Hungry hipsters may not exactly jump for joy when the subject of slow cookers arises. But we’re not talking the recipes of old when a can of soup, poured over an unidentifiable cut of meat, cooked all day in the slow cooker.
We’re talking recipes with flavors that pop on the palate. This flavor revolution in the slow cooker comes from a variety of ethnic cuisines, as well as the wise use of additions such as chutneys, preserves and spiced-up canned tomato products.
There are plenty of new features that make slow cookers easier to use than ever before (see sidebar), but innovative or upscale slow cookers are not required to make great dinners.
Current recipes, bolder flavors and a change in cooking techniques are adding new excitement to even older-model appliances.
Here are some of the best ways to maximize flavor:
Herbs and seasonings
Seasonings fade when slow cooking. Add dried leaf herbs and seasonings at the beginning of the cooking period, then taste toward the end of the cooking period and add additional seasonings if desired. Fresh herbs should be added at the end of the cooking period. Use dry minced or granulated garlic instead of fresh minced garlic for the truest garlic flavor when slow cooking.
Don’t shy away from using hot sauces, chilies, curry powder, vinegars and other readily available seasonings and sauces when slow cooking. They add variety and bolder flavors to your dishes.
Brown or sauté meat first
Browning the meat or sautéing the vegetables first adds a rich depth of flavor. It once was recommended only when the meat was fatty, such as for ground beef, but now we realize that browning meat adds much to the flavor of the dish.
If busy mornings demand it you can eliminate this step; we won’t tell. But for the best flavor, brown ribs or roasts or sauté the onions or mushrooms before slow cooking.
Reduce the liquid
Not every dish in a slow cooker needs to swim in liquid. Many recipes today begin with only 1/2 cup of broth or wine, may simmer with just a can of diced tomatoes, or even roast or caramelize without added liquid. The flavor of caramelized onions, roasted beets or pulled pork from a roasted pork shoulder, cooked with little or no liquid, is supreme.
Pick the ideal foods
Prepare soups, chili, stews, roasts, beans and dishes that benefit from slow braising. Meat cuts that are less tender, such as short ribs, pot roast and pork shoulder are ideal for the long cooking times. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts, which cooked quickly, will taste dry and leathery if you attempt to slow cook them for 8 to 10 hours.
Slow cookers purchased in the last five to 10 years cook hotter than older models, and newer recipes often reflect this. You may now hear the lid jiggle from steam, see the sauces boil even on the low setting, and discover the food tastes dry and tough if cooked for the maximum cooking time listed.
Always cook the meat until it is fully cooked and tender, but if you have encountered overcooking, you may want to check the cooking progress at the minimum cooking time listed and experiment with different, newer recipes.
Use newer recipes
Newer recipes are readily available, and popular cookbook authors have entered the slow-cooker arena. Cookbooks share slow-cooker recipes specifically for Mexican, French, Indian, Mediterranean and other cuisines as well as regions of the United States, such as the Southwest and New Orleans.
The American Heart Association guides heart-healthy slow-cooker recipes, while others explore gluten-free, vegan, Paleo and low-carb.
Roxanne Wyss and Kathy Moore are professional home economists known as the Electrified Cooks. They blog at pluggedintocooking.com and for Chow Town.
New features for slow cookers
More than 80 percent of all households in the United States own slow cookers, and sales continue to climb each year. If you are part of the minority that sold your slow cooker at a garage sale years ago and gave up on the concept, you may want to rethink your decision, because technologically speaking there’s a whole new world of slow cooking out there.
Slow cookers today range in size from 1 quart to about 7 quarts, and from just one cooking vessel to multiple vessels in one base. The price reflects the size and features, so models can be found on sale at less than $20 and up to about $250.
Here are a few new features available today:
▪ Oval shape: Ovals are the best shape to accommodate ribs and roasts.
▪ Latching lids: From the tailgate to the potluck to the family feast, slow cookers today travel safely without spilling in the car.
▪ Programmable electronics: New electronic controls allow you to preset cooking times, delay the start or automatically turn the cooker to warm. The new Crock Pot 6-quart Slow Cooker with WeMo allows you to control the cooking temperature with an app from your smartphone, so if you are delayed you can turn the cooker to warm, or if you discover you will come home sooner, turn it to high.
▪ Temperature Probes: Hamilton Beach Set and Forget 6-quart Programmable Cooker adds a meat probe to an electronic unit so that if you are cooking a roast or other piece of meat, the cooker automatically shifts to the keep warm setting when the meat reaches a set temperature.
▪ Multipurpose crock: Stoneware or heavy ceramic were the vessels of choice when the Rival Crock Pot was first introduced. Though still the most popular today, some units, such as the All Clad Deluxe 7-quart unit, features a nonstick cast aluminum vessel, which means you can brown the meat right in the vessel on the stove top and then place it in the base for slow cooking.
▪ Multi units for entertaining: You can serve two to three dips in one base in various brands of the multiple units, or attach several slow cookers in a row with the new Crock Pot Hook Up Compatible Entertaining System.
Beef Short Rib Ragu
Makes 6 to 8 servings
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 pounds beef short ribs
Salt and pepper to taste
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 cup diced carrots
1 stalk celery, chopped fine
2 teaspoons dry minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1 can (14 ounces) petite diced tomatoes, with liquid
1 cup dry red wine
1 cup beef broth
1 pound wide noodle pasta
Parmigiano-Reggiano curls, for garnish
Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add ribs and brown on all sides. Season with salt and pepper.
Place onion, carrots, celery and garlic in a 5- to 6-quart slow cooker. Stir to blend well. Place browned short ribs on top of vegetables. Sprinkle with dried thyme. Pour tomatoes, wine and broth over beef ribs. Cover and cook on low for 7 to 8 hours.
Remove the meat from the slow cooker with a slotted spoon, leaving sauce in the slow cooker. Make sure to remove all the bones. Using the tines of two forks shred the beef. Set aside.
Use an immersion blender to blend the sauce until smooth. (Or carefully transfer the hot liquid to a food processor or blender, process or blend, then return to slow cooker.) Add shredded beef to sauce in slow cooker. Taste sauce and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and allow to heat on high for about 20 to 30 minutes until heated through.
Cook pasta according to package directions. Serve ragu over cooked pasta and garnish with Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Tips: Use a vegetable peeler to shave the cheese into curls. Leftovers freeze well.
Per serving, based on 6: 616 calories (54 percent from fat), 35 grams total fat (13 grams saturated), 132 milligrams cholesterol, 10 grams carbohydrates, 56 grams protein, 305 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Tortilla Soup With Avocado Mash
Makes 6 to 8 servings
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3 to 4 corn tortillas (about 6 inches in diameter)
1 small onion, chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
1/2 cup frozen whole-kernel corn
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped
1 (32-ounce) carton lower-sodium chicken broth
1 (14.5-ounce) can petite diced tomatoes, with juice
1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
4 teaspoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon dry minced garlic
1 tablespoon chili powder
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 medium, ripe avocado, peeled, pitted and chopped
1 tablespoon salsa
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
Minced cilantro, shredded cheddar cheese, sour cream, crushed tortilla chips, for garnish
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken and cook, stirring frequently, until chicken is lightly browned. Drain.
Tear the corn tortillas into bite-size pieces and place in a 4- to 5-quart slow cooker. Place chicken, onion, red pepper, corn, jalapeno pepper, broth, tomatoes, tomato sauce, cumin, garlic, chili powder, cayenne, salt and pepper in the slow cooker. Stir to blend. Cover and cook on low 5 to 7 hours.
In a small bowl, mash together avocado, salsa, garlic and lime juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Ladle soup into bowls. Top each serving with a spoonful of avocado mash and garnish with cilantro, cheese, sour cream and crushed tortilla chips.
Tip: For a milder flavor, use 1⁄2 jalapeno or reduce chili powder to 2 teaspoons.
Per serving, based on 6: 386 calories (37 percent from fat), 13 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), 44 milligrams cholesterol, 24 grams carbohydrates, 28 grams protein, 503 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.
Farmhouse Peach Crisp
Makes 6 servings
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, divided
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 cup pecan pieces, toasted
8 cups sliced peeled, pitted fresh peaches
Juice of one lemon (about 2 tablespoons)
Vanilla ice cream
Butter a 4-quart slow cooker or spray with nonstick spray.
Combine the sugars, 1 cup flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt in a medium bowl. Cut in the butter with a pastry cutter or two knives until it forms coarse, even crumbs. Stir in the pecans. Set aside.
Place the peaches in the slow cooker and toss with the lemon juice. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons flour over the peaches and toss lightly. Gently stir in half of the sugar-pecan mixture. Sprinkle the remaining mixture evenly on top of the peaches. Cover the slow cooker and bake on low for 21/2 to 31/2 hours or until the topping is melted and peaches are tender. Serve warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Tips: Toasting pecans intensifies the flavor. To toast the pecans, spread in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 5 to 7 minutes or until lightly toasted.
If you are craving peach crisp in the dead of winter, go ahead and substitute frozen peaches for fresh.
For a fun serving idea, ladle servings of Farmhouse Peach Crisp into individual serving bowls or individual cast iron skillets. Top each serving with ice cream.
Per serving: 396 calories (32 percent from fat), 15 grams total fat (5 grams saturated), 21 milligrams cholesterol, 65 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 135 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber.
Source: The ragu and tortilla soup were developed exclusively for Chow Town readers by Roxanne Wyss and Kathy Moore. The peach crisp is a sneak peek at their upcoming “Slow Cooker Desserts, Oh So Easy, Oh So Delicious!” by Roxanne Wyss and Kathy Moore (Publisher, St. Martin’s Press) to be released in the fall.