The Best Types of Slow-Cooker Recipes for Extra-Long Work Days

Slow-Cooker Savvy from Stephanie O'Dea

The slow cooker is great for many things — tenderizing meat so it falls apart with a fork, making an easy chicken stock, even keeping our mashed potatoes warm at Thanksgiving — but its greatest service, by far, is the ability to cook our meals while we're not around. And our long work days just seem to keep getting longer, don't they?

I chatted with Stephanie O'Dea, author of the 5 Ingredients or Less Slow Cooker Cookbook, about some of her favorite recipes for extra-long days. Here are five kinds of recipes to look out for, plus some specific recipes to try.

Stephanie says, "The fall is prime slow-cooking time. Although the days technically get shorter, I find that our days and evenings seem so long in the fall, thanks to meetings at school, soccer practice, and end-of-the-year work deadlines. Although slow cookers are designed to cook for a long period of time, sometimes you need a bit more wiggle room than a recipe states."

How do you know a good, long-cooking recipe when you're glancing through the index of your favorite cookbook in search of dinner? Let these five basic kinds of slow-cooker recipes be your guide — they can generally be cooked for a little longer than the recipe says, usually up to 10 hours or so. They also do just fine if the slow cooker flips over to the "warm" setting.

Bean Soups

Chili, black bean soup, minestrone — any soup made primarily with beans loves a good, long stretch in the slow cooker. Use dried beans and watch how tender they get the longer they cook.

Stephanie's Favorite Recipes

  • Salsa Chicken and Black Bean Soup: The slightly spicy and smoky flavor of this soup is a crowd pleaser. I like to top it with a dollop of sour cream and some fresh avocado slices for a bit of a palate cool down.
  • End of Summer Harvest Soup: This completely vegetarian (or easily vegan!) soup is a great way to use the end of the tomatoes and summer squash you’ve got hanging out in your crisper drawer. The broth is seasoned beautifully and you can customize the recipe by using your favorite dry bean.

Shredded Pork or Beef

Tough cuts of meat, like pork shoulder and beef brisket, turn into silky shreds and tender mouthfuls when cooked low and slow for hours. Go on and take the late train — the fixings for your pork tacos will be waiting for you when you get home.

Stephanie's Favorite Recipes

  • Barbecue Beef and Bean Sandwiches: I usually have all the ingredients on hand for this easy dinner. If you are feeding a crowd, you can stretch this dish by serving in hoagie rolls, or you can simply spoon the mixture over hot cooked rice and eat with a fork.
  • Hirino Psito: This is one of the very best pork shoulder recipes in the world (if I do say so myself — and I do!). The glaze is a mixture of Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar, and dried cranberries. Before serving, shred the meat completely and stir to reabsorb all of the yummy sauce.

Soups and Stews with Hard Vegetables

Hard vegetables, like potatoes, carrots, and parsnips, are much more forgiving to some extra time in the slow cooker. They'll happily simmer away for quite some time, becoming even more tender and infused with flavor. This said, recipes with hard vegetables are best for those days when you know you'll be home in eight to 10 hours. (If you end up with mushier vegetables than you'd like, whizz it in the blender, add a dash of cream, and call it a cream of vegetable soup!)

Stephanie's Favorite Recipe

Pot Roast

Pot roast is similar to pulled beef and pork, yes, but a little fancier. These slow-cooker pot roasts are for those nights when you miss your mom's cooking and want to come home to something that has comfort written all over it. Check out Stephanie's advice below on making sure your slow cooker pot roast is ultra-tender.

Stephanie's Favorite Recipe

  • Old-Fashioned Pot Roast: The trick to a super-moist and spoon-tender pot roast is to cook it so long that the meat relaxes and begins to fall apart, allowing the cooking liquid to get reabsorbed. If after eight hours you find your pot roast isn’t as tender as you’d like, cut it into a few pieces and return it to the pot for another hour or two. Dry pot roast isn’t a sign of overcooking, it’s a sign of undercooking!

Pasta Sauces and Ragus

Many classic Italian pasta sauces, like bolognese, lamb ragu, and even meatballs in tomato sauce, just keep getting better and better the longer they simmer away. It's actually hard to overcook these guys. Just make some pasta when you get home, and dinner is ready.

Stephanie's Favorite Recipe

Find Stephanie's Book:

5 Ingredients or Less Slow Cooker Cookbook by Stephanie O'Dea

(Image credits: Michelle Peters-Jones; Emma Christensen; Sarah Rae Smith; Nealey Dozier; Tara Donne)