I do a lot of slow cooking at my house. It may be because I’m lazy. More than likely though it’s probably because slow cooking produces the juiciest, most succulent and easiest meals this side of deep frying. Seriously, I’ve never seen a slow cooker recipe that an 8-year old couldn’t handle. For my favorite slow cooked recipe, pulled pork, all you do is put salt on the pork, put it in the slow cooker, and turn it on for 16 hours. That’s the entire process. At the same time, I’ve found very few places that serve better pulled pork than what emerges after a nice, long 16-hour session in the slow cooker. In the spirit of easy, delicious meals, I wanted to give everyone a brief overview of the slow cooking process and ideal meals to cook before ending with a recommendation for your kitchen.
What is Slow Cooking?
Simply put, slow cooking is exactly what the name says it is. You put food in the slow cooker, turn it on, and let it cook nice and slow for 4-20 hours. In case you wanted a more detailed explanation, keep on reading.
Slow cooking is a subset of braising. We’ll dive headfirst into the world of braising at a later date, but here is what you need to know. Braising is a two-step cooking process that begins with a hunk of meat being seared, or browned in fat, before being submerged in a liquid on low heat for a few hours (either on the stovetop on in the oven). Slow cooking differs slightly from braising in a couple of different aspects. If you need to brown the meat beforehand, this is done in a separate cooking vessel due to the fact that your slow cooker doesn’t get hot enough for searing. In addition, most braising is done in a dutch oven instead of in a slow cooker ceramic insert. This is notable for two reasons:
- Dutch ovens typically have smaller capacities than slow cookers. So when you need 10-pounds of pulled pork, reach for your slow cooker, not your dutch oven.
- Food will generally cook quicker in a dutch oven versus a slow cooker. This is important to keep in mind when you are using a different cooking vessel than what the recipe recommends.
That’s about all you need to know about slow cooking. For people who like the Cliff Notes version, here is all you need to remember: low and slow is the only way to go.
Got It, Makes Sense. What Should I Make?
Whoa now, slow down chap – we’re just doing a beginner’s overview here. But since you asked, slow cooking is perfect for a number of different meals for a few different reasons; let’s take a look at each of them and explore why slow cooking makes a great option.
- Stews – Slow cooking is a natural choice for all kinds of stews, including chili. Stews are all about creating a rich, deep flavor which can only be attained through time and gentle heat. In addition, most stews call for “tough” or “chewy” meats, such as bottom round, chuck and brisket. These cuts of meat are incredibly cheap, but if you don’t take proper care you will be left with something that has the taste and consistency of rubber. Since these cuts of meat come from the “working sections” of the animal, they are full of connective tissue and collagen. Slow, even heating will allow those to break down and dissolve, leaving you with tender, delicious stew meat. If you try and grill these meats, you will end up with dried-out, terrible food. Don’t do that! You must cook these meats for many hours at a low heat, period.
- Large Cuts of Meat – Instead of making a stew, you could keep that large cut of meat intact and slice or shred it at the end. This is how I make the pulled pork that I mentioned at the top of the post. Other options would be to make roast beef, pot roast, whole chickens or really anything else that fits into the slow cooker.
- Breakfast – The first time I heard about cooking breakfast in a slow cooker, I was in slight shock. I mean, why would you want your eggs to cook over a two-hour period when scrambling them on the stove-top was so easy? Well, after making a breakfast casserole in my slow cooker, I’m happy to report that I was wrong. Being able to make everything the night before will make a breakfast potluck easily manageable. So, if you are feeding a crowd for breakfast, make sure to utilize your slow cooker to offload some of your responsibilities.
- Anytime you Feel Lazy – Let’s be honest here. Slow cooking is the perfect way to convince people you spent hours slaving away in the kitchen instead of sitting on the couch and binge-watching Ghostbusters. It’s one of my go-to cooking methods when hosting people for that very reason. People get good food and they think I spent hours on the meal for them; in reality, I sat around in my sweatpants watching Bill Murray fight Gozer for the last two-hours. Talk about win-win!
In all seriousness though, if you have a meal you are thinking about making, chances are, with a few tweaks, it can go in your slow cooker.
When it comes time to shop for your first slow cooker, you will no doubt be inundated with a whole host of options. You’ll see things like LCD displays, timers, automatic temperature changes and other bells and whistles you don’t need. My slow cooker has only one knob and the options are warm, low and high. That is all you need. Please, please, pretty please: do not spend over $60 on a slow cooker, it’s simply not needed. Save that money and go buy yourself some Le Creuset! My recommendation is going to brief this time around since I subscribe to the no-frills slow cooker approach.
Get yourself this Hamilton Beach model. I’ve had this bad boy for over 5 years and it has never failed me. Best part? It’s under $30. Buy it and be happy.
Be sure to stay tuned because later this week we’ll dive into our first slow cooker recipe: Chili. If you have any questions about slow cooking, products or recipes don’t hesitate to share them in the comments!