They say diamonds are a girl’s best friend. That may be true, but I’d like to think that the crock pot is a mom’s best friend. You fill it in the morning with ingredients in as short a time as possible, and dinner miraculously appears ready for the table without your having to stand in a kitchen for hours on end. Even better, it’s a great way to make dinner during the summer months without heating up the kitchen.
So, what are the basics of crock pot cooking?
- Figure out what types of things you want to make: soups and stews can go in any shape crock pot, but turkey breasts or whole small chickens require oval pots. Even the old faithful, pot roast, can easily fill a round crock pot and perhaps require an oval.
- Think about how many people you’re trying to serve with your dishes: 4qt crock pots are perfect for making dishes that run in the 4-6 serving range, but you’ll want to step up to a 5 or 6qt crock pot if you want to make a meal for more (or generate a load of leftovers).
- Consider what features you want: simpler crock pots have only three settings (OFF, LOW and HIGH); fancier ones may have a KEEP WARM setting and/or may have a timer to switch from your cooking temp to the warm setting.
Beyond that, it comes down to the basics of what you want to make and how to fit that into your schedule. With perhaps a few exceptions, cooking on LOW should be about twice the amount of time you need to cook on HIGH. So, if you suddenly realize at 2pm that you forgot to start your crock pot (and you’re home, not at work or out), you can probably kick that puppy up to HIGH and let it go until dinnertime.
Cooking times are also usually heavily related to the type of thing you’re cooking. Meats vary wildly (often 6-9hrs for chicken breasts or thighs, 9-11hrs for turkey breasts or whole small chickens, 10-12hrs for large cuts of beef and/or ribs).
What about the safety of cooking meats? Will the crock pot heat evenly? Will my meats dry out or possibly not cook thoroughly?
OK – all good concerns, but the typical cook-the-tar-out-of-it style of crock pot cooking (where you leave something in to braise for anywhere from 6-9+ hours) will generally handle this. You can help things out by defrosting meats before they go into the crock pot. You don’t have to defrost all the way, and some things can be put in as frozen bricks…but doing at least some defrosting can help a ton. In my many years of crock pot cooking, I have yet to run into any kind of illness related to meats being improperly cooked. I can say that meats can dry out, so maintaining an appropriate moisture level is really important. And, as they say, YMMV, so make sure that you see crock pot cooking as experimental. It’s like cooking with any other recipe. Why not add fresh mushrooms? Why not add a little hot sauce?
Consider the crock pot yet another way to shave time less-well-spent off the day if you’re already in a hurry (or just need to keep a meal really low-key). Most of the crock pot recipes I plan to post require less than 15mins of prep time. Honestly, I just don’t have the time to prep things for an hour…at that point, I’d rather just spend the time cooking and get my Julia Child on, if you know what I mean.