By Lauren Greutman, clarkhoward.com
The crockpot: God’s gift to moms, dads, working people, grandparents… basically anyone who wants to save time. So here’s my cooking background: wannabe foodie. (Just a note, Crock-Pot is a brand, but we’re using “crockpot” here to refer to any type of slow cooker.)
I like to cook.
And in the past, I might have looked down on the crockpot. I’d always insist on doing things the long way because it was the best way. Well, turns out busy moms don’t have time for the long way. And for those who aren’t parents – it’s nice to just be able to come home from work and have dinner already done.
So I’ve made it my mission while preparing these last 2 Aldi meal plans to challenge what I thought of the crockpot. Maybe you really can make amazing food doing it the “easy way.”
Really, 100 days straight. I might have missed a few here and there, but for the most part… pretty much straight through. Some days, I had to have two going at once. When creating recipes, I usually had to make it two or three times to get it right.
Through trial and error, here’s what I’ve learned:
1. You do not need to thaw everything before you start cooking.
You read that right. I do realize that the USDA disagrees with me. And I also understand the USDA’s reasoning. When you place a piece of meat in the slow cooker, for the first hour or two, it’s really just thawing from the outside in. During this process, the center of the meat might be at the danger zone (between 70 and 117 F) where bacteria grows very easily.
But here’s the thing about the USDA, they sometimes make very broad blanket recommendations to cover all circumstances. And I get it… their recommendations have to apply to everyone, regardless of cooking knowledge or experience.
But here’s where I differ: 90%+ of the meals I make in the crockpot will either be shredded or fall apart. So the meat won’t be sitting in that “danger zone” very long. And guess what happens once the meat reaches 130 F? It starts to die. Not instantaneously, but if the meat sustains 140 F for just a half hour, 99.99999% of all bacteria dies. Once it reaches 165 F, bacteria practically dies instantaneously.
Good enough for me. So even if some bacteria started to grow, it will die in shot order. So just be smart, make sure it cooks long enough, and break it apart after it’s been cooking for a little while and you’ll be fine. Use a meat thermometer if you want to feel more safe.
Here’s what I do:
- If it’s a large piece of meat that will remain whole while it is cooked, I will always thaw it ahead of time (See #15 for my tip on thawing). Is it safer, and it will cook more easily and consistently. For example, I would never place a whole frozen chicken in the slow cooker. And for pork loin, if it is to stay in one piece while cooking, I will always thaw it first.
- If it’s chicken breast, you’re fine. They’re small and will cook quickly even from frozen. Just make sure to break them apart from each other if you placed them in as one large mass of frozen-together chicken breasts.
- If it’s a large piece of meat that will be shredded (like Korean Pork Tacos) or beef that will fall into pieces as it cooks (Roadhouse Pot Roast), I’ll just put it in frozen. For a large piece of pork, I will slice it in half after it’s been cooking for about an hour. This reduces the time that the middle of the meat might be sitting in the danger zone and also helps it to cook faster and more evenly.
2. You don’t need to sear anything ahead of time.
I’ve seen so many slow cooker recipes with like six steps listed before actually doing anything with the slow cooker. Many of these tell you to sear the meat in oil before placing in the slow cooker.
Fine. I don’t see anything wrong with it. And it probably is slightly better.
But you don’t need to do it. Searing the meat and getting that little bit of brown crust (called the Maillard reaction) definitely will have some AWESOME benefits with food – especially meats and bread. But I just don’t think it makes much of a difference in the slow cooker.
Any extra “depth of flavor” just seems to just get lost in all of the other flavors and textures that develop while the the food is slowly cooking. I’ve tried some recipes both ways – searing before placing in the slow cooker vs. just tossing it in raw. I might just have an underdeveloped palette, but I couldn’t taste much of a difference.
Save your time. Don’t sear.
5. You can thaw, freeze and refreeze. Just be smart.
Before you tell me that I’m crazy for even suggesting such a thing, did you know that the USDA actually agrees with me on this one (unlike #1)?
Although there could be a slight loss of moisture or “quality”, thawing and then freezing meat again to use at a later time is perfectly safe. I’ve done this many times and actually found no loss of quality either – the meat always seems to turn out just fine. This is probably because the meat still remains pretty cold, and I never leave it thawed for very long.
However – I don’t usually do this. Not because of safety concerns – it’s simply faster and easier to buy meat unfrozen if it’s to be used in a freezer meal. It eliminates the thawing step.
6. When placing food in the crockpot, generally follow this order of operations:
- Other non-liquid ingredients
*see #7 for exceptions.
This seems to work well for a few reasons:
- First, it ensures that the meat is completely covered in liquid. This is very important in crockpot meals.
- Secondly, the spices will end up flavoring the meal evenly.
If you follow this order, you generally won’t have to mix of stir anything ahead of time.
If you are placing food in a freezer bag to cook at a later time, this doesn’t really matter too much since the ingredients probably mixed pretty well while in the bag. I simply try to get the meat on the bottom of the slow cooker
However, I have found exceptions to this. If it’s a soup, or a very ‘liquidy’ meal, it isn’t necessary. And as with my Slow Cooker Chicken Parmesan recipe, there may be a reason to place the meat on top of the sauce.
Also – I make an exception for potatoes and onions…
7. Potatoes and onions – put them on the bottom.
Usually, it’s most important for the meat to cook in liquid. But have you ever cooked cubed potatoes in the slow cooker? Or sliced onions? The ones kicking around on top never quite get cooked all the way. So I’ve found that it’s more important for potatoes and onions to cook in liquid.
Like most people, I prefer my potatoes and onions to be soft – not crunchy. The only way to accomplish this every time is to place them in the bottom, below the meat.
Speaking of potatoes…
8. You can freeze potatoes.
I don’t mean freezing whole potatoes to cook at a later time. I’ve never tried that and probably never will.
I’m referring to chopped or cubed potatoes as part of a slow cooker meal to be frozen prior to cooking. I have been hesitant to do this in the past, but every time I’ve done it, it seems to work out ok.
They get a little discolored, and the texture seems soft and strange as they thaw. But once they’re cooked, the texture and flavor are fine. I’m not sure if this is true with all potatoes; I’ve tried it with Russet potatoes, but not other varieties.
9. Chicken works best when cooked for 4 hours on high.
I simply haven’t found a reason to cook chicken longer than 4 hours, or at a temperature lower than high. After 4 hours on high, it will both shred easily and also stay together well, depending on the meal you are making.
That’s not to say that you couldn’t cook it longer. For example, if you are out of the house for 8 or 9 hours at your job, you don’t have a choice but to cook it on low for a long time. It will turn out just fine. It just might be a little more “fall-aparty” than you might want.
Maybe I should have renamed #9 to be “There’s no benefit to cooking chicken past 4 hours on a setting lower than high.”
3. You don’t need to mix anything ahead of time.
Again, so many slow cooker recipes will tell you to mix the spices and wet ingredients together and then pour in the slow cooker with the other ingredients. Save your time. Don’t do it.
It just doesn’t matter. Instead, after the food has been cooking for a couple hours (or even if it has fully cooked) take the lid off and give it a good stir. When you are cooking food in liquid, the flavors and spices get to where they need to go.
A couple notes:
- Meatloaf needs to be mixed well before placing in the slow cooker (for obvious reasons).
- Make sure not to put the spices in last (see number 6). If the spices are perched on the very top of the ingredients, like an island surrounded by the other wet and dry ingredients, they aren’t gonna do much to flavor your food.
4. The potato masher is amazing.
So much time and effort wasted. I can never get those precious minutes and energy back. If I only knew…
When shredding chicken (and sometimes pork), stop using forks. Use a potato masher instead, and you will soon wonder why you hadn’t thought of this yourself. I can’t take credit for the idea- someone had to show me “the way”.
But seriously, for recipes like Honey Garlic Chicken, or Chicken Tacos, it makes life much easier.
It can work okay for pork sometimes. But pork is a little tougher than chicken in the slow cooker. If it’s been cooking for a really long time you might have good luck with this method.
You can also use your Kitchen Aid mixer to shred chicken in under 30 seconds, too.