My slow cookers (I have two) have become my favorite way to cook a one-pot meal. I have prepared everything from chili to a roasted turkey to “baked goods” in these little gems of low-maintenance versatility. I especially like using my slow cooker this time of year because it doesn’t heat up the house. For the most part, a slow cooker allows you to “set it and forget it” freeing you up to handle the business of going about your day.
What worked for me when I was beginning my adventure into slow cooking was taking some of my tried-and-true recipes that my family was familiar with and just converting them to work in the crock pot. Almost any recipe that bakes in the oven or simmers on the stovetop can be converted for your slow cooker. Chili is perfect for the crock pot as are most soups, stews and casseroles. Believe it or not, it is not as difficult as you might think! Just a few basic pointers I have learned will move you on your way.
MEAT: Cooking with a slow cooker helps penetrate meat with intense flavors. Browning beef and pork really helps with sealing in the flavor. A roasted chicken or a nice beef pot roast actually tastes better slowly cooked. Leftover cooked chicken breasts, beef roast, or pork loin all work too!
LIQUIDS: You will need less liquid on meals that are intended to “thicken”. Reduce the amount of liquid the recipe calls for by about half. The slow cooking process will produce more liquid that won’t get boiled away. If the recipe does not include liquid or sauce of any kind, you should add 1/2 cup of water or other liquid because moisture is needed to produce steam for the slow cooker to reach the appropriate cooking temperatures. At the end of cooking, if there seems to be too much liquid, remove the lid and turn the pot up to high, allowing some of the liquid to cook out.
COOKING TIMES: If the original cooking time was about an hour, I usually cook for 4-6 hours on HIGH in the slow cooker, and definitely no more than 6 hours (usually pasta casseroles, quick creamed 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 8-10 hours or more on LOW (like meat braises and slow-simmered stews like chili). Dishes that do not require long cooking times work best on the LOW setting for 3-5 hours.
VEGETABLES: Vegetables are ingredients I had to play around with. I found, for me, that sautéing my onions and garlic first worked better to distribute the flavors throughout the dish when slow cooking. Root veggies just need to be uniformly cut up and thrown in. 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. Quick-cooking vegetables like peas, corn, spinach, and other greens should only be added to the slow cooker in the last half hour (spinach/greens) to last hour (corn/peas) of cooking. If you are not cooking down tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, or summer squash and want your dish chunky, these vegetables should also be added towards the end of the cooking time.
OTHER INGREDIENTS: Recipes for soup and stew containing milk, cheese, or other dairy products, should have these ingredients added in the last 30 to 60 minutes of cooking time. To avoid rice and pasta from becoming sticky, cook them on the stovetop and add in at the end of the cooking time just long enough to be heated through. If you’d like to thicken or enrich the sauce, stir in cream, sour cream, shredded cheese, or a mixture of cornstarch and cold water. And don’t forget to add flavors with salt and pepper, lemon juice or vinegar, and a handful of fresh chopped parsley, basil, cilantro or a lovely homemade herb/spice blend.