The Crockpot. God's gift to moms, dads, working people, grandparents… basically anyone who wants to save time and money.
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. Somedays, I had to have 2 going at once. When creating recipes, I usually had to make it 2 or 3 times to get it right.
Through trial and error, here's what I've learned:
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:
I've seen so many slow cooker recipes with like 6 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.
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 slowcooker (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.
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”.
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.
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.
*see number 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…
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…
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.
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.”
Beef and chicken are very different from each other, both in color and how they cook. In the slow cooker, chicken cooks very quickly – especially chicken breasts. But have you noticed how much longer it takes beef to be done?
And by “done”, I mean tender and edible. A beef roast will be “done” after cooking on high after 4 hours, but you better be ready to chew for a LONG time – because that meat is gonna be like leather.
The cuts of beef suitable for the slow cooker have a lot more collagen than chicken breast. Collagen is rubbery and makes the meat really tough. If you cook it too hot and fast, it will only tighten up even more. But if you cook it “low and slow”, it will liquify and also lubricate the cooked meat fibers.
This is why a chuck roast cooking for 8 or 10 hours on low will fall apart with a fork. Speaking of chuck roast…
This tough cut of beef which comes for the shoulder of the cow is PERFECT for slow cooking. Here's why:
1.) It's cheap. Beef prices have gotten out of control, but you can still get a chuck roast for $4.99 a pound.
2.) It is the perfect size and shape. A chuck roast will usually be between 2 and 3.5 lbs., and seems to be the perfect shape to sit perfectly in the bottom of your slow cooker. So you can usuaully get the whole roast to sit and cook evenly in liquid.
3.) It is DELICIOUS. The chuck roast might be the most flavorful and rich cut of meat anywhere. Even if you cook it with just salt and pepper, it has enough flavor on it's own to be great. I almost feel as if the spices and ingredients in a chuck roast recipe are there to simply add to the flavor that is already present within the meat itself. You can't make that statement about chicken or pork.
4.) It's obviously named after Chuck Norris. so it has to be the best.
I used to be so scared to use hamburger in the slow cooker. And when I did, I would pre-cook the ground beef and drain it before placing it in the slow cooker… which is a huge extra step.
I was afraid of having that layer of grease and fat on top of the, chili, sauce, soup or whatever I was making – which is a valid concern.
Then I tried using lean ground beef – 90% lean or higher. And it worked great. Yes there is fat in it, but not enough to have that pooling layer on top. Seriously, try my slow cooker meat sauce or chili. They both use raw hamburger in the bottom of the slow cooker with no issue at all.
So maybe you have this amazing slow cooker. A beautiful “Crockpot” brand 6 or 7 quart stainless steel programmable slow cooker that actually looks nice on your countertop.
What if I told you that a much more plain and simpler slow cooker would result in MUCH better food? And it's not because it is any better, it's simply because it might be smaller.
Unless you are cooking for an army or want lots of leftovers, a 3 or 4 quart slow cooker works best. The reason has to do with geometry and volume. You want the meat covered in liquid as much as possible. Think of a 2 lb. chuck roast with 1 cup of liquid added in a small slow cooker vs. a large slow cooker. the liquid will better immerse the meat in the smaller slow cooker.
If you are making large batches, obviously you should opt for the larger slow cooker. But for a family of 4-6, the medium-sized will work better.
I've tried. It doesn't work. It stays crunchy and just doesn't absorb the liquid like you would think. Rice is weird.
Although I think it's usually safe to cook meat in the slow cooker frozen, it is still best to thaw… and always for larger chunks of meat that will be cooked whole.
Want to cut that thaw time down drastically? Make sure the freezer bag is tightly closed and immerse it in cold water. I've found that food thaws about 10 times as quickly done this way. And it's perfectly safe too (the USDA happens to agree with me on this one).
Just make sure that the water stays cold. Either keep cold water from the faucet constantly running into it (it only needs to be on very low) – or make sure to replace the water if it starts getting too warm.
But – make sure you are using high-quality freezer bags. You all know how much I love ALDI, but I gotta tell you, their freezer bags aren't that great. They work just fine for most applications, but I haven't had good luck using them to defrost food using this cold water immersion method.
There always seems to be a leak, and I end up with more water in the freezer bag than when I started. This dilutes the recipe, and then the meal ends up under-seasoned and watery. Not good. So buy some good name brand freezer bags if you plan on defrosting in cold water.
Agree? Disagree? I'm just sharing what I do and what I've learned over the past 100 days.
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