Grab and Go dinners are essential at anytime but especially in the spring months! Yes…after this brutal winter I did say the word spring! (As a sidebar…a neighbor of ours drove by a church sign that said, “Whoever is praying for cold weather and snow, can you please stop!” I laughed!!! Anyway…back on track!) We feature some cool videos on grab-and-go meals for the hectic spring season of sports, graduations and spring concerts on Revive.ca this March! But, I also want to point out that just because the warm weather is creeeeeeping in sloooowly, it’s not the time to dismiss your slow cooker! Often it takes just a quick prep and your family is able to grab something to eat as soon as they get in! Now…there are a few guidelines you want to follow to ensure a long lasting love affair with one of the best workweek appliances known to mankind!
Slow cookers are all about your schedule and your needs surrounding your schedule! Think of it this way...If you need a babysitter for 10 hours, you will hire a babysitter for that length of time! If you need a slow cooker recipe to cook and babysit your dinner while you’re away or busy for 10 hours, you will need a recipe that can cook for 10 hours!
1. What's the biggest mistake people make when first starting to cook with a slow cooker?
The biggest mistake people make with slow cooker recipes is that they think if a slow cooker recipe says 5-6 hours at high heat…they can adjust the temperature to low heat and be away for 10 hours. That may work sometimes, but more often than not they are going to be very disappointed with the results! Again I stress… match the cook time to the schedule. If you are able to pop home at lunch to plug in your slow cooker for a 4-6 hour cook, perfect! Examples of this might be tenderizing ribs before grilling them (see Revive.ca video)…or prepping and slow cooking lasagna. If you’re not able to be away for a short stint, ignore those recipes and take a look at the ones for 9-10 hours, which include mains such as soups, stews, pot roasts or spaghetti sauce. (Revive.ca has a few of these as well!)
The second biggest mistake is that people get so enamored with their shiny new appliance they start to cook eeeeeverything in it! If you want to avoid turning it into a dust collector in the back of some deep dark cupboard where appliances go to die, don’t do the latter. Use it once per week or twice max (and only if the two meals are entirely different, such as pot roast one night and spaghetti sauce another!) Why? Juices stay in and keep cooking the food in its own juices, so meat textures are quite similar even if the flavors are different! After a few recipes the family starts to notice (and complain) that everything has the same texture.
2. Is it easy to adapt recipes so you can cook them in a slow cooker?
Sure…, but remember to look at similar recipes when adapting your recipe, so you use a proper method and set an accurate cook time. My personal favorite adaptations are things that have lots of sauce such as a lamb masala or butter chicken. Also, soups, stews or chilies can often easily be adapted for the slow cooker. Remember this rule…If it has a lot of sauce and the recipe contains spices that get better with time, it may even do better in a slow cooker than a traditional cooking method!
3. Is it possible to cook meat in a slow cooker, like roast or whole chickens?
I recommend browning large cuts of meat prior to placing them in a slow cooker. The reason for doing this is to kill bacteria that lie on the surface of meat prior to having it in the receptacle. Remember, it takes about an hour to reach 140º F (the safe zone) at high! Why not eliminate risk by browning first. Browning has the added benefit of extra flavor. I have been known to throw a whole roast in without browning it if I’m really pinched for time, but I like the flavor of the browned version best! I’m not a personal fan of cooking whole raw chicken. I use parts and brown the surface first.
4. What's the most surprising thing you can cook in a slow cooker?
Large batches of caramelized onion! My family loves caramelized onion on or in just about anything! Melt 1/4 cup butter in the bottom of your slow cooker at high heat. Sliver 3 lbs of onions tossing into the slow cooker as you sliver. Stir until you get a good whiff of the scrumptious alliums... which means it’s reacting to the heat. Stir, cover and reset slow cooker to low. Cook for 7-10 hours. Remove lid, reset slow cooker to high and stir from time until all the water is gone. Let cool and freeze flat in large freezer bags. Once sealed, divide into sections with the side of your hand for easy separation once frozen!
5. Are special adaptations needed when cooking with cheese or dairy?
It’s best to add dairy in the last half-hour of cooking. An exception to the rule is something like lasagna, which takes around 4 hours to cook. But, if you add milk at the beginning of a creamed soup or sauce there’s a good chance it will separate. It may taste ok, but it won’t look so good! Instead, heat milk or cream in the microwave just a bit and then add it to your soup a half hour before serving. Adding warm milk to warm soup will reduce the risk of separation as well.
6. Can everything be added at once or is it better to add different ingredients at different times?
It depends on the dish! If preparing something like pot roast, I tend to layer meat on the bottom, with smaller additions over top and liquids last. For other meals, when to add ingredients has a lot to do with personal likes and dislikes, other than dairy (and food safety temperatures). If you like your soup to have crunchier veggies, you may want to add them later. If you like a more traditional soup where the veggies have a soft texture, add them in at the same time. A few exceptions may be tender items that will cook super fast (like fish or baby peas).
7. How do you know whether to cook on low or high heat?
If you’re trying a dish you haven’t done in the slow cooker before, use other recipes that are similar to help guide you through your desired result and time needs! Although the general rule is that one hour on high is equal to approximately 2 hours on low, certain dishes do better cooking at high for less time or at low for more time! I personally set my slow cooker at high while preparing the meal. I then reset according to directions. This way I know the internal temp has had a kick start.