At the end of a busy day, many of us come home to this question: “What’s for dinner?” You can make this question easy to answer by using a slow cooker to help with family meals.
According to a November 2019 article, “A Brief History of the Crock-Pot,” in the online Smithsonian Magazine by Michelle Delgado, slow cookers have been around for decades. The inventor of the slow cooker, Irwin Naxon, was looking for a way for a family to cook in the summer heat without turning on the oven. Although the patent for the slow cooker was granted in the mid-1930s, the small appliance first gained popularity with the American public in the 1970s, when Kansas City Rival Manufacturing bought the inventor’s company.
The original purpose of a slow cooker may have been to keep the kitchen cool in the summer, but over the years, chefs have found this appliance useful all year round. The winter months are ideal for taking the slow cooker rather than preparing hot soups, stews and casseroles with a few simple steps.
In a 2020 publication, “Slow Cooking Start to Finish,” Siew G. Lee and colleagues at the University of Idaho Extension explain the basics of the slow-cooking process, beginning with defining the critical elements of a slow cooker. Normally, the stove will contain a crock, which is an inner stoneware or ceramic container, a removable tight-fitting lid and an outer heating base made with enclosing heating elements encapsulated in metal. The slow cooker creates heat and steam in the pan, which cooks the food at temperatures between 170 F and 280 F, based on the settings, for the required cooking time. This cooking method produces tender and flavorful foods that are safe to eat when you follow important food safety guidelines.
Tips for food safety
In her 2021 USDA blog post, “Cook Slow to Save Time: Four Important Slow Cooker Food Safety Tips,” Mary Katherine Jeffers describes how to cook food in a slow cooker safely. Her tips include the following:
Wash your hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds and dry them with a disposable paper.
Start with clean table tops, utensils and equipment, and make sure the slow cooker is clean.
Store perishable foods in the refrigerator until you are ready to add them to the slow cooker, as bacteria on foods multiply rapidly at room temperature.
• Thaw food such as meat and poultry up in the refrigerator before putting in the slow cooker because thawed food is cooked evenly. Frozen foods can take too long to thaw during the cooking process, leading to unsafe bacterial growth, which can make you sick.
Add hardy vegetables like potatoes and carrots to the slow cooker first because they cook slower than meat and poultry. Delicate vegetables such as tomatoes and summer squash can be added towards the end of the cooking time so that they do not become overcooked.
• Cut large pieces of meat into smaller pieces before adding it to the slow cooker, making sure your slow cooker is half to two-thirds full to ensure the food is cooked thoroughly.
The USDA also recommends measuring the temperature of foods cooked in a slow cooker before eating them. The FoodSafety.gov website provides the following temperature recommendations:
• 145 F for fresh beef, pork, veal and lamb (steaks, roasts, chops); allow a rest period of three minutes after removing food from the slow cooker.
• 145 F for fish with fins.
160 F for egg dishes and minced meat and meat mixtures, including beef, pork, veal and lamb.
• 165 F for stews and all poultry (chicken, turkey and duck).
Food safety experts, such as the University of Idaho’s Lee and colleagues, recommend that you avoid looking into the slow cooker during the cooking process because removing the lid delays cooking time. In fact, each time you remove the lid, the internal temperature of the stove can drop 10 to 15 degrees, adding an additional 30 minutes of cooking time. Only remove the lid to check if the temperature is finished.
Recipes for many favorite dishes can be converted for use with a slow cooker. Julie Garden-Robinson and Kendra Otto, in a 2021 fact sheet for the North Dakota State University Extension, “Slow Cooker Meals!” explains how to use a straightforward process to convert recipes for use in the slow cooker. Here are a few of their recipes for recipes:
• Reduce fluids by one-third to one-half. This can be done because liquids do not boil away in the slow cooker. However, you do not need to reduce liquids in soup recipes.
• Add pasta at the end of the cooking time. Pasta can also be prepared separately and added just before the dish is served.
• Add milk, cheese and cream one hour before serving.
• Customize recipe times. If the recipe says cook for 15-30 minutes, cook in slow cooker on low for 4-6 hours or on high for 1-1 / 2 to 2 hours. Recipes that require 35-45 minutes should be cooked on low for 6-10 hours or on high for 3-4 hours. Recipes that require conventional cooking time of 50 minutes to 3 hours should be cooked on low for 8-16 hours or on high for 4-6 hours.
• Handle leftovers safely. Refrigerate leftover food from slow cooker meals in shallow containers in the refrigerator, no more than 2 inches deep. Also, do not try to reheat cold leftovers in the slow cooker. Use either the stove, oven or microwave to quickly reheat the food to an internal temperature of 165 F. When the food reaches 165 F, it can be kept warm in a preheated slow cooker set to low or hot for serving.
Use a slow cooker to quickly get an evening meal on the table. This simple beef stew can be cooked in the morning, slowly cooked all day and ready so your family can enjoy dinner as soon as they step in the door.
Slow Cooker beef stew
When preparing this recipe, start with clean countertops and utensils. Wash hands with soap and water. Wash whole fresh produce under cold, running water, gently rub garlic, onion and celery, and scrub potatoes and carrots with a clean vegetable brush. Pre-washed, packaged items do not require additional washing. This recipe provides 6 servings.
- 2 cups unsalted beef broth
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
- 3 carrots, cut into slices
- 3 diced potatoes
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 celery leaf, cut into slices
- 1 pound stewed meat, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1/4 cup flour
- Grinded black pepper to taste
- Herbs on request: dried bay leaf, basil, oregano, etc.
Add broth, garlic, carrots, potatoes, onions and celery to the slow cooker. Put the meat in the slow cooker on top of vegetables. Mix flour and pepper in a medium bowl, sprinkle over the meat, stir to coat. Add dried herbs. Cover and cook on low for 8 to 10 hours or high for 4-6 hours.
Stir the casserole thoroughly before serving. If using a bay leaf, remove bay leaves and discard before serving.
Nutrition information for 1 serving: calories 260, fat 11 g, saturated fat 4 g, carbohydrate 22 g, protein 19 g, sodium 80 mg, fiber 3 g and calcium 36 mg.