produces a more blended (okay, mushier) dish, like a thick sauce, that's delightful over rice. Bonus: This recipe makes a lot and freezes well, so I can take it to work for lunch.
Rule #3: Embrace dishes that make excellent leftovers.
You know how some things taste even better on the reheat? With a slow cooker, you can cook and reheat them, all in the same day. I recently made a white chili with turkey, and it made so much that I froze it in smaller portions, ready for me to take to work, or heat up for an easy weeknight supper. Lo and behold, that chili was good the first time, but reheated? Spectacular. Next time, I'll try it in my cooker, which automatically switches to the warm setting at the end of the cooking time, and the first round will taste as good as leftovers. If my ingredients won't fall apart, a longer cooking time lets the flavors blend.
Get the Recipe: Slow Cooker White Chicken Chili
Rule #4: Prep recipes with shorter cooking times in the morning.
Or the night before, if you're like me and despise doing even one extra thing in the morning. Come home at lunch and throw it in the slow cooker. We love lasagna (incidentally, another dish that's even better when reheated), but my recipe cooks for three to four hours on low. Much longer, and the noodles will dry out and curl up.
Get the Recipe: Slow-Cooker Spinach and Sausage Lasagna
For this one, I make the spinach and cheese mixture and the sausage and tomato mixture and store them in separate containers. Once that's done, assembly takes five minutes. I often have to come home at lunch anyway to let our dog outside, and I still have time to eat a sandwich.
Rule #5: Use the slow cooker again, immediately.
Every time we need chicken stock, I roast a chicken for supper. If your chicken is big enough (four to five pounds), you can cook it for eight hours on low. Rumor has it the chicken will fall off the bone, and you won't have a pretty bird to serve, although the meat will taste delicious. My experience has been that the chicken holds up better than it does when I cook it in the oven, but your mileage may vary. I make it the same way for the slow cooker as I do for the oven.
After we've eaten the chicken, and picked off any excess meat, I toss the bones back in the cooker with vegetable scraps. I cover it with water and cook it overnight on low, and then I wake up to chicken stock. Magic! I strain it into a pot, put it in the fridge, then take the fat from the top when I get home and portion the stock into smaller containers. It isn't a huge time saver, but roasting a chicken and making stock without cleaning the cooker in between makes me feel efficient. Hooray for efficiency and water conservation!
Rule #6: When you can't think of anything else, make puréed soup.
Since I'll be puréeing the vegetables anyway, the longer they cook, the softer they get, and the easier they are to blend. Puréed soup is budget-friendly because you can toss pretty much any vegetable you have into the pot. Even my youngest kid can do it. He invented one of our favorites when he was eight: celery soup with bacon. Puréed soup is also a great way to use up a random handful of lentils or split peas.
Get the Recipe: Slow-Cooker Celery Soup with Bacon
So, how do you put your slow cooker to work? How do you use it to make your day easier?
(Image credits: Sarah Rae Smith)