Answers to the 9 Most Common Crock-Pot Questions
When I walk in the door and dinner is ready it makes me happy. The little work I do in the morning pays off big time by 6 p.m. Nothing is more comforting than a hot bowl of deliciousness, ready and waiting for me after a long hard day of work or play. I know that most people like to follow recipes, but with just a few simple rules you can have the knowledge and skill set to be successful — even if you don't have the exact ingredients that a recipe may call for.
Here are my answers to the top 9 questions you might be asking yourself about using your slow cooker:
1. Question: Do I have to sear the meat first?
Answer: The answer is no, you don't have to, but your dish will be tastier if you do. Most recipes will tell you to brown the meat on all sides before adding it to the crock-pot. Searing the meat locks in the flavor and helps the meat stay together a little better. Pour a couple of teaspoons of olive oil in the bottom of the pan heat over a medium high heat. Drop the meat into the pan (you can season it first) and leave it alone for 2-to-4 minutes per side, depending on the size of the meat. Remember, you aren't cooking the meat, you're just searing it. All the stuff that gets stuck to the bottom of the pan has tons of flavor. After your are done searing the meat and have taken it out of the pan, pour some water into it, and let it simmer on the stovetop. Use a wooden spoon to loosen up all that is stuck to the bottom and then add it all to the crock-pot. All you are doing is adding extra flavor and you'll be able to wipe out the pan with a towel for a quick clean up.
2. Q: Is it better to cook on high or low?
A: Most recipes will tell you that you can cook on low for 8 hours and high for 4. The slow method is the one I usually recommend because you can put everything in the pot in the morning and have it ready in time for dinner. You'll know your meat is good to go when it is not tough — tender enough to eat with just a fork.
3. Q: Is there is anything I can do to prevent the meat from falling apart?
A: Remove your big cuts of meat ten minutes before dinnertime. Larger cuts of meat, like a pot roast or corned beef may need to be removed from the slow cooker and rest for about ten minutes before you slice it up to prevent it from falling apart. Use these extra ten minutes to chop up some fresh herbs, shallots or green onions to add some fresh flavor and garnish your dish.
4. Q: How can I avoid potatoes, pasta or rice from turning into mush?
A: Cook your grains and starches separately. If you want to add rice, pasta, barley, quinoa, spelt, farro, potatoes or just about any other (whole) grain, you are better off cooking it separately from the crock-pot, and then adding it right before serving or serving the slow cooker dish on top of the grains. Starches tend to continue cooking and become soft, mushy and not-so-delicious in the pot. Also, keeping the starches separate helps you use portion control — which can be harder to do with mixed dishes!
5. Q: What can I do to thicken my stew?
A: Sometimes a recipe will call for tapioca, flour or bread crumbs. These are used to thicken a broth into a stew, and can be added with the other ingredients at the beginning of the cooking process. If you leave these ingredients out you'll have a thinner broth. If you choose to keep them in, you'll notice the recipe will call for a very small amount for the whole pot; a little does the trick.
6. Q: Do I have to add the vegetables at the same time as the meat?
A: Vegetables cook quickly, so if you want them more crisp and fresh-tasting, add them ten minutes before you plan to serve your meal. Also, keep in mind that all of the vegetables will take on the flavors you add, so if you want them to keep their flavor identity, cook them separately and add them last minute. You cannot go wrong with carrots, onions and celery — frozen veggies work great too. Add as many as you can! All of those beautiful nutrients that may otherwise get lost when you steam veggies get trapped underneath the lid of the crock-pot, making your dinner as healthy as it is flavorful!
7. Q: Should I use dry or canned beans?
A: If the beans are dry, soak them overnight in a bowl of water. In the morning drain the water and add them to the recipe. If they are canned, they are fully cooked. Add them an hour to a few minutes before you serve. Add beans whenever possible! The fiber fills you up and they're good for your heart, too!
8. Q: What are the best spices to include in slow cooked meals?
A: Keep on hand in your spice rack: bay leaves, curry powder, cinnamon sticks, garlic powder, cumin, chili powder, oregano, rosemary, thyme, salt and pepper. You can be = add anywhere from a teaspoon up to a few tablespoons, depending on your personal preference.
9. Q: Should I cook with water?
A: You can use tomatoes and stock or broth (beef, vegetable, chicken), preferably low sodium. You can play with these flavors in any recipe and substitute or enhance them easily with soy sauce, balsamic vinegar and wine. Adding water will not ruin the recipe if you are a little short on any of these ingredients!
Happy slow cooking! I hope you feel confident to try your hand at a few recipes, and let me know how it goes. Bon Appetite!
Readers - Do you own a slow cooker or crock-pot? Have you been using it to make lunches, dinners and other healthy dishes? What are your favorite recipes to cook? Leave a comment below and let us know.
Keri is a contributing editor and advisory board member for Women's Health Magazine, and is the Nutrition and Health contributor for NBC's New York Live. She is regularly featured on national television programs including NBC's The Today Show, ABC's Good Morning America, Access Hollywood Live, The View, The Talk, The Chew, Dr. Oz, The Doctors, The Rachael Ray Show, The Steve Harvey Show, MSNBC, The Fox News Channel, and CNN. Keri hosts an original series called "A Little Bit Better" which is featured LIVESTRONG.com.
Keri resides in New York City with her children, Rex and Maizy. Whether she is training for a marathon, going to the farmers' market, or drinking her nightly cup of herbal tea, Keri lives and breathes a Nutritious Life while inspiring others to do the same.