Using a slow cooker is one of Heather McCloskey's favorite ways to cook.
"It saves a lot of cook time," she said. "In this time of many people relying on two incomes, sometimes no one is home to cook. You can just start this in the morning and come back to a waiting meal."
McCloskey, one of the culinary arts instructors at the Greater Altoona Career and Technology Center, recently offered the Mirror some tips on getting the most out of your slow cooker meals.
(Note: Slow cookers are often referred to as 'Crock Pots,' but that's actually a particular brand. Since Crock Pot was the first popular slow cooker, the name is often used generically in many English-speaking countries.)
The first step in planning a meal, she said, is choosing the right cut of meat. You never want to use a premium cut of meat in a slow cooker because it would dry out the meat.
"You wanna use chuck roast, round roast, brisket and shoulder roast, or blade. Basically, it's your least expensive cuts," McCloskey said. "When they label meats, any meats that they specifically label 'for braising' would be suitable for slow cooking."
Though slow cookers come in many sizes - from small, appetizer-friendly models for parties to extra large models for cooking for a crowd - it's best to use a normal-sized model (about six quarts), she said.
The first step in using a slow cooker is the one that people often ignore - browning the meat.
"It's important to brown your meat first," McCloskey said. "Because it's a moist cooking method, you're not going to get carmelization on the meat. So searing it first, and browning it, will lend more flavor to your dish. Otherwise, the meat is going to turn a dull grey color.
"With a little bit of oil - vegetable oil is fine - in your skillet, just sear both sides."
She said it's also important to warm up your slow cooker before putting anything inside it. Putting a hot, browned slab of meat into a cold crock could cause the pot to crack.
Vegetables cooked with the meat are a good compliment to any roast, McCloskey said.
"I like to add lots of vegetables," she said. "Root vegetables are really nice for slow cookers because they hold up well."
McCloskey also pointed out that vegetables could also be the bulk of your meal. Vegetarian dishes work very well in a slow cooker, she said.
Slow cookers can be used for an endless number of dishes. McCloskey said she couldn't think of anything that definitely shouldn't be cooked using one.
"It's pretty efficient cooking, because it does most of the work for you," she said.
McCloskey offered the following recipe for a classic slow cooker meal:
4 pounds (approximately) beef brisket
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup sliced onions
2 cups sliced carrots
2 cups 1-inch cubed potatoes
1 cup sliced celery
3 cups beef stock or broth
1 cup dry red wine
2 bay leaves
3 tablespoons tomato paste
Cook's note: You may substitute root vegetables such as turnips, butternut squash, or rutabaga
In large skillet, heat oil to smoking hot; add brisket and brown well on both sides. (Be sure to pat brisket dry with a paper towel before adding to pan.) Begin warming up the slow cooker.
While the beef is browning, prepare the vegetables and place on the bottom of the slow cooker.
Place the brisket on top of the vegetables; add the stock, wine, bay leaves and tomato paste. (You may omit the wine, if desired. Simply add more liquid, if needed, to submerge the vegetables and beef).
Turn crock on high for one hour, then bring back to low for approximately four hours or until fork tender.
Remove bay leaves and discard. Place brisket on cutting board, cover with foil & let rest for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, remove vegetables and place on a serving platter. Pour broth into a saucepan and thicken as desired; using cornstarch/water mixture works well.
Slice brisket 1/2 inch thick, place on platter with vegetables, and pour sauce over all.
Makes 8-10 servings
The Mirror asked readers for their favorite slow cooker recipes and got the following responses:
Mona L. Bradway of Altoona wrote, "When our dear neighbor died, his family just wanted to have dinner at home with all the family members there. They all brought something of their choice that their neighbors brought to their home. I decided to invade my pantry and refrigerator and came up with this dinner.
"Their daughter is a very fussy eater and when she called and wanted the recipe I was very flattered and knew I must have hit on something. I have taken this dish to pot luck dinners, church tureens and many other dinners and have always received good reports from all that ate it."
6 cups bow tie noodles (or prefered pasta)
4 boneless skinless chicken breast, cut into chunks
1 can cream of chicken soup
1 can cream of broccoli (or fresh broccoli flowers)
2 envelopes creamy garlic Alfredo Sauce mix
3 cup milk
1 can peas (or 1 box frozen peas)
Cook noodles and place in slow cooker. Stir fry seasoned chicken chunks (seasoned with salt and pepper, to taste), then add to noodles.
Combine cream of chicken soup, cream of broccoli soup and envelopes of Alfredo Sauce mix and mix well. Add milk to mixture and mix well again.
Add canned peas, juice included, and pour mixture over the noodles and chicken in slow cooker, mixing well.
Cook on low for three hours.
- courtesy of Mona L. Bradway of Altoona
Round Steak Stew
1 1/2 pounds round steak
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
6 fresh tomatoes, sliced
1/2 cup chopped onions
1 package (24 ounces) frozen vegetables
1 package (12 ounces) pot pie squares (optional)
Place round steak on bottom of slow cooker. Add other ingredients and cook on low for 8 to 9 hours.
Add pot pie squares near end of cooking time until tender.
- courtesy of Joann Boyd of Altoona