Weeknight Cooking

How to Get More out of Your Slow Cooker

December  4, 2014

Every other Thursday, we bring you Nicholas Day -- on cooking for children, and with children, and despite children. Also, occasionally, on top of.

Today: Dust off your slow cooker -- first up, it's time for some cabbage. 

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The last time we talked about slow cookers, I was nice. I said they cooked beans well. I said they made a very tasty dal. 

But I also said things like the slow cooker did not solve every problem in our lives, which was a problem because that was precisely why I had wanted a slow cooker. You do not get a slow cooker because you think it will improve your cooking. You get a slow cooker because you think it will improve your life. (That’s why you get a Vitamix too. It’s not why you get an immersion blender.) And I cannot tell you how much improvement my life needed. The slow cooker was very good at cooking beans, but less good at remembering to buy milk for the morning. Also, did it organize my sock drawer? It did not.

Were my ambitions unrealistic? Maybe. Did I care? Of course not.

But the slow cooker is the Michael Corleone of appliances: Just when you think you are out, it pulls you back in. 

If your children, out of sheer perversity, insist on eating dinner every night, just the idea of the slow cooker has a gravitational pull on your thoughts. It’s roughly the same pull that the idea of sleep training has on the thoughts of new parents: It cannot be that easy. But what if it is?

More food in less time. Well, more food in more time. For more food in less time, of course, you need a pressure cooker. But part of the reason that pressure cookers are still obscure, even though they no longer void your homeowner policy, is that they seem literally incredible: Their promises are too good to be true. Whereas the promises of a slow cooker are all too believable: They promise to stay up all night doing what has to be done. They promise, in short, to be the parent. 

Basically, it was either polygamy or the slow cooker, and as a nation we went with the slow cooker.

A few very idle weeks later, the freezer is now full. And even though I tend to have a Groucho Marx relationship with our freezer -- I don’t want to eat anything that I’ve frozen -- I am not unhappy about it.

Here’s a first pass at what the freezer now knows:

The slow cooker: still really good at cooking beans. Some variations: White beans plus a lot of garlic. Black beans plus soy sauce plus sesame oil (from this book). The insanely flavorful frijoles charros de Nuevo León (from this book): beans and tomatoes plus beef chuck plus smoked pork plus canned chipotles. Pinto beans plus a smoked pork hock for breakfast (courtesy of this thread). The problem is you’ve eaten dinner for breakfast, but then you can have pancakes for dinner, which solves the problem.

More: Guidelines for adapting your favorite recipes for the slow cooker.

Also: really good at cooking chili, and if you do not sauté the vegetables first, the sky will not fall. (It helps if your chili includes meat, but it isn’t mandatory.) Also: If you slow cook a huge hunk of meat -- brisket, pork shoulder -- without browning it first, the sky won’t fall then either. This is important to remember, because not having time to brown something right now is often the reason not to do it at all.

More: Our favorite slow cooker has a ceramic insert for even better browning.

But vegetables are the bête noire of the slow cooker, which is why my favorite, just-in-time-for-winter insight is: cabbage. It’s the ideal vegetable for the slow cooker: It wants to melt anyway. An inspired, one-pot-dinner treatment comes from The Southern Slow Cooker, by Kendra Bailey Morris: Southern choucroute. Take cabbage, apples, and smoked sausage; mix with brown sugar, mustard, juniper berries, cider vinegar; press go. 

The children ate it with abandon. Possibly too much abandon. In retrospect, I recommend having your diners shirtless.

Southern Slow Cooker Choucroute

Serves 4 to 6

1 head of green cabbage, thinly sliced
1 onion, chopped
2 to 3 tart apples, cored and chopped
1 teaspoon bacon grease (optional)
1 garlic clove, minced
1 bay leaf
4 juniper berries, lightly crushed
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard
1 pinch caraway seeds
1 pound smoked sausage links, halved

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by James Ransom and Alpha Smoot

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I'm the author of a book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World. My website is nicholasday.net; I tweet over at @nicksday. And if you need any good playdoh recipes, just ask.


Jan O. February 18, 2016
Can this be made with red cabbage too?
Adrienne W. February 15, 2016
So funny I laughed out loud. Love your wit and humor. Also, the recipe sounds fabulous.
faith April 21, 2016
Agreed - I came looking for how to use my new slow cooker, and left with an appreciation for your humor and on point writing. Oh, and a cabbage recipe.
Chrissy N. December 7, 2014
Made this yesterday, and it's absolutely a beautiful meld of Flavors. I will point out, though, that with the prescribed time, the cabbage will not look like it does in the picture. Everything had a rich caramelized amber to it in my pot.
Nicholas D. December 7, 2014
This always happens, it seems: slow cookers are notoriously variable in how they cook. But rich caramelized amber: those are good words.
Chrissy N. December 7, 2014
Yup. Unexpected color, but beautiful and tasty nonetheless!
Fairmount_market December 6, 2014
A slow cooker can be great for cooking both cabbage and beans together (like in this recipe: https://food52.com/recipes/10474-bean-and-ham-stew-with-roasted-vegetable-garnish). The cabbage melts into the bean broth for a rich flavor.
Nicholas D. December 7, 2014
This is brilliant. I'll try it.
Susan W. December 5, 2014
I love my slow cookers. I have a cuisinart model that has a beautiful browning function which I use when browning is needed. Best purchase ever. I have a 6.5 qt Crock pot model that I use for stocks and soups and ribs.

I have the cabbage and sausage percolating right now. It smells delicious.
HRH December 5, 2014
I too, am ambivalent about slow cookers. It just seems... wrong, to throw everything in there and walk away. No browning? No sauteeing? What in the name of all that is holy am I going to end up with?? I did make an excellent chili in the slow cooker last week. After I browned the meat and sauteed the veggies. I'm a work in progress.
Nicholas D. December 7, 2014
It feels so wrong, I know. It feels a little like expecting your compost pile to make you dinner.
cookinalong December 8, 2014
If you feel the need to expiate your guilt, try the Slow Cooker Revolution cook book. So far the 5 recipes I've tried involve at least 30 minutes of prep time before it hits the slow cooker. Results have been mixed, but I'd be lying if I said I was impressed. What can I say? I'm a sucker for the scientific method pitch.