You've probably heard about slow cookers, and how they can save you time and money in the kitchen. Most people use them for slowly-simmered soups and stews -- but did you know you can make cheesecake in your slow cooker? What about barbecue ribs? Let's talk about some unexpected, delicious meals that are surprisingly slow cooker-friendly.
Why Slow Cookers Are Amazing
A slow cooker is an incredible kitchen investment. They can save you time by cooking dinner while you're at the office. They can save you money by turning cheap cuts of meat into delicious roasts or huge pots of chilli. A slow cooker can turn your bones and old veggies into stock or broth in a few hours, saving you even more money and adding flavour to anything else you make.
The money you'll spend on a slow cooker -- even an expensive one with timers and multiple power settings -- will easily come back to you in time, energy and money saved Yet even the staunchest supporters of slow cookers associate them mostly with soups, stews, roasts and chilli. They're brilliant for those things, but there's so much more. In this guide, we'll look at some other interesting things you can make with your slow cooker -- things you may never have thought that a slow cooker was capable of producing. Let's get started.
Most people don't realise you can use a slow cooker to cook a whole chicken, but there's nothing stopping you. In fact, if you have a slow cooker big enough, roasting a whole chicken is easier than using the oven, and results in delicious, spice-rubbed, slow-cooked, juicy meat.
America's Test Kitchen has a full recipe here, but here's the gist: rub down the chicken with the spice mixture of your choice, over and under the skin, and then pop the chicken into the slow cooker on low, breast-side down. That's the important part: cooking the chicken upside down lets the fat render from the underside of the and then drip down over the breast and white meat, making sure the end result is deliciously juicy. Four to five hours later you'll have a delicious meal, ready to serve.
Congee (AKA Rice Porridge)
Congee, also known as Jook or Juk, is a simple rice porridge made with water and rice (and a few other ingredients). The beauty of congee is that it's so simple to make, and cooking it in a slow cooker gives you the flexibility to start it at night and have a hot pot in the morning, or start in the morning before you go to work and have plenty waiting for you when you get home. It's comfort food-y, and because it's a pretty blank slate, it can appeal to any palate, and even soothe upset stomachs if you're not in the mood for strong flavours.
Making congee is easy, but if you asked a dozen different people who love it how they make it, they'd probably have a dozen different methods. I've found that this recipe from CHOW is a good start if you want something that's hearty and meant to be a flavourful dinner. It has ginger, chicken, and some herbs and spices to really make it special.
Of course, you don't have to go all out like this -- the first time I made crock pot congee, it was much simpler, along the lines of this recipe from Foodie with Family. Ultimately, all you need is about 10 cups of liquid to a cup or so of rice, and a nice long cooking time (7-8 hours on low) to let the porridge thicken up. From there you can add whatever sauces and spices you want on top or mixed in. I have a good friend who loves plain congee with a little soy sauce on top. I toss in some shredded leftover chicken or ham and add some spring onions on top. The sky's the limit -- congee can take on any flavour you give it.
Desserts aren't something you'd expect be made in a slow cooker, but they're actually not difficult at all. The even, relatively low heating of a slow cooker makes for a moist and creamy cheesecake that you can cook for a while without worrying about it drying out. Plus, it takes much less effort than making one in the oven would. The recipe that really got us thinking about this is the one in America's Test Kitchen's Slow Cooker Revolution: Volume 2 (where some of the other recipes we've highlighted here can also be found.) There's an amazing recipe inside for chocolate cheesecake that I've tried, works as advertised, and tastes fantastic.
If you don't have the book, this recipe from Mummy's Kitchen is a great one start with. It cooks in a few hours, and uses ingredients you may already have. If you want an alternative, check out this sour cream cheesecake from Food and Wine that will step things up a little bit. It will take a little practising to get quite right, but we can think of worse things to do than practise making delicious cheesecake.
We mentioned this one a while back, and it works just as advertised. The key to a really good carrot cake is to make sure it has a deliciously moist crumb; and while that can be difficult (and necessitates a lot of oil or butter in the process), cooking a carrot cake in a slow cooker doesn't require quite so much time, effort, and butter or oil (not that health should really be a consideration when you're baking a cake, right?)
The folks at America's Test Kitchen managed to make a recipe that's just as tasty, just as moist as an oven-baked cake, and is a bit easier to prepare, thanks to the slow, gentle cooking process you get from a crock pot. Head over here for the full recipe.
Enchiladas And Tacos
Making a roast in a slow cooker isn't difficult. It can turn those big cuts of meat into delicious, tender roasts that will feed your family for a week, with plenty of leftovers to save afterwards. Once you've mastered the slow cooker roast, take it up a notch and turn it into pulled pork or shredded beef tacos or enchiladas.
It might sound tricky, but it's easy enough to do on a weeknight. Just pop in your pork butt roast or beef round into the slow cooker before you leave for work, season with salt and pepper (and other spices if you like), cover, and cook on low for about nine to 10 hours on low. By the time you get home, the pork will have rendered a good bit of its own fat and juices, and it should be pretty much cooked. Take it out and set it to the side, then shred it with a pair of forks. You want bite-size chunks of meat that you'd want in a taco or filling a tortilla.
Then make your enchilada or taco sauce. You can grab a packet of taco sauce mix from the supermarket, or you can mix your own spices (I suggest cumin or garlic) together with a little water or stock, tomato paste and tomato sauce, and any herbs you want. Toss the shredded meat with it, and serve it up in some tortillas. Top your tacos with your favourite toppings (guacamole, sour cream, you know, the works), and you're ready to eat. If you prefer enchiladas, fill your tortillas with the meat and some cheese, then put them back into the slow cooker with your sauce and let them come up to temperature, then serve. Check out this Food Network recipe, this recipe from Gimme Some Oven, or this black bean enchilada recipe from The Kitchn for inspiration.
I love a good rack of barbecued ribs, and while cooking them on the grill is often the best way to go, you can stay warm in your house and use the slow cooker instead. It's pretty surprising, but the slow, even heat of a slow cooker means you'll get evenly-cooked, moist, and tender ribs without having to do a lot of flipping, brushing, or mopping -- it will just take a little longer.
This is another one we have to give credit to America's Test Kitchen for; they came up with the idea, and it's probably easier than trying to cook the same racks of ribs in the oven. You'll need a pair of St. Louis style spareribs, some spices, and your favourite barbecue sauce. Rub the ribs with your favourite spices, then pop them upright, meaty-sides out, in the slow cooker on low for about 4-5 hours. That's all there is to it.
The recipe suggests you take them out, brush them down with barbecue sauce, and then finish them in the oven under the grill to get that sauce nice and sticky, but we'll leave that part up to you. The best part of this recipe is it's great for a weekend or day at home where you don't feel like cooking, but you can give yourself about 15 minutes of free time to prep a dinner that will be ready later in the day. Head here for the full recipe.
"Baked" Potatoes And Other Vegetables
We've talked about making baked potatoes in a slow cooker, but the method doesn't just apply to potatoes. Sweet potatoes, beetroot, even artichokes can all be "roasted" or steamed in a crock pot using a similar method. For basic baked potatoes, wash and dry your potatoes, wrap them in aluminium foil, and put them right into the slow cooker for about eight to nine hours on low. I like to moisten the skin of mine with a little oil or cooking spray a little bit before I put them in the aluminium foil so some spices will stick to the skin while they cook inside the foil. When they come out, they'll be hot, fluffy and ready to top with whatever you like.
If you're not into potatoes, try artichokes. Trim off the stems and the top of the leaves, toss them with a little oil, and put them stem-side up into the slow cooker in a little water (about a half-cup). Let them braise for about eight to nine hours on low, or until a sharp knife into the stem end goes in and comes out with no resistance. Serve with a little melted butter and freshly minced garlic for dipping, and you're good to go.
You can take the same approach with beetroot. Just clean them, spray them with cooking spray (or rub them down with a little oil) and season with salt and pepper. Wrap them in foil, pop them in the slow cooker with a little water (again, about a half-cup), and let them cook about eight to nine hours on low. When they come out, remove the skins, slice them up, season again, and serve.
All in all, "braising" or "roasting" veggies in a slow cooker is just as easy -- if not easier -- than meats and desserts. You have the option to cook slowly using water to transfer and maintain heat, or use the water to add a little gentle steam over long periods of time, turning what's normally difficult to cook or tough vegetables into soft and fluffy ones by the end of the cooking time.
Creme Brulee is usually associated with delicate cooking techniques, but this method is easy and uses some of the principles behind the dishes we've mentioned already. You'll make the creme brulee as you would for the oven: mix egg yolks, vanilla, cream, and sugar, and pour the mixture into heat-resistant ramekins. Put them in the bottom of your slow cooker and add just enough water to get up around the sides of the ramekins. Cook about two to three hours on high, and then remove them and let them cool. The custard you made should be set but not too firm. When they're cooled, let them chill in the fridge for a few hours. Then, if you have a cooking torch, sprinkle some sugar over the top and brown the sugar with the cooking torch.
It's all fairly simple for such an elegant dessert, and the slow cooker makes it even easier. Serious Eats has a great recipe here, as does Stephanie Dea's Year of Slow Cooking. Either one will serve you well, and impress your family (or your guests, if you plan to do this for a small gathering!)
More Reading And Additional Resources
The dishes we've mentioned here are just the tip of the iceberg. As we mentioned, America's Test Kitchen's two books, Slow Cooker Revolution and Slow Cooker Revolution: Volume 2 were the source for some of these recipes, and contain hundreds more that are worth considering if you really want to get into crock pot cooking. Some of the recipes are the standard soups, stews, chillis and hearty dinners that you probably already associated with the slow cooker, but there are plenty of surprises too.
Beyond that, A Year of Slow Cooking has recipes for the slow cooker every week that range from glazed ham to inedibles like crock pot candles and soap. Also, don't forget that we've shared a good number of slow cooker tips of our own, including a quick way to bake bread, and even how to hack your slow cooker into a temperature-controlled sous vide water oven. Don't leave your slow cooker in the cupboard -- it can save you a lot of time and money.