Imagine coming home in the evening after a hard workout. You are tired and hungry and the thought of making dinner is overwhelming. The aroma of a fresh cooked meal greats you as you walk into the house and you remember that dinner is already made. You grab a plate and help yourself to a delicious home cooked meal.
This can be your reality of you own a slow cooker (crock pot). Slow cooker meals can be prepared ahead of time and meals prepared in the slow cooker usually take between 4-8 hours to cook. This means you can prepare the meal before work or before a long workout and don't have to fuss with preparing a meal when your motivation is lacking.
Slow cookers can be more energy efficient depending on the size of the slow cooker and the length of time that it is running. Because it takes about 4-8 hours to cook a meal in the slow cooker, they are not a good choice for last minute cooking. The best way to use a slow cooker is to add the ingredients in the morning or early afternoon and allowing the slow cooker to work its magic.
Here are some important tips to remember when using a slow cooker:
Food safety can be an issue with a slow cooker. The “danger zone” for food temperature is between 40 degrees and 140 degreesw because bacteria thrive at this temperature. The goal is to heat the food to 140 degree as quickly as possible to avoid the danger zone. Another way to avoid the “danger zone” is to never add frozen ingredients to the slow cooker. If you prepare ingredients the night before store vegetables and meats in separate containers. The slow cooker inner pot needs to be at room temperature before you start cooking. It is not advised to keep the inner pot in the fridge. Perishable foods should remain refrigerated until you need them.
Cut vegetables into small or medium sized pieces and place the vegetables in the bottom and around the sides of the slow cooker. This allows the meat to drip over the vegetables and distribute the flavor. The exception to this rule is when cooking softer vegetables such as tomatoes, mushrooms, and zucchini. It works best if these vegetables are added during the last 45 minutes of cooking time.
Plan the meal ahead. Do all of the chopping and preparation ahead of time. This can be done the night before and food items can be stored overnight in containers and added to the slow cooker in the morning. Another option is to get up a little earlier and chop/prepare ingredients before work or before the day begins.
Make clean up easier by spraying the inside of the slow cooker and spray or line it with a slow cooking bag.
Tougher, cheap cuts of meat are perfect for the slow cooker because they become tender after long, slow cooking. This includes chuck or shoulder, brisket, round, rump, shank and oxtails.
Recipes such as casseroles, stews, and braises are great for the slow cooker because the slow cooking allows flavors to develop.
Do not fill a slow cooker to the rim. This will ensure your meal is finished in the time listed on the recipe and will help avoid potential food safety hazards. The slow cooker should be filled no more than 2/3 full.
Keep the lid on for the duration of the cooking time. If the heat escapes during cooking this can cause the food temps to decrease and be a potential food safety hazard. Once the food has cooked or about 30-45 minutes before serving it is okay to take of the lid.
When making rice or pasta dishes it is best if you use the slow cooker on high for a shorter period of time.
Use corn starch to thicken sauces, by removing a spoonful of sauce from the pot, and whisking with 1-2 tablespoons of corn starch before returning to the pot.
Take the time to brown the meat really well before adding it to the slow cooker. This helps increase the appearance of the meat and adds a richer flavor. This is not a necessary step, so if you are time crunched then you add the meat to the slow cooker without browning it first.
Slow cookers are not just for meat lovers, there are plenty of vegetarian meals that can be prepared in a slow cooker. Vegetarian chile or vegetarian pasta dishes work great in the slow cooker. Tofu can even be added to a slow cooker to make a tofu curry or barbeque tofu. The slow cooker can be an easy way to cook beans and lentils.
Leftovers can be served for two nights and some slow cooker recipes can be made in to two different meals. For example the slow cooker can be used to make shredded chicken. The first night the shredded chicken can be used for tacos and the second night it can be used for quesadillas or taco salad.
Consider purchasing a programmable slow cooker. You can set the time you want to cook the meal and then switches to a setting that keeps to food warm and at a safe temperature until you get home from work or are ready to eat.
You can make baked goods in the slow cooker including cakes, cobblers, and quick breads. Some slow cookers come with a baking rack or you can use one from your own kitchen.