I have had a slow-cooker in my pantry forever. But I must confess, it (or more correctly…they, since I’ve had several different models over the years) had sporadic use. When I had 2-hour-daily commutes to work, it came in handy for Beef Stew (see recipe), soup, beans, etc. to assure a hot dinner that night. It is my favorite way to make marinara sauce. Yet, it could languish on my pantry, unused, for months.
Lately, I’ve used my slow-cooker for whole cuts of meat, such as the Slow-Roasted Pork Shoulder Roast in my new cookbook Gluten-Free 101: The Essential Beginner’s Guide to Easy Gluten-Free Cooking. The cut slow-cooks in a flavorful orange-juice based broth, and we simply slice it for dinner. Leftover pork is shredded later in the week for tacos and any leftover tidbits of pork go into a green-chile pork stew by week’s end. I love the time I save by cooking once, yet eating many times. I recently cooked a whole chicken (in my new oval-shaped model, perfect for a small whole chicken), following the manufacturer’s directions and it turned out great.
Although I think of slow-cookers as winter-time appliances, they are wonderful for summer because they release less heat into your kitchen than a full-size oven. Given my renewed delight with slow-cookers, here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:
Slow-cookers: Time Shifters More than Time-Savers
Slow-cookers are a wonderful invention for time-starved cooks—whether they’re gluten-free or not— but they are more of a time-shifter than a time-saver. The slow-cooker doesn’t measure, cut, or brown the food—you still have to do that. But you can perform these tasks when you choose (either the night before or in the morning). Also, the food cooks without your attention, rather than having to stir a pot on the stovetop or check a dish in the oven over the span of several hours. Experienced slow-cooker users know that planning ahead is critical, so always leave time to prep the ingredients.
Choose the Right Size for Your Family
Based on the number of servings you need to feed your family, use the size that allows you to fill the slow-cooker about half full, but no more than two-thirds full. An overfilled slow-cooker won’t cook food quickly enough, raising food-safety issues, while an under-filled slow-cooker can burn food. Generally, a 5- to 6-quart cooker works for most purposes, but if you cook for a larger crowd, a 7-quart version may be better. I often use a 4-quart size when I’m cooking for just the two of us.
Decide What Features are Important
Slow-cookers range from very basic to having lots of bells and whistles. Some slow-cookers switch to Warm when the cooking is done (so the food doesn’t overcook); others have multiple heat settings (to suit the food being cooked) and programmable timers (to control cooking time length). Most have glass lids (to see the food without lifting the lid and losing precious heat).
Some are round or oval, while others are square (which may fit better on the shelf). Older and smaller models don’t have removable crocks (like the kind I started out with years ago), but today’s crocks (also called inserts) are removable and dishwasher-safe. On some models, these inserts can be used to both brown meats on the stovetop and cook the food in the slow-cooker, eliminating the need for a separate skillet for browning. Decide which features are critical and be prepared to pay for more features.
Maximize Flavor in These Ways
You can just add all the raw ingredients to the pot and let them cook. But, browning ingredients such as beef, poultry, and onions will lend deeper flavor to the food, especially if you deglaze the pan with some of the liquid from the recipe and add it to the slow-cooker. This technique captures those flavorful browned bits, called fond, from the bottom of the skillet so you can add them to your dish.
And, you may need to bump up the seasoning (perhaps up to twice as much, depending on the recipe) because prolonged cooking time tends to dilute flavor. So, one teaspoon of oregano may translate into 1 ½ teaspoons or more.
Don’t add too much liquid; the meat doesn’t have to be totally immersed because the cooking process forces ingredients to release liquid, thereby diluting the seasonings.
Final Tips for Success
Don’t peek! Heat escapes every time you lift the lid and it takes awhile to regain the proper cooking temperature ….which slows down the whole process. It’s best to use a recipe formulated for slow-cookers because all of the factors you need to keep in mind are built into the directions. Enjoy!
Beef Stew in a Slow-Cooker
Reprinted with permission from Gluten-Free 101: The Essential Beginner’s Guide to Easy Gluten-Free Cooking by Carol Fenster (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014)
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 pound lean beef stew meat, cut in [½]-inch cubes
[1/2] teaspoon salt, or to taste
[1/4] teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
1 (14-ounce) can gluten-free low-sodium beef broth
1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes, undrained
4 small red potatoes, scrubbed and quartered
1 small white onion, chopped
2 cups peeled baby carrots
1 tablespoon gluten-free Worcestershire sauce
1[½] tablespoons chopped fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried, or to taste
[1/2] teaspoon sugar
1 bay leaf (optional)
1 small garlic clove, minced
[1/4] cup chopped fresh parsley, for garnish
1] In a medium heavy skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Season the stew meat with salt and pepper, add to the skillet, and cook until all sides are deeply browned, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer the beef to the slow-cooker. Add the beef broth to the skillet and cook, stirring constantly with a heatproof spatula, to scrape all the browned bits from the bottom of the skillet. Add the broth to the slow-cooker.
 Add the tomatoes to the skillet (chop them if they’re too big for your taste) and heat to boiling, then add to the slow-cooker. Add all of the remaining ingredients except for the parsley to the slow-cooker and stir to combine.
 Cover and cook on Low until the vegetables and beef are tender, 8 to 9 hours. For a thicker stew, transfer about [1/2] cup of the cooked potatoes to a small bowl just before serving and mash them thoroughly with a fork; stir back into the stew. Remove the bay leaf and serve hot, garnished with the parsley.
Per serving: 300 calories; 21g protein; 14g total fat; 4g fiber; 24g carbohydrates; 46mg cholesterol; 477mg sodium