Such a crock[pot]! Eight slow cooker ideas for even easier meals

Vintage_Rival_Crock-pot_slow_cooker_Removable_stoneware_model_33502Everything old is new again.  Originally conceived as an electric pot for cooking beans in the 1940s, the Crock Pot, an updated all-purpose slow cooker, was introduced by Rival in 1971.  Promising an easier way to make an entire meal, ahead of time, in a single pot, the countertop slow cooker came into widespread use in the 1970s. So ubiquitous was the original Crock Pot that, for those of us of a certain age, any slow cooker gets the moniker Crock Pot (much like household names Kleenex and BandAids) regardless of actual brand.

Initially marketed to, and popular with, the large numbers of women who entered (or returned to) the workforce during the 1970s, the slow cooker is showing renewed popularity in recent years. Over 80% of American households have some kind of slow cooker, almost half of whom used the pot in the last month.

Easy, homemade and healthy. Many slow-cooker recipes are healthy ones: recipes for meats and poultry that simmer in their own juices (or in a bit of broth or wine) all day long minimize the amount of oils needed to cook. Likewise, many slow cooker recipes are very simple (as simple as: put these things in the pot, cook on “low” for eight hours, serve with a salad). These easy recipes often call for fresh or minimally processed ingredients, and the cooking method helps preserve much of their nutritional value, as well.

Eight tips for making slow cooker use even easier:

Size matters. In this instance, smaller is often better if you’re in a (relative, slow-cooked) hurry — smaller chunks of carrots and potatoes, cubes of pork or pieces of chicken, will cook more quickly than a whole vegetable or entire pot roast. Similarly, your ingredients will be ready around the same time if the pieces are similarly-sized (and not tiny slivers of carrot with whole baking potatoes, etc).

slow-cooker-jambalaya-campbellsStart at the roots. The non-meat ingredients that take longer to cook (like root and cruciferous vegetables) should go into the slow cooker first, as ingredients at the bottom get the most heat and will cook faster. If you’re cooking meat, it can go on top of the veg. More tender ingredients (like bell peppers, leafy greens) cook more quickly, and can layered on top of the previous layers, or can be added later.  (For instructions on safely cooking fish and shellfish in a slow cooker, refer to the handy Crock Pot FAQ).

Fluid situation. Your recipe will probably call for some cooking liquid like broth or wine, like in this Greek chicken recipe. Canned tomatoes, a bottle of beer, or even boiling water can do the trick. To avoid overcooking (even when you cook slooooooowly, overcooking can happen!), the ingredients in your slow cooker should fill the crock by at least one-third. Also, liquids do not evaporate or reduce in a slow cooker the way they do for a similar dish made on the stove or in the oven. If you are adapting a conventional baking/ braising / simmering recipe to cook with a slow cooker, reduce the amount of liquid by half. [Note: this does not apply to slow-cooker recipes for soups or rice dishes; those still require the same amount of liquid.]

Because it can separate and do weird things after prolonged heating, add dairy ingredients in the last 15 – 30 minutes. Need to add dairy to cook for a longer time? Substitute a canned condensed creamy soup, which can withstand prolonged cooking times.

kitchen_timerHow soon is now? As you experiment with adapting conventional baking recipes from oven to crock pot use, you’ll want to be mindful about converting the cooking times, too:
15 – 30 minutes in the oven = 1 – 2 hours in the slow cooker on high / 4 – 6 hours on low
35 – 40 minutes in the oven = 3 – 4 hours in the slow cooker on high / 6 – 8 hours on low
45 min – 3 hours in the oven = 4 – 6 hours in the slow cooker on high / 8 – 18 hours on low

wall-mount-spice-rackDry goods. When making slow cooker recipes, use dried herbs and spices when you can. Fresh herbs are pretty, but will go brown and limp in that hot, moist cooking environment. Your dried seasonings will release their flavors and aromas more slowly, over the duration of the long cooking time.

Use your noodle! Many tasty slow cooker casserole recipes incorporate some kind of pasta. For the best results, cook the pasta separately from the rest of the dish, adding the cooked noodles in the last half hour of slow-cooker time.

Keep a lid on it. Just as you have to fight the insatiable urge to peek at (and smell!) that slow-smoking slab of ribs on the grill, try to not lift the lid to “check on” your slow-cooking dish. Fight the urge. Just say no. Lifting the crock pot lid lets out all that accumulated heat out, along with the delicious smell, will cool off the contents of the pot. Every sneak-peek (sneak-sniff?) will slow the (already slow) cooking process by a half hour or more.

Slow-Cooker-smartphone-appThoroughly modern meal prep. If early morning supper prep, and one-pot slow cooker meals, put you in mind of your mom’s (or grandma’s) cooking back in the 70s, think again. The venerable Crock Pot company has debuted a “smart” slow cooker that is (you guessed it) web-enabled, and works with your iOS or Android device. (Nope. Definitely not your grandma’s crock pot.)

The “smart slow cooker” allows the cook to connect via WiFi and smart phone, and cook and change the slow cooker’s settings as needed. This smart Slow Cooker adjusts temperature, cook-time and more – all from the user’s smart device and a special app for “smart” home appliances. The app provides options to monitor remaining cooking time, change your cooking temperature, adjust cook-time up or down, shift to the WARM setting and turn off the Slow Cooker.

Whether you have a high-tech Crock Pot that can send you text messages, or you’ve got a vintage 1970 Harvest Gold slow-cooker beauty with one temperature setting, we have some timeless and tasty slow cooker recipes for you to check out in the AllSpice recipe database.



Vintage Crock Pot photo credit
Slow cooker jambalaya
Kitchen timer at Amazon
Crock pot iOS app