Routt County CSU Extension: Slow cooker season — cheap, healthy, easy
January 8, 2017
Gone are the days when crock pots provided recipes that turned your dinner into a mushy pot of bland stew. Today, slow cooking is as popular as ever, and satisfying and flavorful recipes fill the internet. Options include mashed potatoes, jambalaya, stuffed peppers, chicken Parmesan, meatballs, dinner rolls, applesauce … the possibilities are endless.
The slow cooker cooks food by maintaining a relatively low temperature — between 170 and 280 degrees Fahrenheit for several hours. The direct heat, steam and lengthy cooking times destroy bacteria and make it a safe process for preparing food.
Slow cookers heat food through heat bands located at the base, which then transfers up the sides of the pot, uniformly cooking the food. The lid is important for allowing food to reach an appropriate cooking temperature, so keep the lid closed. It takes the slow cooker 15 to 20 minutes to heat back to the required temperature once the lid has been removed. There is no need to stir the pot while it's cooking.
To further prevent foodborne illness, be sure to thaw meat before cooking to safely keep it out of the temperature danger zone (41 to 135 degrees Fahrenheit). Liquid is necessary to create steam and properly cook food in a slow cooker. The liquid should cover the ingredients to ensure heat is equally transferred throughout the cooker.
Some adjustments should be made when slow cooking at the high altitude of Steamboat. If your cooker has an adjustable temperature control, select a setting that will maintain food at 200 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. With only high and low settings available, start the food by cooking on high for the first hour, then continue on high or turn it to low for the remainder.
If a recipe provides a range of cooking times, aim for the longer time when cooking at high altitudes. When finished, use a thermometer to ensure that all food in the slow cooker has reached a safe temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
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To craft the perfect slow cooker meal, choose the right cut of meat. Chuck roasts, short ribs, pork shoulders, dark meat chicken and lamb shanks work best. Leaner meats will dry out in the slow cooker. Browning meats and vegetables first is not necessary, but can add great flavor to a dish. Trim the fat on meats to avoid overly oily and greasy cooking liquid, and remove chicken skins, when possible.
Layering can drastically affect the cooking. Layer firm, slow-cooking root vegetables at the bottom with spices, then add the meat on top. Avoiding overcrowding by filling the slow cooker 1/2 to 2/3 full. Wait to add any dairy until the last 15 minutes of cooking. When adding wine, keep in mind that the alcohol doesn't evaporate out as much due to the sealed lid. Consider adding fresh ingredients at the end, such as citrus zest, grated cheese, good quality olive oil or fresh garlic.
When cooking with a slow cooker, remember that you can cook foods for too long. Try cooking food overnight while you sleep, then, in the morning, remove the inner pot and refrigerate it before leaving the house. When you get home, cook your dish for one more hour.
Dust off the slow cooker and experiment with healthy, quick recipes that will leave your house smelling wonderful and your families' bellies full.
Rakia Ranney is completing a master's degree in human nutrition from Colorado State University and is an intern with CSU Extension in Routt County. For more information, call 970-879-0825 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.