Crock Potting 101

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To say that I love my slow cooker is an understatement. I cook with this gizmo any chance I get, and then I pretend like I have a personal chef toiling away in the kitchen.

Purchase

When selecting a slow cooker, I recommend going with a model that has a timer as well as various temperature settings. The fact that I can set my cooker to cook for a specified amount of time means I won't (a) overcook my meal or (b) have it cold when it's time to enjoy. Most models with a timer will set to "warm" setting, to keep a good temperature without further cooking the meal. An even better perk (which mine does not have) is a countdown timer - so you can set it up in the morning when you leave for work and it will turn on in a few hours when desired. (If you already have a slow cooker but no timer, you can rig it to do the same thing - use an outlet timer, like what you'd use with your Christmas lights, to control the electricity feed to your slow cooker- you can do this to delay start or to end the cooking at a preset time.) It's also important to get a cooker that is an adequate size for your family or individual needs. I recommend erring on too big rather than too small, because leftovers are a great way to stick to your nutritional goals.

Food prep

One of the things I love about my slow cooker is I can throw in frozen meat (even all stuck together) and it will still turn out tasty. That's not a luxury grilling, baking or sauteing can offer. When using frozen meats, I add at least an hour to the cook time and use a minimal amount of water, as the moisture from the meat will melt off and create a soupy mess. (Although I admit I'm still working on the balance here - too little water and the meat won't cook properly. It's quite a conundrum.)

Clean-up

I avoided using the slow cooker for a long time because the cleanup was a hassle. No matter what I cooked, it seemed to be a tough time to scrub the stuck-on food. I had the random thought to leave soapy water to soak in the cooker while running. Home making experts recommend cleaning dishes immediately, and usually I'm pretty good at this, but it just isn't always realistic. Sometimes I'll leave the pot sitting over night (turned off) then will turn it on "high" in the morning, add warm soapy water, and in 30 minutes be able to wipe out whatever contents are inside. Or I just make my husband do it.

General Cooking Tips

Cooking duration

This is going to vary based upon the type of meat you are cooking. If you're using recipes from a conventional cookbook, I typically reduce the recommended cooking time by 60-120 minutes, at least. I like meats more juicy. 

Meat types

Cheap cuts are ideal for the slow cooker, another one of its many perks. And, the thicker the better, especially if you'll be doing an all-day roast. Bone-in meats, dark meat and similar cuts are ideal because the water and other nutrients in the bones seep out into the meat, making it more succulent and less dry. Breast meat tends to get really dried out when slow cooking, with the exception of breast meat that have the ribs still attached. You can save $1-$5 per pound depending on the cut you buy just by getting a bone-in variety. Another benefit when cooking types of meat like a beef or pork roast are that the slower they cook, the more tender and delicious they are.

Veggies

Don't forget you can add veggies to your meal! Carrots and potatoes (inside your window, of course) are the most traditional additions, but cabbage and other cruciferous veggies go great. If possible, add them later into the cooking process, with maybe 30-60 minutes of cook time remaining. Generally speaking, veggies that are more well-done tend to have fewer nutrients and more sugars that those that have been cooked a shorter amount of time.

Leftovers 

Soups are one of the best ways to put a hodgepodge of leftovers to good use, and the key to a tasty recipe is a good broth - and you have all the makings of it when you use your slow cooker. Save the juices from your pot after you've removed the meat and/or veggies and let it cool in the fridge overnight. The fat will rise to the top, and you can easily scoop it out in the morning. If you're going to make a soup in the next couple of days, it's fine to keep it in the fridge. I like to freeze the juice in portioned freezer bags that I can either (a) combine later for a large soup or (b) defrost for a single-use serving. It's way healthier than a canned variety and offers a ton of protein! (As with all foods, never re-freeze something once it's been defrosted, to protect against food-borne illness.)

Because the slow cooker is a staple in my cooking regime, I'm always working to come up with new recipes (or modify existing ones to make them more healthy) - and I'm working to share them here on this blog. You can find them by searching "slow cooker" in the tags on the right hand side of this page. Enjoy!



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