Thoughts About Slow Cookers
I have slow cookers on my mind…
Is that a song? It should be…
This all started with a conversation with Rich’s parents last week. Cooking has been getting harder for them. Without invading their privacy… they are in their late 80s, they’ve (not surprisingly) had some health issues. They live in their own home, though near family, and are starting to need to adapt routines and procedures to make life easier, and keep their independence.
Well – using a slow cooker takes very little effort. And even more to the point, in this case, you can separate that effort from eating the meal, and cleaning up afterward… Much of it – chopping, and so on – can be done sitting, instead of standing at a stove. Depending on the arrangement of your furniture (and the location of your electrical outlets) you might even be able to put the slow cooker on the kitchen table, fill it and cook right there, and serve straight from it without having to carry a full pot.
So I had suggested that they get one, and then was obviously thinking about slow cookers, and posted a recipe for root vegetables, and shared it – and Facebook erupted. People Shared it, their friends commented and Shared, their friends Shared… Apparently there is an audience for slow cooker recipes… (You’d think a glance around Pinterest and the Blogoverse would have told me that…)
Much of the time, really, I use it more to cook ingredients than for Recipes as such. I routinely cook a pot full of chicken, then eat some that day, use the rest of the cooked meat in several different ways, and make broth from the carcase… I also regularly cook a pot of beans, and use them. (I need to write that up…) I do use it, though, for stews, pot roasts, full meals… I used it more when I was working out of the house more often, but even when I am home it means I don’t have to keep an eye on the kitchen – it can simmer away happily when I’m at the other end of the house paying total attention to other work.
Because of the parents, we’ve been thinking and talking about different features of slow cookers, and which make sense under what circumstances. Most of you already own them, but bear with me – this may still be a helpful discussion for the future – and if you have comments and considerations you’d like to add, please do!
The most common variety is the crock pot type – a crockery insert in a metal sleeve. (The word Crockpot is a trademark of Rival – I have sold… err, other brands… so I very automatically do not use the trademarked term. And I won’t discuss brands, here… just features. As it happens, the one in my pictures, which was a gift, is not made by any company I have represented. End disclaimer…) The crockery insert does give a very even heat surrounding the food. On the other hand, the inserts are heavy and awkward, and can break…
There is also a version that is a metal pot that sits on a heated base. My first one was that kind, and I had it for years and years, only replacing it when I needed a larger one… I could use the pot directly on the stove, so if I needed to brown meat, for instance, I didn’t need to wash another pan… and I could put a recipe together the night before, put it in the refrigerator overnight, and set it up quickly in the morning (when I tended to be both in a rush and half asleep.) We’re suggesting that to the parents, because it is lighter and easier to handle, which matters a lot for them right now, and you can move just the pot if you want, instead of the whole thing. On the other hand, it’s almost impossible to move the base, once it heats. Make sure it isn’t blocking anything on the counter… (Yes, I learned that the hard way.) That can make it difficult in a very small kitchen, where you may have to move things around while working.
Now – bells and whistles, electronics and timers… That original pot didn’t have any of them. I turned a manual lever to High, Low, and Warm. All the recipes, though, called for 8 hours on Low – and all the years I was living in New Jersey and working in an office in New York, I would be gone at least 10 hours… and ate a lot of mushy chicken and stringy pot roasts. And I’d hesitate to go somewhere unexpectedly, after work, knowing I’d get home to mush.
So when I first saw a slow cooker with a timer I was delighted – and when I got one, I was in love! I could set it up when convenient in the morning, not holding off until the last minute, I could set it for 7 or 8 hours and control how well done I wanted something to be. At the end of the time set, it would switch to Keep Warm – the food stays in a safe temperature zone without overcooking or drying out. And there were no worries if I was delayed – it would stay on Warm for 6 or 8 hours, and at the end of that time, would shut itself off. If something happened and I didn’t get home at all that night, at worst I’d lose that pot of food… it wouldn’t dry out and start burning, or any other nightmare scenario (unlikely anyway, but…) I strongly recommend the timer to anyone who wants to use it to cook while they are out of the house at work, or anything else that keeps them gone all day.
Unfortunately, anything with the electronics for a timer does have something that can go wrong… and I have known some of them to stop working. Ours? Well – the crockery pot did crack… and we couldn’t replace it… The new one has no timer, but that’s fine, as one or the other of us is generally home. Now, I usually set the slow cooker up a while before lunch, and dinner is ready when we are… If I’m out working all day, I can tell Rich to put something on, or switch it to Warm, at a specific time. (I have seen suggestions for using lamp timers for this – but that is really not a good idea if you use meat, as food sits too long at unsafe temperatures. It is OK to soak beans and then have the pot turn on, but that’s a pretty limited use – and cooking beans a little longer doesn’t generally hurt them anyway.)
Actually, we have two slow cookers, now – we were given one – a five quart I use routinely (which fits in our small kitchen) and a seven quart I have to pull out of the back of a closet to use – but which holds a pork shoulder (with the bone) or a Big Pot of chili. There are some things one may as well make a lot of… We’re suggesting a five quart for the parents – and I do for anyone with a small family, or even a larger family if you’re not interested in leftovers. Any recipe I give you here will work in a five quart pot unless I specify otherwise.
And the pork shoulder reminds me – I recommend oval, rather than round, pots. Chickens come oval… and there are other cuts of meat with a long bone. It’s rather less an issue for vegetarians – but even so, I sometimes want to use something long and narrow without cutting it to bits – a sprig of rosemary, split leeks, whole carrots… (That’s more looking for a nice presentation than “Oh, no, I can’t cook this!” but still… )
So, anyway… many of the recipes I have already posted will adapt easily to the slow cooker, and I will probably post some of those adaptations. In fact, I realize as I write that it may make a great deal of sense to start using it for many of my lunch soups… I can plan the day before, possibly even do some prep work (chop vegetables, soak beans) and set it up while I fix breakfast (on autopilot…) so that I then don’t have to stop everything to plan and fix lunch. I have a friend with kids who does this routinely, to give them a hot lunch that cooks without her attention while she homeschools them. Now that I work from home, I need to think the same way.
And slow cookers are a great place to use the Convenient Foods I often prepare ahead. You can skip the steps of browning meat and sauteing onion – but you do lose flavor that way. But I often have previously browned (though not completely cooked) meat in the freezer – I thaw and use it, and make my morning run smoothly without sacrificing taste.
And, as always, I will share both my old reliable recipes and the new approaches. And I would love to hear from you – what do you love to cook in a slow cooker? What do you wish you knew how to? What kinds of recipes are you looking for?