How slow and low can you go?

Each week as I check out at the grocery store, I scan the magazines for that magical issue which promises a more perfect union between me and dinner.  One with recipes that involve very limited prep time; one with colorful and enticing photos that make me want to eat. Heck, maybe one with a pop-up sous chef or dishwasher – that would be pretty cool.

Most of the time nothing jumps out at me, but on one recent trip, I spied a new special issue from America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) – Slow Cooker Revolution.

It was priced at $12.95 so it’s more like a softcover book than a magazine.  (ATK periodically publishes special seasonal issues that cost a little more than regular magazines but are worth it to me to buy, since each recipe contains a full cover photo plus lots of cooking tips and information about ingredients. )

Slow cooker recipes generally will not win any beauty contests, though they may not start out that way. The raw ingredients can shimmer with vitality and invite you in. By the time they finish their long slow cook though, they resemble haggard, dim versions of their former selves.

My other qualm about slow cooker food is that it tends to end up looking and tasting similar. (Maybe this is because I usually choose the 8-12 hour low heat setting recipes that can withstand cooking all day while I’m at work.)  Often these recipes are “dump and go” – which is appealing for the ease of cooking, but doesn’t always yield the best flavor.

Slow Cooker Revolution was packed with attractive looking recipes that called for lots of fresh ingredients and promised techniques to boost the flavor wow of each dish; it was enough to reel me in.

Some tips I learned from the cookbook:

  • Just like ovens, slow cookers can run hot or cool.  You can test your slow cooker by adding 4 quarts of water to the cooker, heating it on high for 4 hours, then checking the temperature – it should be between 195-205 degrees. If not, you’ll know to adjust recipe cooking times longer or shorter.
  • Browning meat provides a deep flavor base, but not all recipes necessarily need the meat to be browned. Soy sauce and tomato paste can add a “meaty” depth of flavor.
  • Don’t cook chicken on the high heat setting, or for more than 6 hours on the low setting, or it will turn out stringy.  For all foods, it’s best to cook them slow and low to yield the most tender results.
  • To add brightness and a flavor boost at the end, finish the dish with fresh herbs, chopped tomatoes, chiles or lemon juice

Besides the vegetarian black bean chili, I made three other recipes in recent weeks:

Chicken Curry in a Hurry – the recipe title was a misnomer, since the prep itself took about 30 minutes, then it needed to cook for at least 4 hours.  The end result was surprisingly mild considering the amount of curry powder and chiles that went into it. If we make this again, I’ll use hot curry powder rather than sweet curry and include the jalapeno seeds.

Rustic Sausage, Lentil and Swiss Chard Sauce – while not the most attractive dish, this hit the spot on a sub-zero wintery night.

slow cookerThe best of the three was the French Onion Soup.  I’d never made this type of soup  before, and the recipe was relatively easy.  After I got past the horror of microwaving beef bones at 7 am, that is…

The smell of browning meat so early in the morning is almost enough to turn me into a vegetarian, so you can imagine what I thought of the intense beefy aroma that filled the house. Surprisingly the bones did brown in the microwave, though the liquified bone marrow added a bit of a yuck factor.  After the shock and awe, though, things settled down, it started smelling awesome and the finished soup was rich and sweet.

It only got better with the addition of Gruyere-topped toasts, my new favorite thing.

After test driving this cookbook I’d have to say that these recipes didn’t necessarily save prep time, it just shifted to another part of the day.  Most recipes still took 30-40 minutes for me to prep the ingredients, plus the actual cooking time, which ranged from 4 to 10 hours. If you have time to prep the night before, are home at mid-day or if you’re an early bird and don’t mind prepping ingredients before you go to work, this could be the book for you.

Many of the recipes call for using a microwave to prep the initial ingredients, so if you don’t have a microwave, prep will take longer. There are not a lot of vegetarian dishes either; the ones that are included call for fresh ingredients like zucchini and tomatoes that are out of season right now.

Still, I’d recommend purchasing this guide if you’re looking to expand your slow cooking repertoire, you’d like to learn some new slow cooking techniques, or you’re looking for recipes with more “gourmet” scratch ingredients. I think the wealth of tips about prep and cooking techniques alone makes it worth owning.  Note: the newsstand price ($12.95) is much cheaper than the Amazon price (list price $26.95, on sale now for $17.44), so I’d recommend purchasing it at a grocery store if possible.

French Onion Soup
Recipe type: Main
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 6 to 8
  • 2 lbs. beef bones
  • 6 yellow onions, sliced ¼ inch thick
  • 4 T. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. pepper
  • 1 T. brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. minced fresh thyme or ¼ tsp. dried
  • ¾ cup dry sherry
  • ¼ cup soy sauce
  • ¾ cup apple butter
  • 5 T. flour
  • 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 2 cups beef broth
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 French baguette, cut into ½ inch slices
  • 2½ cups (about 10 oz.) shredded Gruyere cheese
  1. Line a plate with paper towels, add beef bones and microwave on high for 8-10 minutes, until well browned.
  2. Add sliced onions, thyme, melted butter, brown sugar, 1 tsp. salt and 1 tsp. pepper to the slow cooker. Whisk together the sherry, soy sauce, apple butter and flour until smooth, and stir into the slow cooker. Nestle the browned beef bones into the slow cooker mixture. Cover and cook 8 to 12 hours on high.
  3. Discard the beef bones. Combine the chicken and beef broths to a boil in a covered saucepan over high heat, then stir into the slow cooker. Let soup sit until heated through, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Preheat your broiler and toast the bread slices for 1-2 minutes on each side. Sprinkle on the grated cheese and broil for a couple more minutes until the cheese has melted.
  5. Ladle the soup into bowls and top with the cheese toasts.
Some notes: I found beef bones in the freezer section of the grocery store; thaw them completely before using. This recipe may take from 8 to 12 hours on high; the cookbook suggests monitoring the cooker for the last hour or two to make sure the onions don't burn. I misread the recipe when I made this and cooked it on low for 10 hours. The soup still turned out but the onions were a bit firm.

What’s your favorite recipe to make in the slow cooker? Do you have another slow cooker cookbook that you’d recommend?

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14 thoughts on “How slow and low can you go?

  1. I really only use my slow cooker for roasts (beef and pork) surrounded by assorted veggies/sweet potatoes. I should try to branch out! It seems there should be more slow-cooker Indian-inspired recipes. Thanks for your honest and informative review!

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  3. Cooks Illustrated came out with a Slow Cooker recipe book in 2011, which is what Amazon is selling. It’s actually a whole book, not just a magazine. I’ve made a number of recipes from this book since I got it for Christmas. All of a sudden I’ve got more meals in the fridge than ever before! For the recipes I’ve made — soups and stews — prep time’s been about fifteen minutes and it’s merited about eight servings of food. I don’t remember everything I’ve made so far but I currently have the Thai chicken stew in the fridge (use double the curry paste) and Tex Mex chicken stew is next.

    • Huh, that would explain the difference in price, but it seems sort of misleading that they used the same cover for it. It sounds like you’d recommend the book, Gretchen? I do plan to try more of the recipes in the version that I bought, will work on prepping faster! :)

      • I *do* recommend the book. What I like about this book are some of those techniques (like the soup bones/microwave tip you mentioned) and the generous prep time : # servings ratio. Overall, I think the CI books are great for folks who like to cook but also like to follow recipes. Their recipes are usually no-fail with their primary fault being that they’re usually only mildly spiced.

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    • The recipe had specifically called for apple butter and soy sauce to give the onions a silky texture and deep color. But I know that apple butter can be hard to find in stores. Maybe you could try the equivalent amount of applesauce? You often see apple butter or applesauce used as fat substitutes in recipes. Let me know if you try this and it works.

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