Pictured Recipe: Slow-Cooker Beef Stew
When I was in culinary school, we learned a lot about how to develop flavors. These methods usually involved high-end ingredients, a lot of prep time, and sometimes following complicated procedures to get good results. Little did I know, a much easier path to culinary greatness was sitting in my pantry the whole time I was sweating in a restaurant kitchen. That would be my slow cooker.
The humble slow cooker can turn out some pretty mean food if you know a few tricks. Not to mention, it's convenient, relatively inexpensive and very easy to use. (Dinner practically cooks itself!)
Take EatingWell's recipe for Slow-Cooker Beef Stew, for example. In culinary school I would have been meticulously trimming an expensive cut of meat, tournéing vegetables and bathing them all in veal stock.
But in this version, I'm simply searing chuck and my veggies, then throwing it all together with wine and broth in my slow cooker. The results are just as delicious.
Here are some tricks to getting restaurant-worthy results with your slow cooker.
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Dumping ingredients into your slow cooker and walking away may be convenient, but it's usually not the best way to get the most flavor out of your food. You need the caramelized bits you get from searing your meat and vegetables on the stovetop first.
Since you don't need to worry about cooking things through (they'll finish in your slow cooker) the process doesn't take long. Just heat up a small amount of oil and give your meat and vegetables a sear before adding them to the slow cooker. Then "deglaze" the pan with liquid to get all the brown, caramelized bits from the sauté pan and pour the flavorful liquid into the slow cooker.
Pictured Recipe: Hearty Vegetable Beef Stew
When it comes to your slow cooker, not all meat is created equal. To get richly flavored, melt-in-your-mouth-tender meat, you need to choose tougher cuts that can benefit from hours of cooking. Cuts like chuck, brisket and bottom round are all good choices—full of flavor and, another perk, relatively cheap, too. As your stew cooks, the collagen inside the meat breaks down, making it tender and delicious and creating a luscious sauce for the stew.
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Just like meat, there are some vegetables that are born to go into the slow cooker—and some that are not. When you're picking vegetables for your stew, think hearty. Root vegetables like potatoes, turnips and rutabaga are all good options; they can take the prolonged cooking and still hold their shape.
Mushrooms also hold up well. More tender vegetables like snow peas, spinach, and other leafy greens can certainly have their place in the slow cooker, but you may want to add them later on; they can disintegrate if they spend too much time cooking.
Pictured Recipe: Slow-Cooker "Corned Beef" & Cabbage
Bigger is better when it comes to the size of the vegetables that will be going into your slow cooker. For vegetables, holding their shape is important (think tender chunks of potato or carrots). A good rule of thumb for these root vegetables would be pieces no smaller than one inch.
By cutting them a little larger, they remain toothsome and avoid turning mushy when you cook them. For vegetables that contribute flavor more than texture (like onions and garlic), cutting them smaller is fine. Meat for beef stew should also be cut into one-inch pieces. Cut the pieces too large, and they may not come out as tender.