Cooking food slowly doesn’t mandate the use of the handy electric contraption known as the slow cooker—but the aluminum and ceramic appliance sure helps when making good soups and stews that require almost no attention.
Slow-cooking is like being your own stay-at-home spouse. You’ll arrive home after hours away to what feels like a meal made by someone else. Leaving a beef stew in a 300°F gas oven while you toil all day at work is kind of scary, but there’s no need to worry about a plugged-in slow cooker that’s using about as much electricity as your DVR.
Still, the best way to deploy this tool is on foods that truly reach their zenith when slowly cooked. This might sound obvious now, but if you become a crockpot convert, it won’t. You’ll soon obsess over depraved experiments you can do with your dream appliance, like make birthday cake or fry chicken. Go for it, if you dare. But if you really want to make dinner by throwing a few things together in the morning and then forgetting about food all day, opt for dishes that you’d cook slowly anyway.
Slow-cooking is like being your own stay-at-home spouse. You’ll arrive home after hours away to what feels like a meal made by someone else.
The best of those are ones that pair beans (cooked from dried) with meat (something that takes time to grow tender). This symbiotic twosome profits texturally and taste-wise from the consistent, barely simmering heat that a slow-cooker supplies, the beans borrowing the meat’s fat and flavor and, in turn, contributing great body to the meal.
This marriage might sound particular at first, but many of the world’s favorite slow-cooked dishes include both beans and meat (first and foremost: chili). There’s also baked beans, split pea soup, Cuban black beans, and cassoulet—the French peasant supper we’ll outline through this tutorial.
Here are the basic guidelines you need to get the most out of your slow cooker.
1. The size
Many slow cookers on the market hold around 6 quarts. That’s a lot of space to cook in, and a big yield of food. The real advantage is that you can fit a whole chicken, a full-sized pork butt, or a huge brisket and come out with a week’s worth of chicken stock, a Super Bowl party-sized pulled pork, or barbacoa beef for a taco-loving crowd. If you’re cooking for fewer mouths, though, plan to eat tons of leftovers. Small machines obviously yield more manageable quantities, but you’ll have to adapt most of the recipes you find. When shopping for improvised slow-cooker meals, try to conjure up the pot’s volume in your mind and mentally fit the ingredients in. For this cassoulet, I bought three sausages for my tiny two-quart cooker but had to leave out one. I also had to cut the duck meat off the bone to make it all fit.
2. The order
Though the slow cooker’s heat distributes fairly evenly, there’s often a hot zone at the bottom or around the sides. Shield your pork or chicken from those spots. Use vegetables—onions, especially—to insulate the meat, making a bed of vegetables and maybe beans on the bottom, then sticking the meat right on top, in the center. Onions work so well as a first layer because they give sweetness to the dish when their juices release.
3. The meat
For optimal slow-cookery, focus on a piece of meats that demand a long cooking time. Tough cuts are always best, since a long period spent at low heat turns their connective tissues into falling-apart deliciousness, without toughening up the muscle. With chicken, go for the thighs and legs—white meat will usually get dry (unless you throw chicken breasts in the slow cooker with some barbecue sauce and then shred—that’s a really good one to try).
Many of those tough meats will have a high fat content, too, which is great for your dish as a whole. That little extra fat will give a slow-cooker meal more body, remedying the common complaints that slow-cooked food can be a little one-note. That’s why bacon, duck confit (with all its surrounding fat), and good-quality pork sausages form the backbone of this cassoulet. You can easily substitute in different meats, like lamb shanks, chicken thighs, and pancetta; since cassoulet is a peasant dish, it’s about using what you have.
If a slow-cooker salesmen cornered you at Bed Bath & Beyond to tell you how great his machine was, he’d probably explain that with a slow cooker, you can make dinner in just one pan.
He’s right, you can. But you shouldn’t.
All that wet heat amounts to great flavor, but it’s tough to recreate the rich caramel notes and straight-up umami you get when you brown meat. So, one extra pan—the one you use for browning—will transform your slow-cooked dinner from a decent bean soup into cassoulet. First, brown the duck confit if you’re using it. A ton of fat will render. Cook the bacon and sausages in that. As soon as they’re browned, remove each piece to a plate—don’t worry about cooking anything through, and don’t add all the rendered fat to the dish, though you can put in a little. You can brown up some of your vegetables, like onions, if you want. But the meat is most important. After that, you can set aside your skillet. From here on in, we really do have a one-pot meal.
5. The beans
Beans need a sort of pre-cooking, too, but it’s really low-key. You just want to soak them in water overnight, covered, so that by the time you start your slow cooker, they’ve softened up a bit and will definitely cook through. Beans love the slow cooker, because they live in their own time dimension: You just never know how long they’ll take to cook. With the low, slow heat of your crockpot, the beans stop being finicky and almost always get melt-in-your-mouth tender without falling apart. You can cook a plain batch of chickpeas for hummus, make a great dal with red lentils, or simmer split peas with a ham hock for soup. For cassoulet, a few handfuls of flat white beans, soaked overnight, absorb the broth and help thicken the dish so it’s rich and creamy.
6. The vegetables
Though you can certainly make vegetarian dishes in the slow cooker—something like black bean chili is your best bet—slow cooked vegetables often wind up sacrificing their own taste and texture to the greater good of the dish. That means they can really lack flavor by the time the timer dings. If you’re using vegetables like carrots and celery for seasoning, as so many stews do in the form of mirepoix, skip the chopping all together. Use large chunks, like these carrots and celery, and then consider removing them before serving if you want your meal to look more refined.
For veggies you definitely want to eat, add them later on in the cooking process—about two hours before you plan to dine. Starchy vegetables, like potatoes and squash, should have plenty of time to soften in the remaining minutes on the timer.
7. Spices & Herbs
As with vegetables, slow cookers can zap the taste out of your herbs and spices, so be aggressive with the parsley and black pepper. For this reason, using a bouquet garni is a beloved stewing technique: You wrap up some herbs and whole spices in a cheesecloth bundle, which simmers with the stew and then gets easily removed at the end. Lacking cheesecloth, throw whole sprigs of thyme, rosemary, and parsley into a dish like cassoulet, then fish them out at the end. You can also season closer to game time, tasting your chili and adding more cumin or coriander (or salt!) as your dish’s cook time dwindles.
8. The liquid
Use less liquid than if you were braising in a regular pot. Because the slow cooker doesn’t let liquid evaporate, and your meats and vegetables will release more liquid as they cook, you can wind up with soup that’s soupier than imagined. For example: With a real cassoulet, French chefs cook the dish uncovered so everything thickens. That means that to resemble the original, you should really avoid overwatering this one.
Filling the pot up about halfway is a good rule of thumb. Never add no water—there should always be a drizzle. And, if you’re building tons of flavor with vegetables and meat and herbs, you don’t need to use chicken stock, like we do for cassoulet. Water is fine.
9. The timing and setting
Most slow cookers keep food between about 180° and boiling (212°F). This is optimal temperature for making meat tender and beans creamy, without exposing them to bacteria growth (that happens below about 140°F). If you’ll be gone all day, definitely pick low; that gives you a bet against overcooking, which is a long shot at slow-cooker temperature, though you may occasionally find your beans disintegrating into soup. If you want dinner to cook in 4 hours, not 8, then go for high. Some fancy slow cookers have many more settings than these two. Here’s some wisdom about changing the cook time of your regular recipes so they’ll succeed in the slow cooker.
If you somehow have overcooked your stew into flavorless, textureless oblivion (you probably won’t), add some texture back in by topping with breadcrumbs or tortilla chips—anything crunchy.
10. Keep warm
The last setting on my slow cooker is a good one: keep warm. This is the feature that allows you to have amazing parties centered around warm foods like cheese dip, fondue, and soup. In this case, the slow cooker doubles as a chaffing dish with one of those alcohol burners you’d see at a buffet in a hotel. Even if you’re not having a party, keep your cassoulet warm while you toss together the rest of dinner—namely, the green salad meant to balance out all that rendered duck fat and browned bacon.
Recipe for slow-cooker cassoulet
Note: the quantities are for a 2-quart slow cooker (double, triple, etc. for larger cookers).
3/4 cup dried white beans
1 leg duck confit
3-by-4 inch piece pancetta or guanciale, cut into 4 pieces
2 Italian sausages
1 onion, sliced
1 carrot, cut into large chunks
1 stalk celery, cut into large chunks
2 sprigs parsley, plus more for garnish
1 sprig rosemary
2 sprigs thyme
About 2 cups chicken stock
The night before cooking, soak the beans in water. In the morning, heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the duck confit and let it brown on both sides. The fat will render. Remove the leg and set aside. Add the pancetta and the sausages to the pan, and brown on both sides, then remove and turn off the heat.
Place the onion in the slow cooker. Sprinkle with salt. Drain the beans and add them on top. Nestle the three different meats among the beans, then top with the carrot, celery, and herbs, and more salt. Pour in enough chicken stock to come up about 2 inches below the top. Spoon a little leftover duck fat from the skillet.
Cover and cook on low for 8 to 9 hours, until the meats are all tender, the beans are cooked through, and the onions are soft. Remove the carrot, celery, and herbs. Serve portions of beans and onions topped with the meat. Taste salt, adding more if needed. Garnish with parsley.