Wow - our All-Clad slow cooker admiration post hit a nerve yesterday. Some of you are quite happy with your $40 slow cookers; others say that yes, a $150 slow cooker is absolutely worth it. The best comment, though, came from sugarpond, who said she found the All-Clad model for $60.
$150 or $5 thrift store find - either way, you have a slow cooker and now you want to use it. For the record, a slow cooker is not a McMansion unitasker. No, it's the busy urban cook's best friend. Here's how we use our slow cooker to braise pretty much anything. What's braising? It's simply browning a cut of meat or vegetables to get some good color and flavor, then cooking with a little bit of liquid in a covered pot. (See: Word of Mouth: Braise)
Your slow cooker is the ideal appliance for slow cooking; you can have an incredible meal with very little work - a meal that cooks while you're at work all day.
• First, pick a good cut of meat to braise. Read our article on this: Why Tougher Meats Make Good Braises.
Tougher (ie cheaper!) meats with plenty of connecting collagen and muscles make wonderful slow-cooked dishes; they fall apart into those tender, melting meaty morsels. Brisket is probably our favorite cut of meat to braise.
You also want to look for meat that is local and raised in a way you can trust. The USDA just (sort of) recalled 143 million pounds of ground beef after a video showing egregious cruelty to animals in a slaughterhouse was released.
It's not difficult or especially expensive to find local, well-raised meats. Urban, rural, suburban - there are many options available. Mail order too. See this post for more details: How to Find Local Meat.
We just bought three pounds of stew beef yesterday - it's from a farm less than 60 miles away, processed by a local slaughterhouse, and butchered in front of our eyes by a member of the farm at our local indoor market. It cost us only a few dollars more than grocery store, CAFO beef.
• Second - Brown your meat! Use a big skillet over high heat. We like to brown our meat in a little olive oil, then cook onions and garlic in the remaining fat. How dark do you go when browning? That's a matter of preference, but get some good color on for flavor. We've carbonized the edges of meat and still had it turn out delicious!
Pour in a bit of liquid. This is flexible - a cup or two is fine. Four or more cups, depending on the size of your meat, may give you more of a stew. This is fine too. We use chicken or beef stock and wine. Really anything is fine; water will do too.
• Fourth - Set the slow cooker on low for 8-10 hours and go away.
Come home to the agonizingly pleasurable smells of roast meat, stewing in its own juices with wine and broth - simmering and ready to mopped up with no-time bread, pasta, or just some whole grains. Eat what you can, freeze the rest, and you've had a meal you cooked yourself with almost no trouble whatsoever.
(PS - You can skip the browning part entirely, if you're really strapped for time; just dump in the crockpot with some herbs and wine and turn it on. We've done this to great success - especially with pork roasts.)