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Crockpot Basics

05/18/2010

I do a lot of crockpot cooking. Right now, most of my crockpot experiments come from one of two Williams-Sonoma cookbooks. Food Made Fast: Slow Cooker is the smaller, simpler of the two. The other, Essentials of Slow Cooking, has more recipes and also offers both crockpot and stovetop directions for all. There’s a little bit of overlap between the two books, but not much. And even the repeated recipes aren’t identical. For example, the two Chicken Tagine recipes are quite different but both good.

I usually follow the directions closely the first time I try any recipe and then make adjustments over subsequent attempts until I get a final version we like. That isn’t to say that the recipes aren’t good as-is, but everyone has their personal preferences. As noted in the Vietnamese Curry post, we found that recipe pretty spicy. My husband can’t take the hot stuff, so I’m cautious with pepper in any form.

Here are a few tips for successful crockpot cooking, whatever your recipe source:

1) Brown the meat. Even if the recipe doesn’t call for it, I always brown the meat and deglaze the pan to release all of the yummy seasoned bits. This adds flavor to the meal.

2) Sautée your onions. The reasoning here is a little different than for the meat, and the degree to which you pre-cook your onions can vary. First, if you want rich, caramelized onions, you should thoroughly brown them before adding them to the crockpot. This is a key variable for recipes like Cuban Chicken (WS: FMF), in which onions are one of only two main ingredients. If you don’t pre-cook the onions, they can sometimes have too much of an edge. Second, your onion results depend greatly on whether you cook your meal “high and fast” or “low and slow.” If you don’t have much time and go for the fast cook, your onions may not seem as done as you’d like. Just sautéeing them until golden will cut the harshness down. This is all a matter of taste, so experiment with your onions, and you’ll find a browning level that you like for each recipe.

3) Keep it low and slow. Most crockpot recipes will give you two cooking times, one for high heat and one for low. Unless you don’t have time for the longer method, always go for the low and slow. It just tastes better when you do. Especially if you’re using white meat chicken, which can dry out easily on high.

4) Dark meat works best. Speaking of chicken, dark meat such as thighs works much better for most recipes than white meat. This obviously doesn’t apply to whole-bird recipes, for which you’d include everything. But for most recipes that call for either thighs or breasts, you’ll get a tastier meal without drying if you use thighs. We’re also a skinless-meat household, and skin does make a difference. Without it, dark meat is fatty enough not to dry out, whereas skinless chicken breast doesn’t always fare so well. But independent of the dryness factor, white meat also doesn’t absorb as much flavor, so the overall meal results always seem less cohesive to me. Dark meat adds more flavor to the stock, and it’s also less expensive, which is a bonus.

5) How to scale down a recipe. Most of the recipes I use are portioned for a 6-quart crockpot. Unless I’m cooking for a group, I don’t typically make that much. I usually scale down the ingredients to fit in a 1.5-quart, two-person pot. This can be tricky. My general rules on scaling are to reduce the quantities on anything that takes up physical space, such as meat, veggies, and liquids. I don’t usually cut back on spices, including onions and garlic (though I do lower quantities of pepper in any form). If a 6-quart recipe calls for an onion, for example, I don’t cut back to a half or quarter of one. I just use the whole onion. This method seems to work. You want to retain the taste of your recipe but reduce the volume.

6) Don’t peek! OK, I do. But not often. Lifting the lid is like opening the oven during baking. Don’t do it unless you have to. I only open the pot when it’s required to add ingredients, stir the food, or check for doneness.

7) You CAN overcook things in a crockpot. Note previous posted lament about disintegrated potatoes. If you’re cooking low and slow, potatoes won’t survive until the end. Ditto butternut squash. Carrots and parsnips do pretty well, and summer squashes seem to hold up in ratatouille without completely falling apart (probably because the skin remains on, unlike butternut, which is peeled). Any kind of potato should be added a bit later in the cooking time. I’d say if your cooking time is eight hours, wait two hours before adding the potatoes.

8) Buying tips: If you don’t have a crockpot yet but plan to buy one, I highly recommend looking for one that has a “Keep Warm” setting on the dial. Once the food is perfect, you don’t want to keep cooking it if your serving schedule is somehow delayed, or if the pot is sitting for hours at a buffet. Also, the shape of the crockpot affects how much you can cook in it. Crockpots come in both taller, columnar shaped versions and low-and-long roast-friendly ovals. I have a 2-quart crockpot in each of these shapes. Despite their having the same listed capacity, in practice the long oval pot seems bigger. This can be a good thing when I want to cook a larger meal or a whole bird, but for just two people it’s often too large, and I wind up using the vertical pot instead.

I’m sure there are some other pointers I’ve forgotten, but these are a start.

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From → Crockpot, Food

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