We partnered with the Beef Checkoff to share writer Paula Disbrowe's tips on how to adapt any roast you'd stick in the oven to the slow cooker.
It didn’t seem fair that my kids should have all the fun. So while I was busy booking up their summer with cool-sounding camps, I decided to sign up for one as well. A few weeks later, I was on the road to Barbecue Summer Camp, a weekend symposium created by Foodways Texas, an academic organization devoted to preserving and celebrating the State’s diverse food cultures.
Held in College Station at Texas A&M University, the event attracted fellow brisket lovers from across the country to learn from acclaimed pitmasters, award-winning food journalists, and professors from the university’s Department of Animal Science. Some of the sessions were pretty technical (we spent a lot of time in frigid meat lockers wearing lab coats and hairnets, for instance), but there were also plenty of rubber-gloved, hands-on opportunities. We blended our own rubs and marinades, made jalapeño sausage, and tossed chicken wings in orange marmalade-Sriracha sauce.
Although we were mostly focused on smoking meat, the experience got me thinking about the virtues of other low-and-slow cooking techniques. It’s easy to see why slow cooking is one of the most satisfying ways to prepare dinner—with minimal effort, tougher cuts become deeply-flavored, one-pot meals.
Slow cooking begins with a “lesser” cut of meat: Hardworking muscles like the shoulder and legs that contain a lot of collagen, or connective muscle tissue. When it comes to beef, that means chuck (a cut from the shoulder with great marbling), Clod Roast (also called Arm Roast), brisket, or the Top Round or Bottom Round (also called Rump Roast) cut from the back leg. These cuts are less expensive than splurge roasts (like Tenderloin or Rib Roast), which means slow cooking is also a great way to feed a crowd on a budget.
Slow cooking these cuts melts the collagen into gelatin, making the meat tender while enriching the cooking liquid. In a covered pot, the meat cooks in its own juices, concentrating the flavors. Following the same basic principles, you can slow-cook just about anything. For me, this usually means an oven braise—browning a roast, and then adding aromatic vegetables, a cooking liquid like wine, broth, or beer, and then popping it in a low oven. If I’m adding potatoes, carrots, or other vegetables, they join the meat for the last hour of cooking.
A slow-cooker—a neglected technique for many urban cooks—makes it even easier. (As the mom of two young kids, that’s a serious bonus.) I can assemble dinner in the morning—during the breakfast and lunch box scramble—and then after a long day, return home to the fragrant aromas of a luscious braise that’s ready to serve.
My favorite Pot Roast—braised in my two favorite beverages, coffee and whiskey—is a perfect candidate for the slow cooker, and provides a good baseline for adapting other roasts. The original recipe uses the oven, but for a slow cooker, here's how I do it:
1.) I’d use a boneless chuck instead of something bone-in: It's smaller and more manageable for a slow cooker. An hour before cooking, take the roast from the fridge. Combine spices and herbs and rub the mixture over the entire roast. Allow the meat to rest at room temperature for one hour.
2.) At this point, you could put the roast into the slow cooker, but you’ll get significantly more depth of flavor if you brown it first. Heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, brown the roast on all sides, and then remove it from the heat.
3.) Add any hearty root vegetables and aromatic alliums to the pot and stir them around to absorb the meat's juices, and then transfer the vegetables to the slow cooker. In a large measuring cup, whisk together Beef broth, some espresso powder, a little smoked paprika, and whiskey.
4.) Place the browned roast on top of the vegetables, and pour it in the broth mixture. You want the liquid to come 1/3 to 1/2 the way up the roast (if you add more than that, you’ll wind up with more of a stew than slow-roasted meat with gravy). Add more broth as needed to create the right ratio of meat to liquid. Tuck bay leaves into the liquid and then using your fingers, break up some whole peeled tomatoes and place them over the top of the roast. Cover the slow cooker and roast on low for 8 hours, until the meat and the vegetables are tender.
5.) Before serving, transfer the meat to a serving platter and then toss the vegetables with a nice amount of chopped parsley to brighten up the luscious, long-cooked flavors.
Below is my original recipe cooked in the oven, so feel free to apply the guidelines above or do it the old-fashioned way.
- 1 1 bone-in Chuck Roast (about 4 pounds)
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon cumin
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
- 2 large onions, sliced
- 1 head garlic, cloves peeled
- 1-3 serrano chiles (as desired for heat)
- 1-2 cups beef broth
- 2 tablespoons instant espresso powder
- 1 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 cups canned San Marzano tomatoes
- 1/2 cup whiskey
- 2-4 fresh bay leaves, torn
- 1 pound carrots, peeled and sliced into 4-inch lengths
- 1 pound potatoes (Yukon gold or fingerling), sliced into 2-inch chunks or halved
What's your go-to slow-cooker meal for busy weeknights and easy weekends? Tell us in the comments below!
We teamed up the Beef Checkoff to share recipes, tips, and videos all season long, showing you how to prep and cook beef at home like you've been doing it forever.