Cooking in a slow cooker (or Crock-Pot) is a little bit of an obsession for me. I own three crock-pots of various sizes, several cookbooks specifically dedicated to slow-cooking, and I cook at least one meal a week in a crock-pot during all but the hottest parts of the year. Done right, a slow cooker meal is truly a busy person’s best friend — there is nothing like coming home from a long day at work to a delicious-smelling meal that is hot and ready to eat. You take off your uncomfortable work shoes, change clothes, and pour yourself a refreshing beverage. Ahh… Dinner is served.
Of course, it doesn’t always turn out that way. My slow cooker mishaps include tough, overcooked meats, mushy vegetables, and – somehow – rice that was both undercooked AND burned. (Yes, I have had some truly amazing kitchen disasters. Remind me to tell you about the time the cookies I was baking started dripping out the front of the oven.)
Here are my top tips for successful slow cookery:
Choose the right meat. This is not the time for boneless skinless chicken breasts or super lean pork chops. Dark meat generally works better than white meat, and a well-marbled cut will be better than very lean meat. Since it cooks for such a long time, the fat has time to soften and keeps the meat moist, while leaner cuts turn dry and tough. (Cutting off big chunks of fat is usually a good idea, though.)
Use the right amount of liquid. Actually, that makes it sound much harder than it really is. Slow cookers are basically sealed while they’re cooking, so no moisture is coming in or out during the cooking process. If you forget to add liquid (or enough liquid), then you’re stuck (ha ha) cleaning dry, burned-on food out of your crockpot. Add too much, and you’ve got Insert-Recipe-Name-Here-Soup, complete with watered-down spices and soggy vegetables. Really, as long as you’ve got a cup or so of liquid, you should be fine, but be aware that some ingredients will soak up liquid during cooking, like rice, other grains, or beans. Fresh vegetables will release some moisture so you can get by with a little less liquid in recipes with a lot of veggies.
Understand how the slow cooker works. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your crockpot will prevent a lot of frustration. The crockpot is not an oven, a skillet, or a grill. Don’t expect food to come out browned or crispy or you’ll be disappointed. Think stew, braise, and simmer.
Plan for side dishes or extras. One of the great things about the slow cooker is how it melds the flavors into a harmonious whole while bubbling away all day. But, if you put everything you plan to eat for dinner in the crockpot, you may end up feeling like everything on your plate tastes the same (and the mushy-ness factor might be overwhelming). I like to add a little variety to the meal by either adding something crunchy after cooking (such as crumbling chips or crackers over chili) or planning a contrasting side dish like a cold, crunchy green salad or a toasty dinner roll.
Here’s one of my favorite crockpot recipes. It tastes great on its own, but it also makes awesome leftovers, shredded up and turned into burritos.
Crockpot Chile Verde Serves 6
1 onion, coarsely chopped
1 green bell pepper, coarsely chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 T. olive oil
4 oz green chiles, diced (any can of green chiles will do, but if you’re lucky and have New Mexico green chiles in your freezer like I do, use them!)
1 jalapeno, diced
7 tomatillos, coarsely chopped (yes – tomatillos. Little green tomatoes with a weird papery husk that you peel off. Ask the produce manager, you might be surprised to find them at your local grocery store! They are firmer than normal tomatoes, so don’t worry if they seem hard.)
2 lb. lean pork, trimmed and cubed
2 t. oregano
2 t. sage
1 t. cumin
1 t. red pepper flakes
salt & pepper
1/2 c. beer (oh darn… I guess you’ll have to finish off the rest of the bottle! Water or chicken broth would be good substitutes if you’re not a beer drinker)
Optional toppings: cilantro, sour cream, tortillas, diced avocado, shredded cheese
- First, saute onion, green pepper, and garlic in olive oil and add to the crockpot. (If you don’t have time to cook everything, it’s okay. Just put it into the crockpot raw.)
- Next, throw in the diced green chiles, jalapeno, and tomatillos.
- Brown the meat and add to the crockpot. (Again – it tastes a little better with the meat browned but it’s not essential. If I had to choose one thing to pre-cook in this recipe, this would be it.)
- Grind the spices in a mortar (I use a cheap coffee grinder dedicated to spices), add a few dashes of salt and pepper, and add to the crockpot.
- Finally, add the beer.
- Cook in the crockpot on low heat for approximately 8 hours (a little longer won’t hurt it).
- Traditionally this is served in bowls with hot flour tortillas, salsa, and cilantro. You can also serve with sour cream, grated cheese, olives, and pickled carrots and jalapenos. I like to make Spanish rice (brown rice mixed with Rotel) and refried beans for side dishes. For leftovers, mix pork with rice for yummy burritos!
For more slow cooker recipe inspiration, check out three more good recipes here (chicken pot pie, jambalaya, and BBQ chicken). I also highly recommend the cookbook The Gourmet Slow Cooker. Vegetarians and veggie lovers should check out Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker.
I’ve also started a new Cooking School Pinterest board where I’ll post recipes and other things I find that go along with my posts here.
Welcome to my Cooking School series, which is designed to share what I’ve learned as an experienced home cook with people who want to learn how to cook healthy, homemade food. If you have a topic you’d like me to address, please leave a comment! I try to post a new Cooking School installment on Thursdays.