Back when I was commuting to the city every day, I purchased a crock pot. The idea of having a meal ready to eat when I got home from work was very appealing. Ironically, it wasn’t until I became unemployed that I was able to really start taking full advantage of the pot as a cooking tool. Let me tell you, crock pot and slow cooker recipes seem deceptively simple, but there are actually a lot of things you should know before trying to cook with the pot.
The first thing to know is that the size of the pot matters a lot. I got the most basic pot which happened to be five quarts. That’s actually a really big pot. You can put a whole chicken in that thing. Obviously that’s a good thing if you want to make a big meal. The problem is that you have to make a big meal. If you try to cook a smaller recipe in a big pot, it will just come out dry and burnt. Make sure you get recipes that specify the size of the pot to use. If your pot isn’t mostly or completely full of ingredients before you turn it on, don’t expect the recipe to turn out well. If you plan to cook for both small and large groups of people, you really need two different sized pots.
Also, not all pots are created equal. I got the most basic pot just to start out with. The only settings it has are low, high, and warm. Other pots have fancy features such as timers which will automatically turn the pot on and off even while unattended. Some pots also have multiple compartments, so you can cook multiple dishes simultaneously. I like to start with basics, and only go get the fancy features when I am more confident in my abilities. You may not feel the same way, so research the features carefully.
Pots don’t just differ in features, though. Some pots use much cheaper heating elements and mecahnisms than others. Some only heat from the bottom, while others also heat from the sides. Some pots are very good about heating at different temperatures, where on others (like mine) the different between low and high is neglibible. You would be surprised at the number of pots that ruin perfectly good recipes simly because the low setting is too hot. Avoid those pots at all costs.
Another thing with crock pots is you have to carefully consider the cooking times. A recipe might call for 4-5 hours on low 2-3 or hours on high. If you plan to cook on low, that means you have to turn the pot on 4-5 hours before you plan to eat. If you aren’t home 4-5 hours before dinner time, that recipe isn’t going to work out. Also, if your dinner times vary based on what happens during your day, then you might not get home in time for the meal. Even worse, you might get home too early, and suffer in hunger until the food is ready.
Along those same lines, most recipes require additional work beyond just tossing raw ingredients in the pot and turning it on. Many of them require browning of meats or cooking of vegetables before putting them in the pot. Other recipes may require adding additional ingredients a few hours into the cooking process. If you don’t have a lot of time in the morning, or if you plan to be gone all day, these recipes aren’t going to cut it. You will often have to spend time preparing ingredients the night before, thus not really saving the dinner cooking time.
One last thing to note is that the crock pot can be a little messy. While it cooks, it will give off heat, so don’t put it near anything that shouldn’t be warmed up. With almost any recipe you will probably have water spitting out from under the lid during cooking. This is supposed to happen, but you don’t want it making a mess. Lastly, many recipes will leave burnt residue on the inside of your pot. I suggest cleaning it out quickly. If you let it hang around, it will be much more difficult to remove. A Brillo pad is an excellent way to clean the crock pot.
I’ve only been using a crock pot for a few months, so I’m sure I’ve still got a long way to go before becoming a crock master. I just want to share what I have learned, so maybe someone else won’t have to repeat my mistakes.
I love slow cooked meat though… tenderness to the extreme. Also slow cooked fresh beans (brown beans of any variety). Also the beans provide post-meal amusement…