From N., 17 February 2010, Slow cookers: the possibilities?
Q: My slow cooker is the bane of my existence. Such possibility, so much disappointment. Is it actually possible to make something taste good in the crock? Bonus points if it’s something that includes a starch. (my 4 yr old won’t eat meat)
A: Hey there – thanks for your question. I share your feelings on the slow cooker – the only reason I bought one is as part of a jury-rigged apparatus for low temperature sous vide cooking, before I bought a better setup. Now I pretty much use it only to keep warm the food I’ve cooked outside the slow cooker, for parties and such.
That said, it is possible to produce tasty food in the slow cooker, as long as you understand its limitations. Here’s what the slow cooker can do for you:
* Produce tender, moist stews
* Braise tough cuts of meat to a tender texture
* Cook risotto
Here’s what it cannot do:
* Reduce a braising liquid
* Cook off alcohol (at least not reliably)
* Enable the Maillard reaction to take place, unless the liner is metal and you can heat it on the stovetop to sear your product
* Cook certain types of beans (such as red kidney beans), which require boiling for a certain amount of time to destroy toxins
* Cook out the raw floury taste of roux
Vegetables pose additional challenges to the slow cooker – if long cooking at low temperatures yields tender meat, it also tends to produce unsatisfying vegetables. Some vegetables fall apart and become unpleasantly mushy; others never soften up enough to be palatable. Why? Harold McGee, food scientist par excellence, offers a likely reason. Slow cooking at low temperatures under the boiling point – at 180-190F/80-85C – will render tough meats tender through collagen breakdown, but at these temperatures, vegetables, especially hard root vegetables, take far longer to cook. Prolonged simmering the meat just above the boiling point, though – at temperatures over 212F/100C – will turn the vegetables to mush. Since the slow cooker is about ease and convenience, constant temperature monitoring is not feasible.
Is this too much science? Great. Let’s cut to the chase. Two recipes, one with meat and one without, that should help you use the slow cooker to its best advantage.
Slow Cooker Ossobuco
OK, full disclosure. This is just my earlier recipe for ossobuco, but adapted to the slow cooker. You start it in a pan on the stovetop, and you reduce the braising liquid afterward. No one will know you slow cooked the shanks.
Veal is hard to find, you say? Or you have ethical objections (I do to the old method of raising veal, but I am careful to avoid conventional veal)? Substitute lamb shanks. The shanks will take about 7-10 hours.
4 veal shanks, about 10 ounces each
2 medium carrots, diced 1/4″
1 small onion, diced 1/4″
1 large or two small ribs celery, diced 1/4″
1 c dry white wine
4-6 canned plum tomatoes (I use San Marzano DOP), depending on size)
2 c white veal stock, or chicken stock
several sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
salt and pepper
Preheat the slow cooker on its highest setting.
Season the shanks on both sides with salt. Place a deep, heavy pan over medium-high heat and, when hot, add a little olive oil to film the pan. Add the shanks, browning well on both sides (about 3-4 minutes per side). Remove the shanks and set aside in the slow cooker.
Deglaze the pan with wine, stirring. Reduce the wine by 2/3 and add the tomatoes, breaking up as you go. Add the herbs and stock and bring to a simmer. Pour into the slow cooker and reduce the heat to low.
Braise for about six to eight hours. Test the shanks for tenderness; if they require more time (they should not), continue to braise until tender.
Remove the shanks to a plate, remove the marrow, and set aside for the risotto. Strain the slow cooker contents through a chinois into a clean pan, pressing well to extract as much liquid as possible as the vegetables disintegrate. Place the pan over medium heat. Reduce the strained braising liquid until beginning to thicken, reduce heat to a simmer, and return the shanks to the pan to glaze well. Cover with a parchment paper lid and keep warm in a 200F oven (conventional, not convection) if necessary.
If you like, you can prepare risotto while the sauce reduces. The risotto takes about 90 minutes.
Slow cooker brown butter risotto
Again, full disclosure – this is my earlier risotto recipe, adapted to the slow cooker. The beauty thing about the slow cooker? It allows you to prepare delicious risotto without the need to stir constantly to avoid burning. Again, start it on the stove.
3 oz butter, divided into 4 pieces
1 small onion, diced 1/4″
3 cloves garlic confit, pureed
1 1/2 c carnaroli or arborio rice
1 c dry white wine
6 c white veal stock, or chicken stock
8 chives, minced
about 20 sage leaves, washed and dried
bone marrow from prepared ossobuco
salt and pepper
1/2 c or so grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
About 90 minutes before service, bring the stock to a simmer.
Turn the slow cooker on high. Place a skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp (1/2 oz) butter. When foaming and beginning to brown, add the onion, and sweat until tender. Add the rice to the pan and sauté until the grains are all coated well with oil, about 2 minutes (tostatura). Add the wine to the pan and stir continuously until the wine is absorbed.
Transfer the contents to the slow cooker and add all the stock. Stir well and cover. 45 minutes in, stir it well and cover again.
About 10 minutes before the risotto is finished, heat the remaining butter in a small pan until foamy, slightly brown, and nutty. Add the sage leaves and fry until bright deep green and crisp. Hold. As soon as the rice is cooked al dente, turn off the cooker and stir in the reserved marrow, half the brown butter, and the Parmigiano. Season with additional salt as necessary and pepper to taste.
Plate the risotto and add the glazed veal shank, and drizzle with a spoonful of the remaining brown butter. Garnish with several fried sage leaves.