There’s something about the fall that makes us crave long-cooked, hearty dishes. They seem to comfort us as the days shorten, the nights grow longer and the frost is definitely on the pumpkin.
Allowing for quick and easy preparation, ease of cooking and eliminating the worry of overcooking or worse, burning, slow cookers are seeing a resurgence in popularity.
Once thought of as your mother’s cookware, slow cookers have saved the day in many a busy household that just can’t face another meal out or eaten in the car – or the stress of rushing around to prepare a meal in a hurry. This style of cooking takes us back to the days of home cooked dinners without putting in as much preparation time.
In the spirit of honesty, I have to say that I am not a big user of the slow cooker. It’s just not how I prepare meals on a regular basis. I can count the number of times I have used one on one hand. However, since I love you and I am asked about this all the time, I’ll share with you what I have discovered. I want you to cook, no matter what it takes.
Before I give you tips on slow cooking, it’s important to consider the nutrition and “energy” of it before you dive in and make it your go-to style of cooking. Before you roll your eyes, read on.
While all the information I have read about slow cooking vegetables indicates that there is little loss of nutrients, similar to roasting in the oven, I look more to the energetic effect on the body. I am thrilled that slow cooking can help us to get dinner on the table conveniently, but we have to balance what slow cooking does to us energetically.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, long cooked foods, like those in a slow cooker, create a “heavy” energy within the body. What does this mean? Picture Thanksgiving--post-feast. Know that feeling of lethargy and heaviness? Regular use of a slow cooker can cause us to feel less vital than freshly cooked foods. Think of it this way. A slow cooker stews your food for a long time. That’s the energy you consume—stew: brothy, wet, heavy, one-note energy. Balancing it with fresh, exciting flavors is essential to your wellness.
Now, chill. I’m not saying that it’s a bad idea to use one on occasion or for morning porridge that you want to simmer all night long so you have a warming breakfast on a brisk winter morning. I’m saying we need to balance the use of any tool that cooks food for so many hours in order to feel well and vital. For me, the slow cooker can handle breakfast porridge and long-cooked main courses on “those days.” I can balance all the long-cooked heaviness with lightly cooked veggies or a crisp salad for a simple and satisfying breakfast or dinner.
You can cook just about anything in a slow cooker, from soups and stews to chili, desserts and hot breakfast cereals. You can adapt just about any long cooked dish to a slow cooker with minor adjustments.
Here are my best tips for successful slow cooking.
Every time you “just have to” remove the lid to check on the cooking process, you add an additional 15 to 20 minutes of cooking time. And… do… not… stir; it's not necessary (unless the recipe reads otherwise) and it tends to slow down the cooking.
Take Care of Your Crock
The ceramic insert of slow cookers can crack if exposed to abrupt temperature shifts. So don't place a hot ceramic insert directly on a cold counter. Place it on a hot pad or trivet. If you have prepped and filled your slow cooker insert to cook the following day, store it in the fridge but let it come to room temperature before placing it in its preheated sleeve.
Browning Kicks Up Flavor
You can just pile your ingredients in the slow cooker, turn it on and create a delish dish. However, if you want to take flavor up a notch, take a couple of extra minutes and pan fry your tofu, tempeh or seitan before adding to your slow cooker. Or take the time it takes to sauté your vegetables before layering into the insert. That wee bit of extra work will be richly rewarded with a flavorful dish.
There’s nothing like a hot breakfast cereal to start your day on the right foot. In our house, we simmer our whole grain porridge on a very low flame on the stovetop all night, so that come morning, we simply have to steam some greens and breakfast is ready.
Not everyone is comfy doing that and that’s where your slow cooker comes in. (It’s actually my favorite way to use a slow cooker…) Simply follow any recipe for a whole grain porridge but place it all in the slow cooker rather than on the stove top. Turn the heat to low and allow it to simmer all night.
No Frozen Food, Please
Make sure your beans and vegetables are fully thawed before turning the cooker on. This protects the insert and ensures your food cooks evenly.
Overcrowding Is Never Fun
No one likes to be crammed into small spaces and your slow cooker is no different. For the best results, fill your slow cooker to at least half but no more than two-thirds full. This allows the food to bubble nicely in lots of space, creating richly-flavored broths and sauces. For even cooking, cut food into uniform-size pieces. Place firm, slow-cooking root vegetables like potatoes and carrots at the bottom of the crock and pile protein like tofu, tempeh or beans on top.
My experience with slow cooking is that the low setting (170 degrees F for most models) takes about twice as long as cooking on high (280 degrees F on most models). So in the spirit of not cooking food forever, you might want to use medium or high for most vegetable and bean dishes.
Balance, Balance, Balance
This is where you come in. After a long stewing, a meal centered around a slow cooker needs some life brought back to the party. Sure, a sprinkle of fresh herbs or some lemon juice can brighten the flavors and light the energy of the dish but you need to do a bit more, in my view.
I would serve any slow cooker meal with a crisp side salad, lightly steamed or sautéed greens or some other lightly cooked or raw vegetable dish to make balance with the low energy of the slow cooked recipe.
Look, in the end, I prefer we cook foods from scratch, even if it means cooking a variety of dishes on your day off and freezing them, but for some people, the slow cooker makes more sense. I get it. And I am thrilled that you’re cooking, however you’re cooking! Make balance with fresh foods and you will do just fine and feel amazingly vital because you’re eating food you prepared and cooked.