Now, slow cooking combines convenience with taste

Slow cooking tips


Vegetarian Black Bean Chili.
Vegetarian Black Bean Chili.
Slow cookers go in and out of fashion. Currently they seem to be more popular than ever -- with new cookbooks and food magazine articles touting creative recipe twists for time-pressed cooks.

The March issue of Cooking Light features "Slow Cooking Made Easy!, Luscious Stews, Sauces & More," while the February Eating Well ran "Slow Food, Fast, Cook Once, Eat Twice With These 8 Tasty, Time-Saving Recipes."

For more ideas, there's the recently released Mary Engelbreit's Fan Fare Cookbook: 120 Slow Cooker Recipe Favorites, (Andrews McMeel Publishing; $16.99) with easy "set it and forget it" contributions from family, friends, and fans.

Slow cookers offer a terrific way to cook economically and extend the food budget -- with less expensive cuts of meats, dried beans, rice, polenta, soups, chilis, stews, and more.

Many like the convenience of tossing everything into one pot and returning hours later to a finished dish. But sometimes mediocre end results disappoint and can be a turn-off.

Now you can have both convenience and taste.

Chris Kimball and his America's Test Kitchen team (responsible for Cook's Illustrated and Cook's Country magazines and cookbooks) have tackled the taste challenge with 200 creations in a new cookbook released last month, Slow Cooker Revolution, ($26.95).

"People love the convenience of slow cookers," says Jack Bishop, editorial director of America's Test Kitchen, noting that the slow cooker feature in Cook's Country is the most popular.

"But a lot of slow cooker recipes are designed without thinking about the end quality. We wanted to rebalance [the notion and recipes] and put quality back in the equation without losing convenience completely. There was a need for our approach -- to make the food taste good."

Through exhaustive testing and remaking recipes numerous times by revving up two dozen slow cookers daily for a year, the Test Kitchen's mission was to implement new ways/tricks/shortcuts to make flavorful, great-tasting food while keeping prep work easy and to a minimum.

The emphasis was on how to get big flavors like those in conventional cooking. The book, the kitchen's first on slow cooking, includes a large variety of ethnic foods like tagine, Indian, and Mexican along with grains, beans, polenta, brown and white rices, lasagna, stratas and other brunch dishes, bread pudding, cobblers, and other desserts.

In many instances you can't just throw all the ingredients in the cooker and walk away for 8 hours, says Bishop.

Chicken for instance takes a max of 4 to 6 hours, depending on the recipe, on the low heat setting, while desserts like cobblers and rice puddings are completed in about 4 hours on low. Some, like the chocolate pudding cake, are finished in 1 1/2 hours on high.

For moistest results with a whole chicken, cook it upside down so the fat and juices travel through the breast meat.

"We tested everything every way imaginable," says Bishop, adding that testers evaluated more than seven models to find the best. Although a few produced good results consistently, the winner was the Crock-Pot Touchscreen Slow Cooker ($129.99) with a timer that counted up to 20 hours even on high.

"All of the recipes were tested using this slow cooker as well as others. Most of the recipes have a time range," he adds, because they were tested in a range of models from hot to cool. Some slow cookers run hot (and fast) while others run cool (and slow).

"Also, be aware that a slow cooker has a hotter and a cooler side," advises Bishop.

"Low [heat setting] is better than high for most recipes as it is more reliable and foolproof," emphasizes Bishop. "On high, sauces get over-reduced and meat blows apart.

"Testers measured the temperature [of each slow cooker] on low and on high, and there was a fair amount of variation. Low should be about 190 degrees ideally. If it is 175 degrees the food will barely cook. There's a bigger problem on the high heat setting than low," says Bishop. "You can boil food to death. High should be about 200 degrees, not 212 degrees."

To develop flavor in certain recipes and save time, microwave aromatics (like onions and garlic) and spices (instead of cooked in a skillet on top of the stove) for five minutes. The microwave oven partners well with the slow cooker. The microwave can also be utilized to steam or parcook some vegetables.

Browning meat is sometimes necessary, but often you can skip it by using a little soy sauce and tomato paste (secret weapons) to add the same meaty depth of flavor.

Ground meats (in chilis and pasta sauces) can be mixed with bread and milk and then browned. The panade, which completely dissolves, helps retain moisture, keeps the meat tender and no one even knows it's there.

Run some barbecue items -- like sticky wings, honey mustard drumsticks and fiery ribs -- quickly under the broiler at the end of the slow-cooking time for a finishing glazed topping and crispy exterior. It's well worth the additional effort.

Foil slings can be used for ease in lifting some cooked foods such as meatloaf or lasagna from the slow cooker in one piece.

For thickening sauces, stews and such, Minute tapioca (max of 1/4 cup) was the best solution as it could be added to the pot at the beginning of cooking.

Toast bread prior to adding to the slow cooker for breakfast dishes to give more texture.

If dishes need a flavor boost at the end of the cooking time, finish with fresh herbs, lemon juice, extra chipotle chiles or other ingredients.

Santa Fe Meatloaf
Vegetable oil spray

1 onion, minced

1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and minced

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 tablespoon tomato paste

2 teaspoons minced fresh oregano OR 1/2 teaspoon dried

2 teaspoons chili powder

1 (15-ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed

2 slices high-quality white sandwich bread, torn into quarters

1/2 cup whole milk

2 pounds 85 percent lean ground beef

1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese (4 ounces)

3/4 cup frozen corn

2 large eggs

2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro

Salt and pepper

1/2 cup barbecue sauce

Line a 6-quart electric slow cooker with a foil collar (a six-layer foil rectangle that is 16 inches long and 4 inches wide and pressed into the back side of the slow cooker insert), then line with a foil sling (2 large sheets of heavy duty foil placed perpendicular to one another in the slow cooker with the extra hanging over the edges of the cooker insert to use as handles at the end of cooking) and coat with vegetable oil spray.

Microwave onion, bell pepper, oil, garlic, tomato paste, oregano, and chili powder in a bowl, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened, about 5 minutes.

Mash black beans, bread, and milk into paste in a large bowl using potato masher. Mix in onion mixture, ground beef, cheese, corn, eggs, cilantro, 1 teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper using hands.

Transfer meat mixture to slow cooker and press into an even layer. Brush meatloaf with ¼ cup barbecue sauce. Cover and cook on low setting until meatloaf is tender, about 4 hours.

Position oven rack 6 inches from broiler element and heat broiler. Using sling, transfer meatloaf with foil to rimmed baking sheet, allowing juice to drain back into slow cooker. Press edges of foil flat, brush meatloaf with remaining 1/4 cup barbecue sauce and broil until caramelized, about 5 minutes. Let cool for 15 minutes before serving.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings.

Source: Slow Cooker Revolution, by the Editors at America’s Test Kitchen.

Vegetarian Black Bean Chili
2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 onions, minced

2 red bell peppers, stemmed, seeded and minced

2 jalapeño chiles, stemmed, seeded and minced

9 garlic cloves, minced

3 tablespoons chili powder

4 teaspoons mustard seeds

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon dried oregano

2 1/2 cups vegetable broth

2 1/2 cups water

1 pound dried black beans, picked over and rinsed

10 ounces white mushrooms, trimmed and halved, if small OR quartered, if large

1 tablespoon minced canned chipotle chile in adobo sauce

2 bay leaves

1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes, drained and cut into 1/2-inch pieces

2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro

Salt and pepper

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onions, bell peppers, jalapeños, garlic, chili powder, mustard seeds, cumin, and oregano, and cook until vegetables are softened and lightly browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in 1 cup broth, scraping up any browned bits; transfer to slow cooker.

Stir water, beans, mushrooms, remaining 1½ cups broth, chipotles and bay leaves into slow cooker. Cover and cook until beans are tender, 9 to 11 hours on low or 5 to 7 hours on high.

Discard bay leaves. Transfer 1 cup cooked beans to a bowl and mash smooth with a potato masher. Stir mashed beans and tomatoes into chili and let sit until heated through, about 5 minutes. Stir in cilantro, season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings.

Source: Slow Cooker Revolution, by the Editors at America’s Test Kitchen.

Curried Chicken Breasts
2 onions, minced

6 garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons minced OR grated fresh ginger

4 teaspoons curry powder

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 cup low-sodium chicken broth

3 tablespoons Minute tapioca

6 (12-ounce) bone-in split chicken breasts, skin removed and trimmed

Salt and pepper

1/2 cup raisins

1/2 cup plain whole-milk yogurt

2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro

1/2 cup sliced almonds, toasted

Microwave onions, garlic, ginger, curry powder, oil, and tomato paste in a bowl, stirring occasionally, until onions are softened, about 5 minutes; transfer to a 6-quart electric slow cooker.

Stir broth and tapioca into slow cooker. Season chicken with salt and pepper and nestle into slow cooker. Cover and cook on low until chicken is tender, 4 to 6 hours.

Gently stir in raisins and let sit until heated through, about 10 minutes. Transfer chicken to serving platter and tent loosely with foil. Let braising liquid settle 5 minutes, then remove fat from surface using large spoon.

In a bowl, combine 1/4 cup hot braising liquid with yogurt (to temper), then stir mixture back into slow cooker. Stir in cilantro and season with salt and pepper to taste. Spoon 1 cup sauce over chicken, sprinkle with almonds and serve with remaining sauce. Serve with hot cooked rice, if desired.

Yield: 6 servings

Easy Polenta
Vegetable oil spray

7 1/2 cups water, plus extra hot water as needed

1 1/2 cups polenta (not instant)


2 cups grated Parmesan cheese (4 ounces)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter


Coat a 6-quart slow cooker with vegetable oil spray. Whisk water, polenta and 1½ teaspoons salt together in slow cooker. Cover and cook on low heat setting until polenta is tender, 4 to 6 hours.

Stir in Parmesan and butter and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve. (This dish can be held on warm setting 1 to 2 hours before serving; loosen with additional hot water as needed before serving.)

Yield: 8 to 10 servings.

Source: Slow Cooker Revolution, by the Editors at America’s Test Kitchen.

BBQ Beef Sandwiches
1 1/2 pounds lean boneless beef arm chuck roast

1/4 cup ketchup

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 1/2teaspoons Dijon mustard

 1/2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

1 clove garlic, crushed

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon liquid smoke

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

6 French rolls OR sandwich buns

Place beef in a 3-quart slow cooker. Combine remaining ingredients except the rolls in a bowl; pour over meat. Cover and cook on low heat setting 6 to 8 hours. Remove beef from slow cooker and shred with two forks.
Combine beef with ½ cup sauce from the slow cooker. Spoon meat and sauce mixture onto warmed rolls. Top with additional sauce if desired.

Yield: Makes 6 servings.

Source: Mary Engelbreit’s Fan Fare Cookbook: 120 Slow Cooker Recipe Favorites

Garden Vegetable Sauce with Chickpeas
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra as needed

3 onions, minced

2 carrots, peeled, halved lengthwise, and sliced 1/4 inch thick

8 garlic cloves, minced

1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

2 cups vegetable broth

2 cups water

1 1/4cups dried chickpeas (8 ounces), picked over and rinsed

2 bay leaves

1 zucchini (8 ounces), quartered lengthwise and sliced 1/4-inch thick

2 tomatoes (12 ounces), cored and cut into 1/2-inch pieces

6 ounces baby spinach (6 cups)

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese (1 ounce), plus extra for serving

Salt and pepper

Heat oil in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onions, carrots, garlic, and red pepper flakes and cook 8 to 10 minutes, until vegetables are softened and lightly browned. Stir in flour and cook 1 minute. Slowly whisk in 1 cup broth, scraping up any browned bits and smoothing out any lumps; transfer to a 6-quart electric slow cooker.

Stir water, chickpeas, remaining 1 cup broth, and bay leaves into slow cooker. Cover and cook until chickpeas are tender, 9 to 11 hours on low setting or 5 to 7 hours on high.

Stir in zucchini, cover, and cook on high until tender, 20 to 30 minutes. Discard bay leaves. Stir in tomatoes and spinach and let sit until heated through, about 5 minutes. Stir in Parmesan. Before serving, season with salt and pepper, additional extra-virgin olive oil and additional Parmesan to taste.

Yield:  6 cups, enough to sauce 1 pound of pasta, cooked.

Source: Slow Cooker Revolution, by the Editors at America’s Test Kitchen.

Bean Pot
1 (15-ounce) can butter beans, drained

1 (15-ounce) can kidney beans, drained

1 (15-ounce) can baked beans, with liquid

1/2 cup ketchup

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1/3 cup finely chopped green bell pepper

1 1/2pounds ham, diced

2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese

Combine all ingredients except cheese in a 5-quart slow cooker. Cover and cook on low heat setting 3 to 4 hours. Serve in bowls topped with cheese.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings. Recipe can easily be doubled for a crowd.

Source: Mary Engelbreit’s Fan Fare Cookbook: 120 Slow Cooker Recipe Favorites