Slow cookers aren't just for making simple stews. You can make breakfast, appetizers and even desserts in them -- and pretty easily, too. In fact, the prospect of multiple one-pot fancy dishes may justify buying a couple of slow cookers to have them working side by side to create a feast from soup-to-nuts (as they used to say), while you're enjoying the occasion in the living room with your family and friends.
We love the idea of preparing old-fashioned soups and stews in a newfangled tool that makes the process so easy. It's no accident that granny's recipes are often primo comfort foods. The best soups and stews are cooked on low heat over a long period of time to flavor and thicken the broth. Before so many women worked outside the home, it wasn't a big deal for the cook to pop into the kitchen to check the pot every hour or so. Today's slow cookers are very effective stand-ins for granny -- in the kitchen, anyway. We have some classic slow cooker soup and stew recipes to offer that are completely delicious, smell amazing and are inexpensive to make, too. It doesn't get much better than that.
While you may think using a slow cooker is a great way to make chili or red beans and rice, don't forget that slow cooking creates a moist environment that's perfect for your frittata and dumpling recipes, too. You can make moist and tender cakes in a slow cooker as well as steamed puddings, poached foods and even preserves. It's great for sauces, pasta dishes and rice dishes. It's also a natural for short ribs and barbecued wings. Heck, you can even cook a turkey breast in a slow cooker.
While you're contemplating your first (or next) foray into cooking foods low and slow, these tips will help:
- Use your own recipes - Many conventional recipes can be adapted for use in a slow cooker. Although it may take a little experimentation, start by reducing the liquid requirement in your recipes by half. Remember, the moisture will circulate throughout the cooking process, so you'll need less. You can always add additional liquid later.
- Use cheap cuts of meat - The harder a muscle works, the tougher it gets. That's one reason why meat from older animals is chewy. Slow cooking helps unlock the deep rich flavor in these tougher, cheaper cuts, but doesn't reduce them to mush. The result is a fork-tender consistency and a broth filled with dissolved connective tissue that creates a velvety texture.
- Brown meats before adding - Although this is an extra step, browning meats in a little oil before adding them to your slow cooker helps seal in flavor and maintain the texture.
- Add canned or frozen vegetables late - Canned vegetables are precooked, so they just need to be warmed up. To avoid soggy, squishy veggies, try adding them to your dishes within the last hour to half-hour of cooking (depending on size and volume). If you're using frozen vegetables, defrost them before adding them.
- Add tender fresh vegetables last - You can load up the pot with all the veggies for your stew or soup and the result will taste OK, but vegetables like mushrooms, scallions and bell peppers don't need to cook as long as tomatoes and potatoes. Adding them an hour or so before serving will increase the visual appeal (they'll hold their color better), and improve the texture of your dish.
- Add dairy at the end - Just because you're using a slow cooker doesn't negate all the rules you learned about stovetop cooking. If a recipe calls for cheese, sour cream, half-and-half or heavy cream, add it at the end.
- Invest in a meat thermometer - You want your recipes thoroughly cooked but not overdone. Using a meat thermometer to test for doneness is one reliable way to get it right every time.