Oct 25, 2011

Crockpot, you're my hero

A few weeks ago I realized I used my crockpot for four dinners out of seven:   on Monday, it held pork chops; Tuesday, Hobo Stew.  Thursday, it was chicken and wild rice soup, and Friday it got a back-to-back workout roasting 3 pork butts for pulled pork.  Not bad for this humble, hard-working kitchen appliance.

I even waxed eloquently about my crockpot-a-palooza back here.  But I think my crock pot has flexed its culinary muscle even more this year.

There are some tricks to crockpot cooking - off the top of my head, here are six things everyone should know about crockpots.

1.  Ask not what your crockpot can do for you, but what you can do for your crockpot.  Not everyone is home most of the day (as I am), and even I have learned the hard way that it's imperative to respect its limits and yours.  If the food is going to cook for 8 or more hours and you don't have a high-end programmable crockpot with delayed start, auto shut-off and keep-warm-options, then steer clear of recipes that call for a short 4-5 hour stint in the crockpot.  They just aren't going to work on a weekday.  Save them for a weekend or day off when you can adjust your start time accordingly Long-cooking foods like briskets, roasts and beans are generally safe bets, but don't expect the crockpot to keep your food in a holding pattern for much longer than the recipe's cooking time. Overcooked food is dry, tough and tasteless, and that isn't your crockpot's fault.

2.  Less is not more.  You may be a "the glass is always half full" optimist, but if your crockpot is less than half-full, it is a disaster waiting to happen.  Seriously, your pot should be two-thirds full of stuff.  Otherwise, you may come home to the charred remains of the-dinner-that-was.  If you don't need that much food, double the recipe and freeze half in individual portions for quick meals later.  Or buy a smaller crockpot. Really.  Bigger is sometimes better.  Sometimes it's just bigger. And sometimes bigger is a big honkin' headache.

3.  Crockpots and slow cookers are cousins, not identical twins.  A slow cooker heats from the bottom while a crockpot heats around the sides.  That doesn't always make a huge difference, but if the recipe specifically calls for one or the other, know what you have and be prepared to adjust accordingly.  This is especially true if you're making candies or baked goods - heed the recipe directions.

4.  Newer is not necessarily better.  

This is just like mine - only whiter.
This is especially true on the plain-Jane (high-low-off) models. If you're lucky enough to have an older crockpot (circa 1980 to early 2000s), you may be able to relax a bit on the cook times, because they cook at lower temperatures; a recipe that calls for 6-8 hours may still be perfectly edible at the 8-hour mark.  Thanks to our general phobia about germs and bacteria, and the ever-present threat of a lawsuit, crockpot manufacturers decided to up the ante--and the thermostat--on crockpots about 6 or 7 years ago.  "Low" settings are now more like the "high" settings of old.

Don't have an old crockpot?  Trade with your mom. Or haunt yard sales or thrift stores for someone's castoff.

This is just like my first one :-)
Telltale signs:  it'll probably have cute country blue and rose decorations, and maybe a blue insert.  Or it'll be glazed brown insert with a beige, orangey-red or mustard yellow casing and lettering that just screams circa 1981. Just be sure it isn't too old - the truly original crockpots didn't have a removable insert.  That made washing up a bit of a challenge.

5.  The highs and lows.  Here's the lowdown on that high/low knob:   there is no difference between high and low except in the time they take to get to simmer temperature (209 F), and then they stabilize regardless of which setting you selected.  Really.  Who knew?  But don't fool yourself into thinking a 6-hour recipe can hang tight for 8 hours if you cook it on low.  It might work, or you might come home to a crusty mess, especially if you're cooking in a newer model without a "keep warm" option.

6.  Keep yer hands off.  If you are hovering over your crockpot, don't.  It works best alone. At least refrain from removing the lid repeatedly. Every time you lift the lid, you let several degrees of accumulated heat dissipate into thin air.  It's like opening the oven to check on the cake - just don't do it.

So now that you're armed with more info about crockpots than you ever thought you could want to know, let's talk recipes. Crockpots are most forgiving for dishes that have lots of liquid like vegetable or meat soups and roasts.  And foods that need to cook for a long time to tenderize, like brisket.   Thicker soups and stews will do well if you heed the advice above, and don't ask them to cook all day.

Other foods can be prepped and placed in the crockpot, then transported cold with you, and plugged in to cook for a few hours so they are heated through and ready-to-serve at the appointed time.  In addition to starchy dishes like potato casserole and mac and cheese, crockpots work GREAT for heating up fudge or caramel toppings for ice cream or apples when you're serving a crowd.  Just another useful use for our trusty crocks.

it is wise to test-drive these types of recipe ideas at home beforehand, and know exactly how long they need to cook/heat, and how long they can hold,  before you spring your dish on a crowd.

Since January, I've made the usual lineup of chili and chili-esque soups and stews of course, along with countless pork butts.  Other memorable recipes include:

Macaroni and cheese (surprisingly good and perfect for office potluck lunches)
Corn with cream
Hobo stew
Potato soup
French dip roast beef
Ranch chops
Creamy bean dip
Garlic-lime pork chops (not-so-moist, but I think with a creamy chile verde sauce it has potential)
Lasagna (yes, really - and it was pretty good)
Chicken and wild rice soup (recipe needs to ramp up the flavor, but it's high potential)
Steak and brown rice (an old recipe shared by a friend - she and the dish are pretty wonderful)

This week, the crockpot gets another workout with a new chicken teriyaki recipe, plus some beef barley stew when the temps are destined to dip again in a few days.  Hmmm, now that I think about it, I might have to do a crockpot recipe series after the holidays.  Stay tuned and break out those crocks.  'Tis the season.

Happy crockpot cooking!

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