Throughout my cooking life, I have had a love/hate relationship with slow cookers. Even with the help of two slow cooker cookbooks, I have never been bowled over by anything that comes out of a slow cooker. It seems to me that they are best used for keeping soups, stews, and chilis hot on a buffet.
I think my biggest problem with Crock-Pots (and I use that term to mean all plug-in slow cookers) is that when cooking meats, to get the best results, you have to brown it in a separate pan first then transfer it to the Crock-Pot and add the remaining ingredients. Those looking for a mess-free short cut to cooking (me) now have to deal with a crusted pan and a splattered stove, and that totally defeats the purpose for me.
Two recipes that I do think work really well in a slow cooker are chicken breasts that are cooked with a little water and then shredded to use in tacos or enchiladas (they do stay moist this way), and chile verde also made with chicken.
I have owned slow-cookers and always ended up giving them away. Here's what I do instead.
I own several heavy oven-proof pots, my favorite being a cast iron Dutch oven, and I use these for slow cooking right in my oven. If you have one or an enameled cast iron Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid (popular brands being Staub, Le Creuset, Lodge, and even Martha Stewart and Rachael Ray have them), then I contend that you don't need a Crock-Pot.
It helps that I work from home, so I can stick a stew or a braise in my Dutch oven, put it in the oven then leave it for 2-3-4 hours without thinking about it, but even if you don't work from home there is one way around this: do your slow cooking on the weekend for the meals you plan to serve during the week. Then all you have to do it reheat it.
So how do you do it? Here are some recipes (or not even, because I'm convinced you can dump almost anything into a Dutch oven, slow cook it, and it will taste good) that have worked for me. For all of these techniques, preheat your oven to 375 degrees then reduce heat to 300 degrees once you put your pot in the oven unless otherwise noted.
- Brown chunks of salt and peppered pork shoulder (or tenderloin) in Dutch oven with onions and garlic. Dump in a can of garbanzo beans (drained), a whole orange cut in half, and a large can of red of green enchilada sauce (Las Palmas) for a delicious pork stew. At 2 hours the pork will be tender and you can remove the oranges halves), and 3 hours it will be fall-apart tender. Don't cook for longer than 3 hours. Serve over rice.
- Do the same as above but replace the enchilada sauce with a bottle of good amber-colored or dark beer as long as it's not too bitter.
- Make my Italian-style Braised Oxtails. Great over papardelle/wide pasta noodles or cheesy polenta or grits. (This is hands-down, my favorite "fake slow cooker" recipe.)
- Easy Chile Verde Chicken: Brown 5 lbs. of chicken thighs in large Dutch oven with onions and garlic. Add in one large can of green enchilada sauce (Las Palmas), a cup of chicken stock, two ripped up corn (it must be corn) tortillas, and a small can of diced green chilis. Don't salt until the end because the enchilada sauce and stock may already provide enough saltiness. Cook for three hours or if you want it done sooner, turn oven down to 325 and cook for two hours. Serve with rice and cut limes for squeezing. (Here's a "cheatin'" version.)
- For easy chicken or pork mole, follow the directions on the label of a jar of Dona Maria mole (check the Mexican food section of your local well-stocked grocer) and just cook everything in a Dutch oven in the oven instead of on the stove. Luscious!
- For veggie chili, saute one whole chopped onion and 3-5 cloves of garlic in 3-4 glugs of olive oil until onions are soft. Dump in one drained can each: pinto beans, black beans, garbanzo beans, chili beans (no need to drain), cannellini beans, 2 tbsps cumin, 1 tbsp unsweetened cocoa, (or chili powder) one bay leaf, and a large can of whole or diced tomatoes. Cook for 2-3 hours. Check seasonings before serving.
- Place chicken things and legs in Dutch oven add in 2-3 tbsps of Thai green curry paste dissolved in one can of coconut milk (Lite okay),one cup of chicken stock, and one stalk of lemon grass broken into 3-4 inch pieces (or you can add lime leaves or even a halved Key lime). During last hour of cooking add in cut green beans and/or small Thai eggplants and a generous handful of Thai or regular basil (remove lime if using). Check seasonings. Serve over jasmine rice with a condiment of sliced Thai chilis in fish sauce on the side.
More easily adaptable CityMama recipes: