January is Slow Cooker month, one of our favorites! After the rush of the holidays the new year brings a time to re-group and recenter our lives. This might mean more time at the gym or exercise class, being part of a networking group or after-school activities. For our farming and ranching families it brings long hours outside in the cold and snow breaking ice, feeding cattle, protecting the land and their investments. This means less time inside for cooking and meal prep.
Enter slow cooker
Using the slow cooker allows you a fix it and forget it opportunity like no other! Here are some essential tips for successful slow cooker meals:
The Right Cuts: Cuts of beef that are fatty or tougher meats work better than lean cuts that tend to dry out. Think Chuck roasts, Round steak, Skirt steak. These cuts tend to be less expense because they are the well worked muscles of the cow. The slow cooker melts the collagen (protein responsible for making these cuts tough) and turns the beef into fork tender deliciousness.
Thawed Not Frozen: Unless you’re making a prepackage frozen meal from the store, put food in the slow cooker fully thawed. If you start out with frozen foods, they will be kept in the ‘danger zone’ (40 to 140 degrees F) and that’s where bacteria can flourish.
No Peeking! Keep the lid closed while cooking. Each time you open up to take a sniff, or sample taste it adds approximately 15 minutes of cook time.
Layer, but Don’t Crowd: For best results, foods that need to cook longer go on the bottom. For example, root vegetables like carrots and potatoes would go in first, and the roast on top. Overcrowding can also be an issue, so be mindful to not overfill the crock. Half to two-thirds full at max.
Additional Flavors: Many recipes call for wine, dairy or citrus, but adding them too soon can provide less than desirable results. A little wine goes a long way, just a splash is plenty. The alcohol doesn’t cook out with the lid sealed as it would in an open pot or skillet. Dairy breaks down in the slow cooker, so it should be added the last 15 minutes of cooking. This includes sour cream, milk, yogurt and half and half. Same rule for citrus and fresh herbs. They are great to cut through the richness of a dish and offer a bright note of freshness.
Plug It In: Remember to plug your slow cooker in. Unplugged means unusable. Also keep in mind that “cooking” your meal on warm with the slow cooker will put your food in the “danger zone” (40 to 140 degrees F). If that happens, toss it and start over.
There are a plethora of beef slow cooker recipes on our Pinterest page Slow Cooker Goodness, including a few desserts!