by Rebecca Lang
I understand the allure of the slow cooker. Come home from a long day and, like magic, dinner is ready to eat. Except, it's not magic.
It takes planning and preparation to make the meal come together, and I've never found it to be the indispensable kitchen appliance that other people do. I'd rather just spend 30 minutes cooking a meal and serving it right away than making it a whole day affair.
I really wanted to like my slow cooker. I've used it several times, in fact, and with each effort, I was hopeful, almost giddy, to taste the end result. However, I was always disappointed and so was my family. Besides being a handy vessel to keep my spinach and artichoke dip warm at a potluck, I simply don't understand what the fuss is about.
Now, if you invite me over for a dinner party, I won't boycott a meal you've prepared in your slow cooker. In fact, I'll probably ask for seconds. But if you come visit me, you can bet your favorite ladle that I'll be serving you either a stove- or oven-made dish, and here's why:
I learned to cook in college by watching Rachael Ray and copying my mother's easy Italian recipes. I embrace their style of quick and tasty cooking, where no pocket of time is wasted. My go-to recipes let me take care of chopping veggies and even some clean-up within a thirty minute window.
Why would I want to go through all of that ingredient prep work, and then wait six to eight hours to actually eat?
Not to mention that slow cooker recipes often recommend browning meats before they're placed in the slow cooker. This step adds a really important layer of flavor to the dish, and...I'm just going to say it: If you don't do it, then your slow cooker dish is not going to taste as good as my stove top version.
Besides flavor, for efficiency's sake, I'd rather finish cooking the meal in the same pot I used to brown the meat. Transferring it to the slow cooker and adding an extra pot to my sink just doesn't make sense to me.
I know slow cooker enthusiasts talk about the joy of "setting it and forgetting it," but there's no guarantee I'll remember to start my slow cooker in the first place. Mornings in my house are just as busy as the witching hours between 4:00 and 6:00 PM. And I'm not a morning person. Thinking about dinner – not to mention prepping all the components of the dish – before I've even eaten breakfast is my idea of a nightmare.
Plus, many recipes require ingredients, like noodles and potatoes, to be added at later stages of the cooking process, so that they don't get too mushy. This ends up being another step I have to remember, if I want to eat on time. Instead, I have a staple of pantry ingredients that let me put something decently healthy in front of my family in a pinch.
My husband and daughter will happily eat what I make, but my son is still developing his taste preferences, which is a nice way of saying he's picky. Serving meals that have separate components gives me peace of mind that he'll eat at least one thing on his plate. I don't care if it's only a few roasted carrots. At least I know his tummy is full of something, because I'm definitely not making him an entirely different meal.
The other benefit of meal separates is that I can better control how much of each type of food I'm eating. In my personal version of heaven, I will eat my mother's spaghetti and meatballs every day for every meal. In the real world, I can't eat like that and still fit into my jeans, so eating separates lets me keep an eye on how many servings of protein, carbs, veggies, and fats I'm really having. This has proven to be a huge component of healthy eating for me.
The rich flavors of soups and stews are comforting and hard to beat. Plus, the cuts of meat that do so well in low and slow settings can feed an army and are inexpensive. So, I make big batches – bigger than what could fit in my slow cooker – when I have time on a weekend. Then I freeze them in portions to heat up on busier nights of the week.
If you have a slow cooker recipe that you think will prove me wrong, please share it in the comments. I'd love to find more uses for my fancy spinach dip warmer.
by Jody Allard
Some people think slow cookers are a waste of time. They say they only produce mushy food and that everything that is cooked in one tastes the same. Those people are wrong.
My slow cooker is akin to an extra limb. Next to my children, it's my most beloved family member. It feeds my family of eight – three sets of twins and a spare, plus myself – with little to no effort on my part, and contrary to what some naysayers think, my slow-cooked meals are straight up delicious.
It's easy to see why the slow cooker takes so much heat; many online recipes rely on the same tired mix of meat, canned soups, and veggies. When you take the lid off your slow cooker eight hours later, all you can see is mush, and it's anyone's guess whether they're eating chicken or beef that night. Ew.
But those monstrous creations aren't the fault of the poor slow cooker. With a little effort, you can find recipes with nary a canned soup in sight and your crew will be begging for seconds. Soups and stews are always a hit in the Crock-Pot – and the meat is always more tender and flavorful than when it's cooked in the oven – but my absolute favorite slow cooker meals are Indian curries. Slow cooking allows more time for the flavors to mesh, and doing the prep work beforehand makes them practical for even the busiest week nights.
Speaking of prep work, let's talk about the abject misery that is dinner. Every single night, without fail, my kids expect me to feed them. This entails creating a weekly menu, preparing shopping lists, and going to at least three different stores to get stocked up. But then, as if that's not enough, my kids expect me to actually cook all of this food. I know, it's really just unacceptable.
That's where my slow cooker comes in. The beauty of it is that you can pre-make ingredients, freeze them, and have a stockpile for anytime you know you're just not going to want to cook the next day. If you can't quite get it together to prep that much in advance (guilty!), keeping a few simple ingredients on hand means that you can make dinner happen in minutes by dumping them into a slow cooker when you leave for work.
My kids can't get enough of my three-ingredient pulled pork, and taco night gets even easier when my two-ingredient salsa chicken is hot and ready when I walk in the door. Can you handle dumping a pack of chicken thighs and a jar of salsa in the slow cooker on your way out the door? I thought so.
I don't live solely on Crock-Pot fare, of course. I make all sorts of elaborate (and absolutely not elaborate) meals for my family, and I pride myself on being something of a foodie. But the reality is that sometimes my kids have competing after-school activities or I have extra work to tackle in the evening, and I would rather stick pencils in my eyeballs than cook a meal. Any meal.
It's ever-so-easy to order pizza or delivery from local restaurants on those nights, and that's fine once in awhile, but on a regular basis it's just not healthy or budget-friendly. Having at least part of the meal already cooked and waiting for me gives me the push I need to stop staring longingly at dinner delivery apps on my phone and get the rest of dinner on the table.
So if everything from curries to chicken pot pie tastes the same to you when they come out of a slow cooker, you should probably get your palate checked. Overcooking is often why these meals get mushy, which is where high-tech cookers come in. Not only do newer models have automatic shut-offs when their cooktime is finished, some of them can even be controlled by your phone. Running late? Switch it to warm and forget about it. It'll be ready and not even slightly mushy when you get home! Seriously, what's not to love about this miraculous gadget?
Unless you're the Barefoot Contessa, meandering through your garden each day to prepare a special dinner party for a friend, learning how to use your slow cooker to maximum advantage will make that dreaded daily question of "what's for dinner?" a distant memory.