What a crock.
October 31, 2012 5:28 PM   Subscribe

My partner and I are both working 9 to 5 for our first time together, and are hoping to embrace the slow cooker as a way to have a hot meal on the table not long after getting home with minimal post-quitting-time effort a couple of times a week. Looking for some advice and suggestions!

I've read the many very helpful AskMe questions on crockpots and slow cookers, but was hoping for some specific advice. Most of my experience cooking in a crockpot has produced some pretty mediocre results, but this is probably more me than anything else. In general, food ends up either too dry (meats) or too mushy (vegetables), with every odd texture in between. I am hoping AskMe can put me on the right track!

First of all, I was hoping for recommendations for good slow cooker cookbooks or online recipe collections that don't have so much sodium. A lot of the recipes I have seen, aside from simple soups and stews, involve dumping cans of things into the crock pot. That's okay once in a while, but in the interest of reducing my salt intake, I was hoping for recipes that aren't so can-heavy.

Second, and relatedly, recipes that are not too high in calories would be great, as well.

Third, I'm also interested in recipes that are good for people on a budget.

And finally, I wonder if a better slow cooker is a worthwhile investment. We have an old, very basic model (three settings: warm, low, high) and I that if we leave in the morning, some foods end up less than perfect (especially chicken of any kind). I've read of people using Christmas light timers, but I was wondering if just getting a new slow cooker with a timer built-in is worth it.

Thank you!
posted by synecdoche to Food & Drink (24 answers total) 115 users marked this as a favorite
Crock pots are so cheap, even a fancy-schmancy one is a good idea. Also, consider a rice cooker. They have timers, and a good one from Korea will come with a recipe for bi bim bap.

Lots of regular recipes can be adapted for the crock pot. Chicken cacciatore, brisket, pot roast, etc.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:39 PM on October 31, 2012

I've found the tips and tricks for crockpot cooking on the America's Test Kitchen website to be extremely helpful. (I never knew that a panade, a paste of bread and milk, really helps slow-cooker chili to have a nice texture instead of a weird grainy one but now I do!)

One thing to look for in a slow cooker is one you can take apart to wash. I think most of them are built like that these days, but I had a really old slow cooker that didn't have a lift-out pot part and it was a PITA to wash.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 5:40 PM on October 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

I would recommend A Year of Slow Cooking
posted by aetg at 5:41 PM on October 31, 2012 [7 favorites]

Definitely get one with a timer. You can find one for more like $30 or $40 though.

I have done some great recipes from A Year of Slow Cooking, Weight Watchers (I'm a member, but I think you can view them without logging in). I don't know *jack* about cooking but these came out good:

Turkey Chili (kinda genius, you de-case sausage meat so you get all the flavorful goodness without having to spice it yourself!)
Chicken and Rice Casserole (a little bland but very homey)
Chicken Enchilada Chili is very popular in my house
posted by radioamy at 6:03 PM on October 31, 2012

My wife and I just recently tried using the new crock pot liner bags that make cleanup much easier. They're not super cheap but they make it easier to clean if you plan on doing these meals multiple times a week.

What I like to do in it is pork shoulders and ribs! Make sure to add a little liquid smoke to get that bbq flavor! I just realized that I didn't have anything more helpful to say, but i wanted to try to help!
posted by peaceman86 at 6:24 PM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

I absolutely love The Indian Slow Cooker
posted by jenmakes at 6:52 PM on October 31, 2012 [9 favorites]

I cook for myself and I use my slow cooker all of the time but I don't really use it to cook a meal while I am at work. I will start a chicken stock when I get home from work using one half of a chicken, one quarter of an onion, a carrot, and a rib of celery. I put the slow cooker on high and check it after a couple of hours. When the chicken floats to the top the meat will be cooked through and still moist. I pull the meat off and shred it then put the bones back into the stock and let it go all night on medium. In the morning I strain the stock into pitchers and put them in the refrigerator to cool. When I get home the next night, the fat will have risen to the top of the pitchers and I skim it off. I now have a gallon of very good chicken stock and a good supply of poached chicken. I usually use the chicken to make salads or tacos and use the stock to make beans, congee, or soup. The beans and congee I will let cook overnight then cool in the morning and freeze in individual portions. I will also use my slow cooker to roast vegetables while I am at work. I will put a couple of sweet potatoes in the slow cooker in the morning and let them roast all day. When I get home I peel the sweet potatoes and mash them up in a frying pan. Then I thin it down with the chicken stock and throw in a handful of spinach for a quick and flavorful soup. I will put a head of cauliflower in the cooker and let it roast on low and then make a quick curry sauce for it when I get home and have roasted cauliflower curry.
posted by calumet43 at 7:05 PM on October 31, 2012 [5 favorites]

I am on a very tight budget and about once every week or two, I buy a whole chicken, stuff it with a lemon and a few cloves of knife-cracked garlic gloves, and dress it with salt, pepper, paprika, chopped shallots, dried herbs, whatever. Breast down, no liquid, wings tucked. On low from when I leave for work till when I get back (my pot just has a switch, no digi controller). When you get home, it's done. Pull whatever meat you want from it, then put the carcass back in the pot with 5 cups of water and other whatnot (bok choy, ginger root, random veg from the fridge). Let it rip on low overnight for stock. Strain. Freeze the stock, or use the next day for chicken rice soup. I got the recipe/method from a slow cooker website and now I use it all the time. The chicken meat feeds two people for a meal and then two people for two days of soup. The frozen stock has saved my sorry ass many times when I was sick or when I needed to pull a meal together on short notice: put the frozen stock chunk in a dutch oven on low on the stovetop to thaw, add more water and some green onions/chard/kale/bok choy/mushrooms, cook rice in a separate pot, combine for deliciousness.
posted by lakersfan1222 at 7:08 PM on October 31, 2012 [20 favorites]

Another thing that I will do is toss in some chicken breasts (frozen or fresh) with a whole bunch of garlic and seasoning and fat-free low-sodium chicken broth and let that cook. It is great for sandwiches, salads, chicken salad, etc.
posted by radioamy at 7:14 PM on October 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

Second the rice cooker, especially one with a good timer so you can enjoy palatable starches instead of what the crockpot does to them. We also use our rice cooker for oatmeal, rice pudding, and applesauce. The only thing we both like in the crockpot is a corned beef, perhaps because the garlic overcomes the "crock-like" flavor we find with every other dish. I've seen some models with a stainless steel vessel and can't wait to try one.
posted by Mertonian at 7:19 PM on October 31, 2012

This isn't exactly an answer to the question you asked, but please consider getting a pressure cooker in addition to your slow cooker. Seriously, I got one a few months ago and it has changed my life. Chana masala from dried chickpeas in half an hour. A whole turkey breast in 45 minutes. For those days when you wake up a little late and don't have time to plan/prepare the meal 12 hours in advance, a pressure cooker gives you good homemade food fast.
posted by Daily Alice at 7:28 PM on October 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

Honestly, the "take meat, add liquid" recipes work if you think outside the box so you're not always using high-sodium soups. We've been doing chicken + enough salsa to cover (with salsa, we've found you have two options to avoid corn syrup, etc.: The high-end fancy organic stuff or the very cheap Mexican stuff because the very cheap Mexican stuff is just tomatos + peppers + seasoning because it's so cheap) and chicken + enough tomato sauce to cover. I know Goya makes a low-sodium tomato sauce and I'm sure you could find a low-sodium salsa (I think Rocky Mountain makes one). Or I know you could use your crockpot to make homemade batches of each type of sauce, that way you control the sodium intake.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:03 PM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Slow Cooker Revolution (which I've recommended here before) has a ton of terrific recipes from the editors of America's Test Kitchens, and has a ton of great tips that have improved my slow cooking overall. My favorite 2 tips:

-tomato paste and worcestershire sauce for a rich, meaty, 'umami' flavor (improves nearly everything!)

-Wrapping things in foil-- this works for both vegetables and chicken, to keep chicken juicier longer and vegetables from getting soggy longer.

IIRC no calorie counts for the recipes, but they tend to be lower in sodium; mostly they steer clear of the typical 'bunch of stuff in cans' slow-cooker formula.
posted by matcha action at 8:25 PM on October 31, 2012 [5 favorites]

I love the Cooking Light Slow Cooker Cookbook. (there's a yam-red bean-peanut stew in there I'm super fond of.) Fwiw, I've substituted fresh veg or soaked beans for canned without issue. Just make sure to supplement extra liquid if fresh is drier than canned.
posted by smirkette at 8:50 PM on October 31, 2012

Oh and I meant boneless-skinless chicken breasts because I am *lazy* and also a bit adverse to dealing with animal bones and bits.
posted by radioamy at 9:23 PM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

My problem with the slow cooker is that a lot of the recipes say to cook for 4-7 hours and I'm gone for more like 9. I have one magazine/book thing that is called Slow Cooking Recipes for Diabetics or something like that that has a lot of 9-10 hour recipes and they're really good and healthy (I'm not diabetic but I don't like sugary or fatty foods). So maybe check that out.
posted by fshgrl at 10:39 PM on October 31, 2012

It's not a slow cooker recipe, but it is a slow cooking recipe. And a mighty fine, and simple, one: moonblush tomatoes.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:36 AM on November 1, 2012

I recently asked a slow cooker recipe question here and got some great responses. You should check it out.

I'm still relatively new to the whole slow cooker thing, but here is what I think:
- get one with a timer that will switch to "warm" when done. Life saver for us since we're usually gone for more like 9-10 hours, not 6-7 like a lot of recipes specify.
- Get a whole chicken, shove that thing full of garlic cloves, put some big chunks of carrot and halved onions on the bottom of your slow cooker, plunk the whole chicken BREAST SIDE DOWN on top of the veg, throw another dozen or so whole cloves of garlic on top/around the cicken, cover and slow cook on low for 7.5 hours. CHICKEN MAGIC! Holy god, is it amazing. This was the first thing I did with my slow cooker and it convinced me of the magical powers of slow cookers. (FWIW my finacee will eat the carrots but they are icky and fat saturated and gross me out. He says they are delicious though.)
- slow cookers are great at meat. Whole chickens, big roasts of beef, pork shoulder, etc. It is awesome coming home to a house that smells of delicious cooked meat, and it takes no time to throw cook some rice and veg to have with it. Fast, easy meals that are generally pretty healthy.
- Slow Cooker Revolution is a really great starting place as it tells you not only good recipes and how to do them, it tells you WHY you should do certain things.
- A Year of Slow Cooking is fantastic.
- Chilis and stews are near impossible to screw up in a slow cooker and can be pretty healthy.
- Every slow cooker is different and some things are going to take trial and error. I have found that my slow cooker runs a little bit hotter so when they say "8 hours on low" I usually have to adjust it down and go for 7. I also know that I have a "hot spot" on the back left hand side of my slow cooker. You'll just figure this stuff out as you go.
- If there are recipes you want to try that involve a can of creamed soup (so so many of the recipes do) but don't want to add in those chemical and salt ladden cans of goop, there are recipes online for how to make your own "cream of _______" soup that work perfectly in slow cooker recipes.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 3:54 AM on November 1, 2012 [6 favorites]

The problem with slow cookers is that people have the idea they can turn it on when they leave for work and eat the food when they get home from work. That's usually around ten hours of cooking time. It would be possible to get a good result after ten hours of cooking time at a much lower temperature, but the slow cooker people are afraid users will end up incubating all kinds of horrible bacteria and kill themselves. So they are calibrated for a higher temperature. This is why the meat is turning out dry: it's massively overcooked.

There are a number of things you can do about this. You could put in frozen meat instead of fresh. This would take longer to come up to temperature. You could set the slow cooker to its (lower) "warming" temperature rather than one of the cooking temperatures. You could put the slow cooker on a timer so that it didn't turn on until noon. You could do all of these things in combination. Or, you could slow-cook your food for a shorter period of time while you are asleep and reheat it when you get home (many braised dishes are better reheated anyway).

Or... hear me out here... you could go in exactly the opposite direction and use a pressure cooker instead. If you prepare all the ingredients ahead of time, you can pressure cook most anything in around 40 minutes (43 minutes unattended) or less. Just last night I made a pork belly adobo in the pressure cooker that would blow your head off.
posted by slkinsey at 5:30 AM on November 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

I also highly suggest the Indian Slow Cooker book mentioned above.

Here is an Indian recipe that is not in that book tho. It's a recipe for a slow cooker version of Butter Chicken that I posted to AskMefi a while ago and has received high marks from a picky Mefi audience! The important part of the recipe is to start with frozen chicken.
posted by jeremias at 12:59 PM on November 1, 2012

I came to suggest Slow Cooker Revolution. In fact, we just had a baby and the slow cooker has been a life saver. We have a "off-low-high-warm" model with no timer. For soup/stew/chili it is phenomenal.

I also hate the "dump can of X" in slow cooker recipes, and I don't think I've seen a single one of those in the Slow Cooker Revolution book.

We really love this cookbook and I can't say enough good things about it. In fact, we just made what my wife describes as the best split pea soup ever on Tuesday, and last week I made the awesome 3-alarm chili. So awesome.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 5:42 PM on November 1, 2012

I have a newish slow cooker of the stainless steel vessel variety that Mertonian mentions, and I really, really like it (kind of expensive, but I got ours on sale for half price). It seems to me that this avoids the all-things-taste-the-same problem of the old crockpot we used to have, plus it has a browning/saute mode, which is wonderful; I can brown meat and/or saute onions in the pan itself, then add the other ingredients and set it to whatever slow cook time I want. I love not having to clean an extra pan.

We make all sorts of things in ours, and never use canned stuff at all. Maybe in the dead of winter I might use tinned tomatoes instead of "fresh," but we just use fresh ingredients, and dried beans instead of canned, for example. I started off looking at recipes, and followed a couple that came in the manual to get the feeling for how to use ours, but then just started improvising. Once you get a pretty good idea of how your device works, you can just adapt a lot of regular recipes – especially anything that might normally be made in a dutch oven.

I made chicken noodle soup yesterday, and am making red beans and rice as I'm writing this. A couple of days ago we made Hungarian goulash, and I'm waiting for it to get a bit colder to make French onion soup, beef stroganoff, and chili. We've made a delicious bean soup overnight, teriyaki pork ribs, pulled chicken with oregano... I'm trying to remember everything. Many Things.

One cookbook I did pick up is Slow Cooker Cooking by Lora Brody, because it's sort of a "gourmet" slow cooker cookbook, and from what I am seeing, the recipes are low sodium, and the total antithesis of the cream-of-X-soup-style recipes, though some are fairly fussy for a slowcooker dish. People seem to love it or hate it (US and UK people rate it higher than Canadians on Amazon). I've enjoyed looking through it, and have several of the recipes on my want-to-make list, but haven't actually used it yet, so my vote is still out. It does look like times may have to be reduced for newer, hotter, slow cookers. (There are used versions of the book from that link, too.)

I do agree that you might have to get an appliance timer to start your meal later, since most slow cookers are faster now, and timing may be a problem if you are coming home 9 hours later. Or you could get something like this all-in-one pressure cooker / slow cooker / saute-browner / rice cooker / steamer /warmer, with a programmable timer. Handy! And spendy! Though not as much as separate items would cost. I would have been tempted by something like this.
posted by taz at 8:44 AM on November 3, 2012

Just last night I made a pork belly adobo in the pressure cooker that would blow your head off.

...only if used improperly, of course.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:07 AM on November 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

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