Lots of people are looking for an easy way to make home-cooked meals that are healthier and save time and money…and slow cooker meals (aka crockpot meals) are a great answer. My wife and I have used our slow cooker for years, both at home and when bringing a dish to a party. Some of our tastiest meals came from the slow cooker, and we’re always trying new recipes.
How a slow cooker works
Slow cookers, often known by the Crock-Pot brand, are small electric appliances that use slow cooking over a period of time (usually between 3-12 hours) to infuse dishes with flavor. While the slow cooker remains sealed during the cooking stage, the liquid in the recipe turns to steam, which is trapped by the lid and ends up basting the dish. This process can turn some of the toughest cuts of meat into tender morsels. But slow cookers aren’t just for meat dishes; they can cook vegetarian meals, grains such as oatmeal, breads, desserts, and even yogurt or baby food.
Buying a slower cooker
A basic slow cooker, which you can purchase for as low as $15-30, typically has low and high settings, and sometimes a “keep warm” option . Programmable models, which have digital controls and automatically switch to warming mode, cost more. There’s even a Crock-Pot you can operate via wi-fi over your smartphone. And of course, smaller cookers cost less than than larger capacity models, but what size you need really depends on the size of your household. A slow cooker is a good investment in easy, tasty, home-cooked meals.
Savings and benefits of a slow cooker
The biggest benefit of a slow cooker is convenience. You can prepare the ingredients in the morning, set the slow cooker to cook all day, and have dinner ready at the appropriate time. Even better, you can set aside time once a week to prepare ingredients for several slow cooker meals in advance, bag them, freeze them and label them, so that during the week you only need to thaw a prepped meal and then put it in the slow cooker (just do a quick search on “slow cooker freezer meals” and you’ll find recipes and instructions all over the place). You can also cook enough for leftovers to be frozen as future meals. Saving time and making it easy means you’re more likely to make home-cooked meals, which saves money and is healthier than eating processed or restaurant foods.
The slow cooker itself costs little to operate in terms of electricity, and it easy to clean with a removable ceramic pot (or use disposable liners for no mess at all). The programmable models can even be set to stop cooking at a certain time and switch over to the warm setting.
Best of all, the “low and slow” cooking process allows you to purchase less expensive cuts of meat, which are usually tougher, and make them into tender, delicious meals.
Tips for slow cooker use
While slow cooker recipes are typically very simple, there are a few tips to help make sure your slow cooker meals are a success:
- Even if a recipe does not call for it, always sear meats in a pan before placing into the slow cooker. Searing over a high heat will carmelize the surface of the meat and greatly enhance the flavor and color.
- When cooking poultry, leave the skin on to keep in the moisture.
- Cut vegetables in a uniform size so they will cook evenly.
- Use recipes intended for a slow cooker, which often have more liquid than traditional recipes.
- Some ingredients, such as certain herbs, dairy items, seafood and vegetables, don’t lend themselves to the slow-cooking process and need to be added toward the end of the cooking time. Follow the specific directions of the recipe.
- Part of the “low and slow” cooking process is keeping the unit sealed, so no matter how tempted you are, don’t lift the lid unless the recipe specifically tells you to do something, such as add an ingredient.
- Many recipes give you the option of cooking on low (for a longer period of time) or high (for a shorter period of time). If you have the time, opt for slow to guarantee the best flavor and tenderness.
Slow cooker recipe: Short Ribs with Red Wine
Short ribs are an inexpensive cut of meat (about the same price per pound as ground beef) which really benefit from slow cooking. Plus, they have a rich taste, look elegant, and still have appeal to a “meat-and-potatoes” kind of eater. Perfect for a dinner party or a special meal, they’re delicious over risotto or mashed potatoes.
My wife and I recently made these tasty short ribs with red wine, accompanied by this simple risotto and honey-roasted carrots. Cooking the short ribs in the slow cooker means the work is done early and leaves your evening clear for stirring the risotto. The meal came out so well we decided to use the good china for an elegant weeknight dinner.
What’s your favorite slow cooker recipe? Do you prep and freeze ingredients in advance or put them together the same day?