Musings on the Ubiquitous Slow Cooker
Andy Anderson !
For the best results, remember that it's called a slow cooker for a reason. Simmering recipes over long periods of time extracts all those subtle flavors.
This information is based on my own experience, and additional research.
So, you ready… Let’s get into the test kitchen.
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Probably the question that I get asked the most is: What temperature is my slow cooker when set to low and high? Unfortunately, that is not a very easy question to answer because each manufacturer has their ideas on that subject.
Last year I had six of my students bring their slow cookers into the test kitchen and fire them up, and the results were different for each model. As a matter of fact, the dissimilarity between different models was over 50 degrees… That’s a BIG difference.
High and low settings are based on wattage. They are designed to take a slow cooker to a safe internal temperature within approximately four hours, and then (depending on what setting you use) take the unit the rest of the way up to cooking temperature. The wattage required to do this is different for different models, and many variables are involved, for example: start temperature, food load, room temperature, etc.
The low/high settings on a slow cooker are not designed to bring the device to a lower or higher temperature… If the unit is operating properly, both low and high settings should take the slow cooker to the same maximum temperature. The difference is how long it takes to achieve that temperature.
Let’s say for example that your slow cooker achieves a maximum temperature of 210f (99c). On the low setting it would take 3 to 4 hours to reach that temperature; however, on high it would hit that temperature within an hour.
In theory, a slow cooker on low would take twice as long to cook something; as opposed to setting the device to high.
The whole idea of a slow cooker is to cook food slowly; therefore, the temperature of a good slow cooker should never go above the boiling point of water at sea level.
In a perfect world, the ideal slow cooker would reach a temperature of 210f (99c).
But this is not a perfect world, and what you have is manufacturers doing their own thing… I have seen slow cookers attain temperatures exceeding 250c (121c). That folks is NOT, I repeat, NOT a slow cooker.
It's not recommended that you switch the setting to speed up the time for recipes that are originally made to simmer for less than seven hours. So, if a recipe calls for six hours of slow cooking or less, it's best to keep your hand off the dial. However, an eight-hour recipe that suggests a low setting can usually be converted to four hours on high.
On the other hand, recipes that suggest the high setting for three or more hours can be converted to a low slow simmer if you extend the time. If you can spare the additional time, it’s a great way to give your dishes a subtle change in flavor.
Fill the unit to 50 percent with water, and turn it on high. Wait about three hours and then use an instant-read thermometer to check the temperature. If you’re lucky, it should read around 210f (99c). This is defined as the simmering point of the slow cooker.
However, in the end; whether you choose the low or high setting, the maximum temperature of the unit will be the same.
For best results, an ideal load for a slow cooker would be from 1/3 to 3/4 full. Here are some general ideas on the different types of items you might place in a slow cooker, with their respective weights, and times.
Meat Cut-------------Meat Weight----Low Time------High Time
Large Pork Roast....5.5 pounds......9 ½ hours......7 ½ hours
Pork Loin.............3.5 pounds......6 hours.........5 hours
Poultry----------------5.5 pounds......7 ½ hours......6 ¼ hours
Beef Roast............3.5 pounds......8 hours........5 ¾ hours
Stew Meat............3.5 pounds......6 hours........4 ¾ hours
Fish....................2 pounds........3 ½ hours.....1 ½ hours
Slow cookers work with very low wattage, so when you open the lid to check on your dish, you wind up losing a significant amount of heat.
Due to the nature of a slow cooker, it is usually not necessary to stir the food. However, most chefs will tell you that when you remove the lid, you need to add 20 minutes to the cooking time. Bottom line: Leave the lid on, and let the slow cooker do its thing.
Although it is not absolutely necessary to brown meat before adding it to the slow cooker, browning creates greater depth of flavor to a dish, and also serves to melt some of the fat that would otherwise be cooked with the other ingredients.
Root vegetables take longer to cook so they need to be placed at the bottom of the cooker (items at the bottom cook faster). The meat should then be placed on top, followed by the liquid (most slow cooker recipes require some form of liquid to ensure the food doesn't dry out). You should make sure the slow cooker is at least a third of the way full to avoid overcooking. Dairy products, seafood and quick-cook vegetables are usually only added for the last hour as they tend to break down and separate.
Slow cookers are available in a range of sizes, from 1 quart to 8 1/2 quarts. Use the size cooker recommended in each recipe. This helps ensure that the slow cooker isn’t overflowing or under filled, so that your meal can cook properly. If you only have one slow cooker (and that would be true of most folks), then try to make sure that the bowl is at least 1/3 full, up to a maximum of 3/4 full.
If you are planning on turning on your slow cooker in the morning, after you rise for the day, then planning the day before will go a long way in making your meal a success.
On the night before: Cut and trim any meat, chop any vegetables, measure out dry ingredients and prepare any sauce; refrigerate the components in separate containers.
Do not use your slow cooker insert to hold your ingredients for two reasons: A cold insert takes too long to heat up and affects cooking time and food safety, and you don’t want the ingredients all mixed together until you begin the cooking process.
When you get up, add all the ingredients, and if you’re using a sauce or liquid, before adding it to the insert, put it in a saucepan, and heat it up to a simmer. This will help the cold ingredients get up to temperature.
Getting good caramelization is the key to the deep flavor. And a sauté pan isn't the only way to brown meat. Try roasting the meat at in a 400f (205c) oven until it begins to brown. And don’t forget to add all those juices from the pan to the slow cooker… they contain good flavor.
FYI: Never brown chicken… If you do it will over cook in the slow cooker.
If you can, choose a slow cooker that has a removable pot and once you are finished, remove it and fill with hot soapy water. Leave it to soak and dry the pot completely before putting away. Never put cold water straight into a hot slow cooker as it may crack.
Choose dried herbs over fresh, whenever possible. Fresh herbs will go brown and limp in the long, moist cooking process. Whole dried herbs and spices will release their flavor over time.
If you do want to use fresh herbs, add them in the last hour of cooking.
When the recipe calls for a slow cooker, it’s possible to convert that recipe for cooking in the oven. The first thing you will need is a good heavy-duty pot with a tight-fitting lid. I would recommend a Dutch oven… they are the best.
• Place a rack in the lower position, and preheat the oven to 325f (160c).
• Add the ingredients to the pot in the same way you would for a slow cooker.
• Use half the recommended liquid. The oven method requires less liquid.
• Tightly cover and place into the preheated oven.
Slow Cooker to Oven
12 hours/Low – 3 hours
10 hours/Low – 2 1/2 hours
8 hours/Low – 2 hours
6 hours/Low – 1 1/2 hours
5 hours/Low – 1 hour, 15 min
4 hours/Low – 1 hour
4 hours/High – 2 hours
3 hours/Low – 45 min
3 hours/High – 1 1/2 hours
ALWAYS CHECK FOR DONENESS
Place an instant-read thermometer in the thickest part of the meat. For beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks, chops and roasts, the minimum internal temperature is be 145f (65c), and for ground beef, pork and lamb, along with poultry, should be cooked to 165f (75c).
See all that marbled fat? That means lots of flavor and a sauce with lots of body.
Lean meat cooked for a long time (no matter what the temperature) will get tough and stringy. Big hunks of fatty meat like short ribs, shanks (beef, pork, or lamb), and shoulder (pork or lamb) work best in a crockpot. The fat will keep the meat moist, and the slow cooking breaks down the connective tissue that makes those types of cuts tough when cooked quickly.
Bacon, browned onions, black pepper, and Worcestershire sauce, are wonderful for adding depth and richness to a dish, as are sugar and tomato paste. These sweet and rich flavor notes combine to create great slow cooker dishes that will leave your guests with smiles on their faces.
Remove the skin before adding your bird into the slow cooker. That is unless you like slimy, rubbery chicken skin (I don’t). Leave the bones in because they will help the poultry stay tender and moist
I know that there are recipes out there for slow cooker pasta dishes; however, I have never made one… I don’t like mushy pasta. Full stop.