Slow cooker, crock pot, Dutch oven; call it what you will, but all of these vessels utilize the same cooking process; one that is low and slow and yields the ultimate in slow cooking satisfaction; a house filled with tantalizing smells, and a warm, hearty meal which is easy to cook and serve. We may be into Spring weather now, but there are still plenty of chilly days that have me yearning for something simmering. Unfamiliar with slow cooking? Below is a bit of a primer along with a recipe to get you started.
Is there a difference between a crock pot and slow cooker?
The answer is yes and no.
Both have independent electric heating elements and lids to keep the heat in, but “crock pots” heat from all sides and some “slow cookers” heat from the bottom only, often via a separate heating plate. Today, the term “Crock-Pot” (a brand name owned by the Rival Company) has become as commonplace as Kleenex. Other companies, like Cuisinart, KitchenAid, etc. make “slow cookers” which are essentially the same as a crock pot. For the purposes of this post we will assume they are interchangeable and heat from both the sides and the bottom.
Most slow cookers have removable ceramic inserts which make clean-up much easier than they used to be. When buying a slow cooker, look for one which offers the most flexibility in its features like the removable insert, a timer, and the ability to automatically switch to warm when done cooking. Others like this one from Hamilton Beach have extra features like a locking lid and handles for easy transportation, a thermometer to monitor meat temperature without lifting the lid, and specific temperature settings beyond just high and low.
The old school version of the slow cooker is the Dutch oven, which is typically a heavy cast iron casserole pan with a lid, sometimes covered with enamel like those made by Le Creuset. These are placed in the oven for cooking, or even over a wood fire in the case of bare cast iron pans. The plain cast iron Dutch ovens are hardy vessels and can be used for baking, roasting and even deep frying. The enameled pans have the advantage over plain cast iron in they don’t have to be seasoned, but they are typically much more expensive and should not be used for deep frying. The enameled versions also come in a multitude of colors and look nice going from oven to table. Many recipes for slow cookers can be made in the oven and conversely, recipes traditionally cooked in a Dutch oven can be adapted to work in a crock pot.
Personally, I have a very old model of crock pot, the one with just high and low and without a removable insert. Someday I’ll probably buy a larger slow cooker, one with a timer and temperature setting and a dishwasher safe insert. I also have a heavy duty Martha Stewart brand Dutch oven which works perfectly fine for me.
Tips for cooking in a Crock Pot, Slow Cooker or Dutch Oven:
- The crock should be filled at least half full but not to the rim. Try to leave one to two inches from the top to allow any liquid to come to a simmer, especially if cooking something like soups or stews.
- Try to resist lifting the lid while the food is cooking as this will release steam and heat and add to the cooking time. If you must give it a taste or check for doneness, do so quickly and close to the end of the cooking time. Confession; I often have a hard time with this tip.
- Place harder, uncooked vegetables like potatoes and carrots at the bottom of the crock and around the sides. Cut vegetables in uniform pieces so they cook evenly. Add softer vegetables, like peas or asparagus in the last half hour of cooking.
- Not everything has to go into the crock pot raw. It’s worth it to spend a little extra time to brown a roast or sauté the onions first to get better flavor from the caramelization of the meat or vegetables in the long run. Cook ground beef and drain off the fat before adding to the slow cooker.
- Add dairy products like milk, cheese or cream late in the cooking process (in the last half an hour) to prevent curdling or separation.
What to cook in a slow cooker:
There are entire websites and cook books dedicated to crock pot cooking of everything from appetizers to desserts and from soup to nuts. There is even a blog written by a woman who cooked something in her crock pot every single day for a year. While there are lots of recipes out there, the best ones are those which would also take the longest in your oven or on the stove; soups and stews, and tougher cuts of meats with lots of connective tissue like a chuck roast or pork butt/shoulder. Besides main course meals, crock pots are a great way to cook and keep side dishes warm on a buffet or for a large party. Try keeping your mashed potatoes or stuffing warm in the slow cooker at your next holiday meal.
- Make sure you properly and safely thaw meat or poultry before placing it in a slow cooker.
- Do not add frozen meat to the slow cooker as it will take too long to thaw and might be kept at an unsafe temperature for too long.
- Keep all ingredients refrigerated before placing them in the crock.
- When the food is finished cooking, if you are not ready to serve the meal, keep it on a “warm” setting.
- The contents of the slow cooker will take a long time to cool in the crock so transfer leftovers to smaller containers before refrigerating.
Let me know what some of your favorite things are to make in the slow cooker Do you have a favorite brand or feature? I think it’s time for me to “upgrade” my crock pot!
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