It’s officially winter when warm meals mean warm bellies, plus the school year means extra-curricular activities for many of the older kids and moms (or dads) running all over the city. But don’t let that mean that you have to hit the drive-thru! By planning ahead and utilizing tools like a slow cooker or an Instant Pot, you can still get a healthy, well-balanced meal on the table at dinnertime.
For many years, I eschewed my slow cooker, relating it to mushy, overcooked meals or meats floating in some unidentifiable creamy, sodium-filled sauce. But once I invested in some cookbooks specific to this method of cooking and learned a bit more about this workhorse appliance, I learned that I could teach that slow cooker who was boss. It can truly be a godsend when you work all day and come home to hungry kids or you have time to prepare a meal early in the afternoon, but then run kids around for hours after school and are able to come home to a hot meal and a house that hasn’t burned down. However, not done right, you can certainly end up with a mushy, liquidy meal or tough, dry meat. Here’s a few tips to avoid those problems as well as a few of our favorite recipes and a few websites that are my go-tos for recipes.
The Right Meat
Always start with the correct cut of meat. Since you’re cooking low and slow, fattier cuts work best. If the meat comes with skin or a a fat cap, leave it on to prevent it from drying. It can be removed after cooking. Of course, you can use leaner cuts like skinless breasts and tenderloins, but you’ll need to be cautious. Add a little extra liquid and don’t overcook or you’ll end up with stringy meat.
Using Ingredients Appropriately
Remember that the heat source is on the bottom. So layer accordingly, and don’t add quicker cooking, more tender things until the last 30 minutes or so, or you’ll end up with mush. In addition to that, some foods don’t respond well to slow cooking at all, so add them the last 30 minutes as well (peppers + pepper sauces will become bitter, spicy curries don’t fare well). Also be sure to cut the pieces of whatever you’re placing in there (meats, veggies) in relatively the same size so that they cook evenly.
Keep the darn lid closed. Just opening the lid once can result in adding 30 minutes of coking time. So unless a recipe calls for stirring it, DON’T PEEK. Just don’t do it.
Brown Your Meats
Taking time to do this extra step goes a long way. Those few minutes it takes to brown the meat will give your dish a heartier, more complex flavor.
Not sure what temperature to cook at? Stick with low. Unless you’re cooking dried legumes or a large chunk of beef or pork or a sauce, most foods can’t withstand 8 hours of cooking time, much less high temps. Meats like chicken will begin to dry out and get stringy. This is where a programmable slow cooker with auto-shut off comes in handy.
There are lots of great cooks out there who have created or adapted recipes specifically for slow cooking. Some of my go-to sites for do-not-disappoint slow cooker meals include Lexi’s Clean Kitchen, Skinny Taste, and Against All Grain.
But specifically, here’s one of our all-time favorite recipes.
Crockpot Turkey Chili
1 lb. ground turkey
1 cup onion, diced
1 red pepper, diced
1 yellow pepper, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup frozen corn kernels
1 28oz can diced tomatoes with juice
3 cups stock (i have used both chicken and vegetable)
1.5 TB Mexican chili powder
2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1.5 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/8 tsp ground coriander
1/8 tsp cinnamon
2 bay leaves
1 can each: great northern beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, black beans, navy beans, all drained and rinsed
In sauté pan, brown meat and onions with seasonings. Add garlic in last minute. Place in crock. In same sauce pan, sauté your peppers and set aside. To the crock, add tomatoes, stock, corn and bay leaves. Set on low for 6 hours. In the last 30 minutes of cooking, add beans and peppers. Adjust seasonings.
Suggested toppings: sour cream, shredded cheese, sliced avocado, diced onion or chopped scallions
(adapted from an Emeril Lagasse recipe)