Slow and Easy: Tips for Crock-Pot Cooking
They're not just for beefy stews; Crock-Pots can be used to cook nearly any food, from simple cuts of meat to chocolate cake. And the combination of time and gentle heat work their magic on beans, grains, and sturdy vegetables, such as pumpkin and squash. Here are eight simple tips for slow-cooker magic:
- Jump-start. The night before you make a stew, for example, chop vegetables, and store in tightly sealed containers in the refrigerator. In the morning, combine prepared ingredients in your slow cooker, and turn it on. Easy.
- Skip the frozen foods. They'll turn mushy during cooking, and frozen meats will disrupt cooking times. Stick to the fresh stuff.
- Trim the fat. Poultry skin and excess fat on meats add off-flavors during long cooking, and may throw
off cooking times.
- Brown. Searing meat and sturdy vegetables before cooking adds an appealing color, and slightly caramelizes onions.
- Layer. Foods on the bottom cook fastest, so stock your Crock accordingly. Root vegetables, winter squash, and large hunks of meat go on the bottom; faster-cooking foods, such as carrots, go toward the top. Fragile ingredients, such as greens, zucchini, or seafood, go in during the last 30 minutes.
- Just right. If the cooker is too full, foods won't cook properly; too empty, they'll cook too quickly. Fill it just right, about one-half to two-thirds full.
- Check the seasonings. Spices mellow and may lose flavor during long cooking, and fresh herbs turn brown. Check spices and seasonings during the last 30 minutes of cooking, or add just before serving. And always add fresh herbs during the last few minutes of cooking.
- No peeking. Keep the lid on to retain heat and ensure even cooking. It's OK to stir two or three times during cooking, but avoid removing the lid more often than that.
We live in a world of hurry-up food-drive-throughs and fast food, microwave entrées and instant soups. Quick cooking has its obvious appeal: there's no preparation time and little mess to clean. All that cumbersome crafting of a fine dish, the pesky smell of a home-cooked meal, the burdensome time involved in bonding with family over dinner? Not necessary. We can eat our dinner out of a box, tray, or paper bag on our laps as we drive home from work or as we shuttle our children between after-school events. But as we toss the crumpled-paper remains of our hurried meal into the trash bin, we have to ask ourselves: are we missing something?
We hardly need list the perils of fast food: studies continue to show a link between fast-food consumption, weight gain, insulin resistance, heart disease, and diabetes risk. Packaged, instant, microwavable foods have similar dangers; they're higher in sodium and fat than home-cooked meals, low in fiber, and often contain sugar, additives, and preservatives.
Home-cooked meals force us to slow down. They require some attention. As a bonus, we know what ingredients were used. But who has time for slowing and knowing?
The middle way might just be tucked behind some of the other seldom-used tools in your kitchen cabinets: it's the slow cooker-and it's perfect for these harried times. We can have a home-cooked meal ready as soon as we finish our daily dash.
Using a slow cooker is also about taste. Slow cooking allows flavors to fully develop, coaxing the natural sugars in vegetables, and incorporating oils and spices into the ingredients. Here's another plus: many studies show that cooking meats at high temperatures creates heterocyclic amines, carcinogenic chemicals formed from the heating of muscle tissues.
Though they're the antithesis of fast, slow-cooker recipes can be simple and convenient. Brown the vegetables and spices the night before or in the morning, put them in the slow cooker, turn it on, and dinner will be done by the time you get home for the evening. If you're pressed for time, you can skip the browning step with little sacrifice in flavor.