When I was in culinary school we learned a lot about how to develop flavors. These methods usually involved high-end ingredients, a lot of prep time and sometimes following complicated procedures to get good results. Little did I know a much easier path to culinary greatness was sitting in my pantry the whole time I was sweating in a restaurant kitchen. That would be my slow cooker.
The humble slow cooker can turn out some pretty mean food if you know a few tricks. Not to mention it's convenient, relatively inexpensive and very easy to use. (Dinner practically cooks itself!) Take EatingWell's recipe for Flemish Beef Stew (see full recipe below), for example. In culinary school I would have been meticulously trimming an expensive cut of meat, tournéing vegetables and bathing them all in veal stock.
Don't Miss: 12 Tips to Think Like a Chef
But in this version, I'm simply searing bottom round, chopping my veggies and stewing it all together in beer in my slow cooker. The results are just as delicious. Here are some tricks to getting restaurant-worthy results with your slow cooker:
Tip 1. Maximize Flavor On Your Stove First
Dumping ingredients into your slow cooker and walking away may be convenient, but it's usually not the best way to get the most flavor out of your food. You need the caramelized bits you get from searing your meat and vegetables on the stovetop first. Since you don't need to worry about cooking things through (they'll finish in your slow cooker) the process doesn't take long. Just heat up a small amount of oil and give your meat and vegetables a sear before adding them to the slow cooker. Then "deglaze" the pan with liquid to get all the brown, caramelized bits from the sauté pan and pour the flavorful liquid into the slow cooker.
Tip 2. Pick the Right Meat
When it comes to your slow cooker, not all meat is created equal. To get richly flavored, melt-in-your-mouth-tender meat, you need to choose tougher cuts that can benefit from hours of cooking. Cuts like chuck, brisket and bottom round are all good choices--full of flavor and, another perk, relatively cheap too. As your stew cooks, the collagen inside the meat breaks down, making it tender and delicious.
Recipes to Try: Cheap Recipes for a Crock Pot
Tip 3. Pick the Right Vegetables
Just like meat, there are some vegetables that are born to go into the slow cooker. When you're picking vegetables for your stew, think hearty: root vegetables like potatoes, turnips and rutabaga are all good options--they can take the prolonged cooking and still hold their shape. Mushrooms also hold up well. More tender vegetables like snow peas, spinach and other leafy greens can certainly have their place in the slow cooker, but you may want to add them later; they can disintegrate if they spend too much time cooking.
Recipes to Try: Fall Recipes for a Crock Pot
Tip 4. Cut Your Ingredients to Size
Bigger is better when it comes to the size of vegetables that will be going into your slow cooker. For vegetables where holding their shape is important (like chunks of potato or carrots), a good rule of thumb would be pieces no smaller than 1 inch. By cutting them a little larger, they remain toothsome, not mushy when you cook them. For vegetables that contribute flavor more than texture (like onions and garlic), cutting them smaller is fine. Meat for beef stew should also be cut into 1-inch pieces. Cut the pieces too large and they may not come out as tender.
Flemish Beef Stew
Active time: 45 minutes | Total: 8 3/4 hours
To make ahead: Prepare through Step 3; cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day before cooking.
For this slow-cooker interpretation of Carbonnades Flamandes, a Flemish stew made with beer, if you can't find a brown ale, use a strong, dark beer (but not a stout).
4 teaspoons canola oil, divided
2 pounds bottom round, trimmed of fat and cut into 1-inch cubes
3/4 pound sliced cremini or white button mushrooms
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups brown ale or dark beer
4 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 large onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 bay leaf
1. Heat 2 teaspoons oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add half the beef and brown on all sides, turning frequently, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a 6-quart slow cooker. Drain any fat from the pan. Add the remaining 2 teaspoons oil and brown the remaining beef. Transfer to the slow cooker.
2. Return the skillet to medium heat, add mushrooms and cook, stirring often, until they give off their liquid and it evaporates to a glaze, 5 to 7 minutes. Sprinkle flour over the mushrooms; cook undisturbed for 10 seconds, then stir and cook for 30 seconds more. Pour in ale (or beer); bring to a boil, whisking constantly to reduce foaming, until thickened and bubbling, about 3 minutes. Transfer the mushroom mixture to the slow cooker.
3. Add carrots, onion, garlic, mustard, caraway seeds, salt, pepper and bay leaf to the slow cooker. Stir to combine.
4. Put the lid on and cook on low until the beef is very tender, about 8 hours. Discard the bay leaf before serving.
Makes 8 servings.
Per serving: 272 calories; 9 g fat (3 g sat, 4 g mono); 72 mg cholesterol; 16 g carbohydrate; 0 g added sugars; 27 g protein; 2 g fiber; 359 mg sodium; 645 mg potassium.
Nutrition bonus: Vitamin A (110% daily value), Zinc (33% dv), Potassium (17% dv), Iron (15% dv).
What are your tricks for better slow-cooker meals?
By Hilary Meyer
EatingWell Associate Food Editor Hilary Meyer spends much of her time in the EatingWell Test Kitchen, testing and developing healthy recipes. She is a graduate of New England Culinary Institute.
Related Links from EatingWell: