Source: Andrew Thomas Lee via Clarkson Potter
You’re Using Your Slow Cooker Wrong
The season of the slow cooker is nigh.
Once relegated to the back of the deepest kitchen cabinet, the inexpensive, no-frills appliance is taking its rightful place as a stalwart of the cold weather home cook. U.S. sales are up 50 percent, from $473 million in 2007 to $712.5 million in 2016, according to data from Euromonitor, as are consumers’ options. Buy a basic two-mode, two-quart slow cooker for less than $20, or choose among an array of $200+ Wi-Fi-controlled, timer-enabled, seven-plus-quart, multitasking machines.
Recipe searches show that people are actually using, or planning to use, their new pots. There are over 20 million slow cooker recipes on Pinterest, making them one of the most popular types of recipes on the content-sharing site, according to a spokeswoman. Interest over time, as measured by Google Trends, has gone from a score of 16 out of 100 in January 2004 to 99 in the same month this year. The recipes show a 143 percent year-over-year increase in saves on Pinterest. The possibilities have never seemed so endless.
The beauty of slow cooking is in removing, not adding, complication. The best recipes are those that require the least amount of work. Simply throw the ingredients in, turn the slow cooker on, walk away, and be done with it for anywhere from one to 24 hours. But just as easily as a cooker can turn a tough piece of meat into a succulent one, with the wrong recipe it can also yield a pile of bland, brown mush instead of the promised warming winter stew.
In The Chef and the Slow Cooker, out Tuesday from Clarkson Potter, the James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and restaurateur Hugh Acheson offers his take. “The beauty of the cooker is that it’s a shortcut that doesn’t sacrifice quality or taste,” he writes in the introduction. It’s “a device that makes life more productive and enjoyable by freeing you up to do other things.”
With recipes from such a decorated foodie, far from the masses of Pinterest, the promise is not just low-effort meals but the impressive, gourmet kind that will lead your dinner guests to exclaim, “You made that in a slow cooker?”
Acheson’s recipes can generally be broken down into two main categories: the standards (short ribs) and the surprises (poached cod). Where Acheson excels is in his use of the slow cooker to offer improvements on, or variations of, the standards that don’t substantially increase prep time or cost—and in techniques most home cooks might not have considered.
A two-hour chickpea-and-eggplant stew (plus 35 minutes of prep time, assuming you ignore Acheson’s call for dried beans and go with the much easier canned version) fits well into a Crock Pot cook’s repertoire. Even without featuring a single particularly rare ingredient, the result is a spicy, complex, and vibrant meal that will not only please on day one but make for hearty lunches all week and even freeze well. The vegetable stock ingredients list doesn’t need to be followed exactly; using an assortment of vegetable ends stored in the freezer is a tried-and-true method, though adding a lemon makes for a nice twist. The technique turns an annoying chore into a painless one.
The short ribs, paired with maple syrup-dosed mashed sweet potatoes, were classic, as the recipe promised, yet elegant. The port wine sauce elevated the dish, making it slightly more complex than the old school version. The dish also lacked the mushiness that makes many slow cooker recipes, while yummy, not particularly photogenic. These ribs had Instagram appeal.
Where Acheson falls flat: Rare, expensive ingredients, such as ground black cardamom in a recipe for apple butter, or exactly 10 dried juniper berries in the braised short ribs, appear to be so indispensable that no substitute is recommended. Nor will certain time-consuming prep work, such as chopping three onions two different ways, ultimately make a noticeable difference in the final product, 12 hours of cooking later. In a recipe for tomatillo salsa verde, a companion to pork tacos, the chef calls for “coarsely chopped” ingredients, only to later have them thrown into a blender, where they will be pulped.
The beer-braised pork tacos, a beloved cuisine among carnivores, were surprisingly complex for a recipe that called for drinking five cans of beer as you wait for the meat to cook. The end result was delectable and enough to feed a small army. Good thing, since a pricey, eight-pound, bone-in pork shoulder is used as the base.
As with other recipes in the book, some ingredients were hard to come by (lard, chipotle peppers in adobo sauce), and again, substitutions weren’t listed. Unsure whether Crisco or butter would suffice as a replacement, the home cook may travel to a half-dozen grocery stores and receive a shaming from just as many store clerks, who wonder why, in the age of clean eating, lard might be necessary.
Those cooking for a family will appreciate the quantities in which Acheson works, but home cooks feeding fewer than a half-dozen mouths, or looking to avoid trays of leftovers, might be disappointed by the lack of halving directions in the book. Reducing the short ribs recipe, for example, seemed pretty simple, as the ingredients were all listed in round numbers (six pounds to three, four sprigs of fresh rosemary to two), while cooking time was a bit of a mystery. The recipe called for a lengthy 12 to 15 hours, and while six hours certainly seemed too short, is the full time necessary for half the meat?
The home cook will need to make such decisions alone. Those with the time, sense of adventure, and deep pockets to hunt for gochugaru, or Korean chile, for their poached cod will probably enjoy cooking with a new spice. Those without can be consoled: You can’t taste it. Same with the suggested garnish of edible flowers.
But poaching cod in leeks, celery, butter, and vermouth produces a delicate flavor and silky texture in just the right amount of time—an hour and 20 minutes—to cook whatever else you decide to serve it with. It takes the slow cooker from an advance-planning-only appliance to part of the weeknight rotation.
And a $20 machine works just fine. No Wi-Fi required.