When it comes to cooking with a Crock-Pot or slow cooker, there seem to be two camps: those who couldn’t live without the vessel and those who may have tried it once or twice but never used it again.
Almost all agree that for long, gently simmered stews and soups, a slow cooker is terrific because, in principle, all you do is put in a bunch of ingredients, turn it on and walk away. It’s a godsend for busy working mothers and fathers, or anyone without time to monitor their culinary endeavors, and when you return the kitchen is perfumed with rich, aromatic flavors and fall-off-the-bone tender meat or poultry reminiscent of Grandma’s or that of top chefs.
Yet naysayers complain that the meat and vegetables never develop the rich caramel flavor that comes with browning the outsides before deglazing the pan with stock typical of many braised dishes. Some cooks don’t like that it takes longer for some dishes to cook in a slow cooker than in a Dutch oven — even if that is the point. Still others argue that sauces often don’t have enough flavor or are watery and some spices don’t stand up to the prolonged simmering.
By combining tips from skilled slow-cooker chefs with tried and true conventional techniques, here are some suggestions for successful cooking. These tips work especially well when making the entrées found in Slow Cooking With Coke.
Starting Off Well
Filling the vessel is easier and neater if you remove the insert from the pot and move it close to where you are working. This also helps prevent spills from liquids leaking down into the heating element. Additionally, you get a better sense of the appropriate amount of ingredients to add if you aren’t keeping to a recipe. Two-thirds full is optimal.
The goal is to raise the temperature of all ingredients in the pot to 140 degrees F as quickly as possible (to prevent food safety issues), so it’s best to start with room-temperature ingredients where appropriate. Heating liquids like stock just to a boil before you pour them into the slow cooker speeds things up, while frozen foods prolong cooking times.
Many cooks turn the pot to the slow setting and leave it, but I find that starting the pot on high until the liquid begins to simmer, then reducing the heat to low, shortens the cooking time.
Achieving the appropriate texture and retaining the taste of the ingredients can also be a challenge. Countless recipes call for all ingredients to go in at once. If you don’t mind very soft vegetables, this is fine. But if you want your bell pepper cubes or other vegetables to retain their shape and texture, add them 60 to 90 minutes before the dish is done.
Enriching the Flavor
Tweaking is a hallmark of great chefs, and many recipes include the recommendation to “taste to adjust the seasonings” at the end. I agree, especially since the flavors of some spices diminish over time. Adding a little extra flavor at the end will brighten the taste and made the seasonings more intense. But remember, you won’t really know the flavor until all the ingredients are in so don’t taste and tweak too early.
Joanna Pruess is an award-winning author, whose articles and recipes have regularly appeared in PBS' online magazine: NextAvenue.org, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Fine Cooking, Food Arts, Saveur, Food & Wine, and the Associated Press syndicate. Her ten cookbooks include the Cast Iron Cookbook, Dos Caminos' Mexican Street Food, and Seduced by Bacon.