With slow cooking and methods like braising, there are a few things you should keep in mind as some old rules and habits may not apply like when making quick cooking foods like stir fry and grilled items. So come slow things down a bit and see how you can bring some autumn into your kitchen.
Slow cookers are one of those tools that you have to commit to. It cooks whatever you put in it (spoiler alert) very slowly and over low heat. It’s great for cooking dishes you want to become extra rich and saucy. It's also ideal for meats that require long, low cooking processes to become tender and for dishes where you want flavours to meld and blend together. Most basic slow cookers have two settings - low and high. Even on their speedy “High” setting, most slow cookers will require your ingredients to cook for at least 4 hours. Have even more time available? “Low” can take a pot roast almost 8 hours to cook. Is the patience required worth the reward? For many, the answer is yes.
Now, with that, some foods may not take very well to the slow cooking method. Already tender foods like fish and other seafood may end up just turning into mush and lose all their texture. That is just unappetizing. Same goes with luxurious meats like beef tenderloin. Since it is already so tender, slow cooking won’t make it that much better. It will also make it cooked all the way to “Well Done” which is unnecessary and almost sacrilegious for some cooks. So skip those expensive, luxurious cuts and stick with tougher, cheaper protein for your slow cooking dreams.
For vegetables, they too will face a similar fate as their meat counterparts. Tender vegetables like peas and tender leafy greens will fall apart if you add them at the start of the cooking process. Those are best saved for the last few minutes of the cooking process. Hearty vegetables like carrots, potatoes, and turnips can hold up to the long braise better, but they too will become very tender and can fall apart if left too long. Vegetables also will lose much of their individuality after a long cooking process. Those carrots, onions, and herbs will impart their flavour into the dish, but at the end, that onion will no longer have that sharp, spicy bite it once did. Instead it will be mellow, sweet, and tender.
So what can you do to take advantage of what slow cooking can bring? By following some of these tips.
Everything tastes better after it has had a chance to undergo the Maillard Reaction, and the same is true for slow cooked dishes. For meats that are going to be slow cooked, sear them first so the outside gets a nice brown crust before adding it to your slow cooking vessel of choice. The complex flavours that result from a nice sear will get incorporated with the rest of the dish and add depth of flavour and even some nice colour to your final meal. Bonus perk: if you're cooking in a dutch oven or pot, you can do the searing right in the pot itself. Sure, if you are really pressed for time or if you really, really don't want to clean an extra pan, you can skip this step, but that little extra step can make a world of difference.
2. Make Sure Your Ingredients Are Equally Sized
Unless you're doing a single large roast, you will want to make sure your protein and any veggies are even in size relative to one another. That means your beef chunks are equal sized and your carrots are like sized to one another. You get the idea. This will help ensure that ingredient will cook evenly and you won't end up with some pieces that are tough vs tender or overcooked vs perfectly cooked. It's a best practice when cooking in general, but especially applicable here.
3. Time Out When You Want to Add Your Ingredients
Different ingredients will cook at different rates, so you want to make sure that by the time you cross the finish line, all the components of your dish will be ready and done. If you are following a recipe and know that it will be cooking for 2 hours, 4 hours, or longer, consider when you will want to add fresher ingredients. Things like fresh leafy herbs and soft vegetables should be saved for the last 30 minutes to 1 hour at most, while some items can be added in straight at the beginning. Also use your best judgement of how done you like your food. These are recommendations, not rules.
While you can make soup in a slow cooker, that is not what we are focusing on in this post. Think more hearty stews and saucy main courses. And in this case, you want to make sure you don't use too much liquid when cooking. Too much liquid will dilute flavours. Meat and vegetables will also release liquid while cooking so you don't want to start with too much liquid from the get-go. For the liquid you do add, choose flavourful liquids like stocks, wine, and prepared sauces. At the end of the day, most slow cooked dishes will be braised, meaning cooked covered over low heat with only a modest amount of liquid.
Go forth and cook:
Following the tips above can help you get the most out of what slow cooking can offer: Tender, fall apart meat, rich, well developed flavours, velvety sauces, and one-pot dishes heartier and better for your soul than almost anything you've probably eaten since Spring.
If you're looking for a simple dish to try out your hand at slow cooking techniques, try out this BBQ Chicken Thighs recipe. It's surprisingly lean, flavorful, and can easily be made gluten-free if you're actually allergic or if you're just being a hipster. I combine my favorite store bought BBQ sauce with and some beer to make something so easy, even the Food Network's neighborhood lush Sandra Lee would be proud of it.
Makes 3-4 Servings
- 6 Boneless Skinless Chicken Thighs
- 1 large Onion, sliced thin
- 1 bottle of your favorite BBQ sauce
- 1/2 cup Beer (lager or ale)
- 6 Russet Potatoes
- 1lb Green Beans
- 2/3 cup Milk
- 1 Tablespoon Chili Powder
- Cornstarch Slurry (1 tsp corn starch mixed with 2 tsp. water)
- Canola Oil
- Preheat a large Dutch Oven over medium-high heat with 2 tsp. of oil
- Season chicken thighs with chili powder, salt, and pepper
- Sear Chicken thighs in batches in the dutch oven for 2-3 minutes per side or until browned
- Remove all thighs after browning and deglaze the pot with the beer, scraping the brown bits off the bottom of the pan
- Return all chicken thighs to the pan once seared and add 1 bottle of BBQ sauce and bring the pot to a strong simmer over medium-high heat
- Once at a enthusiastic simmer, add sliced onions on top and cover the pot. Reduce heat to low and simmer gently for 1-1.5 hours.
- Proceed to step 8 with about 30 minutes left on the chicken
- Dice and boil potatoes until tender. After draining, season with salt, pepper, minced chives, and milk. Mash to your desired consistency
- Quickly boil the green beans for 1-2 minutes until cooked but still crisp
- When chicken is tender, add cornstarch slurry to the pot and mix to thicken the sauce
- Plate mashed potatoes and serve with chicken thighs, plenty of sauce, and green beans
If you decide to give slow cooking a try, I hope you find these tips helpful. Go forth, find a recipe, make yourself a Sandra Lee style drink, and get to cooking. Cheers y'all.