Make the most of your slow cooker.
By Chef Meg Galvin, Healthy Cooking Expert at SparkPeople
You have just had a long hard day at work or school and thoughts of what to make for dinner overwhelm your brain. Suddenly you remember: "I put a stew in the slow cooker this morning. WooHoo!" As you enter your kitchen, you can smell the savory delight and hear the bubbling sound of juices. Dinner is ready.
To be a good slow cooker you first need to understand the equipment and just how that crock traps all the flavors and creates an amazing stew, soup, or even dessert. The crock pot simmers food for an extended period of time. Depending on the recipe, the dish may be ready in 4 hours or 10. Most slow cookers have three temperature settings: low, high, or keep warm. On average, most cookers run at 180 degrees F for low and 250 degrees F for high. A word of caution: Several studies have found that these numbers can vary as much as 40 degrees either way. Just remember that even if you're in a rush, you need to check the internal temperature of the food to ensure that the proteins are cooked to proper temperatures. Dark meat poultry should be cooked to 180 degrees, white meat poultry to 165, beef to 160, and pork, 145 degrees.
Easy clean-up is an added bonus with slow cooking. I always spray the inner liner with non-stick pan coating. Wait until the inner liner has cooled slightly before washing; the extreme change in temperature could cause it to break. When storing your slow cooker, leave the lid ajar to avoid a "funny" smell.
Dos and Don'ts of Successful Slow Cooking
Do look for cuts of meat with lots of connective tissue, such as beef or pork shoulder or beef stew meat. The long, slow cooking process will break down the tough connective tissues. An added plus is that these cuts of meat are typically cheaper.
Do brown any beef or sauté chicken on the stovetop if you want any caramelization/color on the meat. This adds another layer of flavor and is worth the extra time.
Do set the slow cooker on high until the food begins to bubble, and then turn to low and continue to cook.
Do select recipes that contain a liquid.
Do use the slow cooker like a warming drawer for short holding times (set to "keep warm" setting). It's a life saver for mashed potatoeswhen the stovetop is full.
Do add frozen peas, green beans, or fresh herbs in the last 10 minutes of cooking. If added earlier, they will turn mushy and lose their vibrant color.
Don't open the lid of the cooker to take a whiff; you will lose heat in the cooker. If you can't wait and you do lift the lid, add 20 minutes to the cooking time.
Don't fill the slow cooker more than 2/3 full. Once the food comes to a simmer, the lid might be pushed off and you will have a big mess to come home to or worse yet could burn someone.
Don't use the slow cooker for reheating foods.
Let's start cooking. Here are some of my favorites:
Chef Meg's Slow Cooker Lasagna
What a great dish for one of those nights when your kids have a late soccer game! Brown the meat, layer in the ingredients, set your slow cooker on low, and go!
Slow Cooker Marinara Chicken and Vegetables (Chef Meg's Makeover)
I made over a versatile member recipe by adding extra vegetables and reducing the sodium. Serve with a side salad or over whole wheat pasta or brown rice.
Chef Meg's Slow Cooker Spanish Chicken
This dish incorporates three main ingredients from Spanish cuisine: roasted peppers, almonds, and paprika. This slow cooker meal tastes like it took all day to cook--only you'll know it required very little work for you!
Chef Meg's Slow Cooker Vegetable Curry
Slow cookers aren't just for meat! This is a tasty, affordable one-pot vegetarian meal that's filling and perfect for your slow cooker. You can also add shrimp during the last 20 minutes of cooking, if you like. If the dish is a little too spicy for the kids, add 1 tablespoon of plain yogurt to their serving. Serve with a glass of milk and a cucumber salad.
Chef Meg's Slow Cooker Beef Roast with Vegetables
Try using an English Cut Beef Roast. It is economical and flavorful. This cut of meat comes from the shoulder or neck area of the animal.
Chef Meg's Slow Cooker Vegetarian Chili
The secret to this hearty vegetarian chili is butternut squash. It holds its shape and adds a layer of flavor and sweetness.
SparkPeople Healthy Cooking Expert Meg Galvin is a World Master Chef, culinary instructor, and the author of "The SparkPeople Cookbook: Love Your Food, Lose the Weight." A farmer's daughter and marathon runner, she lives in northern Kentucky with her husband and three teenage sons.