Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Using Your Slow Cooker for Things that are not Dinner

The one thing that helps me get through quite a bit of the hot weather preserving and canning seasons is the use of my slow cooker. Notice that I did not say "Crockpot". The Crockpot name refers to a specific (and trademarked) slow cooker and has been around a very long time.

The "Crock" in "Crockpot"

There are basically two types of slow cookers. One type uses a ceramic or pottery insert for cooking. This is excellent for even cooking as it helps to disperse the heat coming from the coils inside. If you have ever cooked jam in a stainless steel pan and noticed that if you left it, the jam would scorch right were the heat hits the pan, but usually not elsewhere. That is a dispersion problem. Further on I have a trick for cooking jam in a steel pan which cuts down on this burning problem in a big way. Materials like cast iron and crockery will disperse the heat so that there are no hot spots which is what causes that round burning spot on the bottom of the pan.

That would suggest strongly that a ceramic cooker is generally better at even heat dispersion, which is very important when cooking things for a long time. I have had the famous "crockpot" and it does generally cook evenly for the most part.  If you are choosing to cook something for 8-10 hours, this is very important to accomplish, and why a slow oven is often recommended if a slow cooker is not available.

The Problems

The first problem is confronting the idea that long cooking always means moist meat. Anyone who had long cooked a chicken and tried eating it without some sort of sauce can attest that is not the case.  Low temperature cooking is very cook at slowly melting the gelatin found in many cheap cuts of meat, so if it is low enough, the gelatin will coat the meat fibers leaving it sticky (or moist if you prefer) and delectable. This is not so much a function of cooking it forever, but happens at low temps until the meat is done (internal temperature desired for the type of meat being cooked). This means that cooking a low gelatin/fat product will produce a dry meat regardless of how long it cooks. With a good bodied sauce, those foods can still be delicious, but over cooking is over cooking regardless of the method used.

Another issue is that the slow cooking method, particularly when using a covered pot, sucks all the juices out of what you are cooking. Ever follow a pot roast recipe to the letter and found the pot completely full of liquid at the end of the cooking time? That is what is happening. The best way to circumvent this is to reduce the amount of liquid called for in the recipe, often drastically. When I do a pulled pork in the slow cooker, I use absolutely no additional liquid. The meat itself creates the juices which are now much more flavorful because no water was used. That also makes the juices easier to cook down if you want a more full flavored sauce.

There is one more problem that always irked me, and that is the problem of having to dirty other pans in order to create a flavorful meal, as so much flavor is created during the Milliard reaction (browning). That is why, when I purchased my slow cooker I threw out the idea of the "crock". My slow cooker allows for the insert to be heated on a burner so that you can brown your aromatics, seasonings and meat, all in the same pan! The trade off is the more even cooking, but since I now know that longer cooking is not necessarily better cooking, this wasn't such a problem. **for clarity, my slow cooker does not have a crockery insert, it is metal with a non stick coating.. please do not try using your crockery on direct heat as it can crack.

Why am I Telling You all This

The slow-cooker will save your sanity for many things during the canning season. I use it to caramelize onions, make stock, and even cook items like apples for apple sauce.  Today I am making pectin using granny smith apples. Over the next few months I will be posting information and tutorials on doing things other than pot roast or pulled pork in the slow cooker.  So far I have successfully made a large quantity of caramelized onions, many gallons of broth, applesauce for canning and of course, regular cooking.  The broth is one of my favorites because it simplifies cutting up whole birds. I just throw the scraps and bones directly into the pot, cover with water and turn on low for several hours. At the end of the cooking all that is needed is straining the broth and defatting. I generally do not add additional flavorings except a little salt when I make it in the slow cooker as some seasonings seem to taste "off" when simmered for such a long time. I prefer it as simply chicken broth, without any additional seasonings that may interfere with any dish it is being used it.

Stay tuned for the results, and if successful, a tutorial on making pectin in the slow cooker as well as using homemade pectin for strawberry jam.

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