Once, in a time long, long ago, the words “slow-cooked meal” conjured heady sense images of satisfying stews, tender hunks of meat and vegetables robed in the velvety, richly flavored pan juices they’d simmered in for untold hours. Once many, if not most, women started working outside the home, however, they were no longer available for extended stints of stewpot-stirring. Enter the Rival Company, which in 1971 alertly capitalized upon the rise of feminism by introducing the Crock-PotTM, a self-contained countertop appliance that, Rival proclaimed, “Cooks all day while the cook’s away!” The Crock-Pot offered busy moms a way to feed their families a meal that tasted like a labor of love, even if the “labor” part had been mostly done away with.
Or would have tasted more or less like a traditional hearty and delicious slow-cooked meal if not for the unfortunate fact that, in the interest of speed, early slow-cooker recipes tended to cut all kinds of culinary corners—hellooo, canned cream-of-whatever soup. Early Crock-Pot cookery, alas, operated under the mistaken notion that one could create a delectable dish merely by dumping raw ingredients in the device and flipping the “on” switch. The inevitable result was gray, stringy meat mired in a slush of cooked-to-mush vegetables or gummy, bloated pasta, a hella mess no pouch of instant onion-soup mix could ever render palatable. As a result, any cooks preferring an actual desirable dinner over gloppy expediency yanked their Harvest Gold cookers from the countertop and, by the end of the ’70s, the Crock-Pot had become something of a culinary punch line.
The Crock-Pot never died out completely, however. Given its undeniable convenience and the fact that the time-crunch problem it originally promised to solve has only become worse over ensuing decades, it’s understandable why a new generation of home cooks is taking another look. Recent years have brought about something of a slow-cooker renaissance, with cookbooks like Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker Cookbook and Slow Cooker Revolution leading the way. I’ve never had a truly great meal from a Crock-Pot, but recently I’ve had some pretty good ones—and pretty good is good enough for most of us on a Tuesday night. It turns out that with upgraded ingredients and the willingness to put in a little prep work, it’s possible to wrangle a palatable one-pot meal out of one of these puppies.
Nowadays you can spend upward of a hundred bucks for a slow cooker with a digital display and brushed stainless-steel exterior. But thrift stores abound in bargain $5 cookers, and really they all do the same thing: use an electric heating element to cook food in low, moist heat over a long period of time. Which is essentially the process of braising, a culinary technique that’s been in deliciously successful use for, oh, thousands of years. Braising can easily be done in a home oven, no crock required (although it’s admittedly more daunting to walk away from a turned-on gas stove for the day).
The main reason that braising works so much better than dump-and-run Crock-Pot cookery is two words: Maillard reaction. That is the fancy technical term for what happens when you sear ingredients over high heat—browning, caramelizing, call it what you want, but when raw food meets hot pan, chemical reactions occur and myriad flavor compounds are created. These compounds form our experience of flavor and color for that food. So, yeah, important. Classic braising is the process of searing meat and then cooking it at low heat for a long time, partially submerged in liquid in a sealed pot, until it becomes unctuously tender. This begins on the stovetop, where ingredients are browned over a high burner and the pan deglazed afterward to create a flavorful braising medium. Caramelizing the exterior of meat and vegetables also gives them attractive color and puts the brakes on mushiness. For oven braises, you can use the same pan to sear and then bake. For Crock-Pot preparations, you’re gonna hafta cook on the stove first no matter what the instruction booklet tells you—sorry.
The beauty of braising is the wide variety of possible culinary destinations for a given hunk of meat: a pork shoulder, say, can make a classic Italian maiale al latte (braised in milk), or Latino posole (pork stew with hominy), or a knock-your-socks-off vindaloo. It’s all in the spices, and also the braising liquid, be it wine or beer, stock or milk—the process remains the same. The key is to build the flavors incrementally to an intensity that stands up to the long bake. Other helpful pointers: You can chop and sear the ingredients the night before, refrigerate overnight, and then cook the next day. Also, don’t lift the lid—this lets accumulated moisture and heat escape, and can significantly set back the cooking process.
Best of all, one-pot braises, be they oven or crock, tend to create lots of leftovers—which only get better over the next few days as the flavors continue to develop. And your house will smell great too.
So here’s a recipe for beef stew, which I chose because every terrible Crock-Pot cookbook ever printed begins with this ultimate one-pot meal—and makes of it anemic dreck. Beef stew is easy, seasonally appropriate for late winter Maryland, and delicious when done right.
Stout Beef Stew4 lbs stew beef cut in approximately 1.5-inch chunks*
oil, lard, or bacon drippings
2 medium onions, diced
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
2 bottles dark beer, like a stout or porter
1.5 teaspoons dried thyme leaves
4 cups stock—chicken, beef, or vegetable all work
1/4 cup unbleached flour
6 medium soft-skinned potatoes, like Yukon Golds
3-4 big carrots, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 8-oz bag frozen pearl onions, thawed
flat-leafed parsley, for garnish
*Most precut stew meat comes from butcher’s block leftovers, various ends and pieces trimmed from different muscles and all packaged randomly together. These are totally useable, individually, but the problem is that the variations between cuts of meat mean different flavors and cooking times. For best results buy a beef chuck roast, trim the fat off, and cut into chunks yourself—thereby ensuring all the pieces cook the same way, and have this cut’s richness and flavor.
Slow cooker Place whole potatoes around the outside perimeter of the Crock-Pot. Pat the beef chunks dry with paper towels, season with salt and pepper, and batch-fry in your fat of choice until well browned on all sides. Remove meat from pan and place in slow cooker, mounding it in the middle of the potatoes. Place carrots and onions on top.
Return pan to medium flame, and sautée onions and garlic, along with a generous pinch each of salt and sugar, until lightly browned. Add flour, stirring until lightly colored, and then slowly add 1 cup of stock, scraping up any tasty tidbits stuck to the pan’s bottom. Add remaining 2-3 cups of stock, beer, and thyme, raise heat to high and bring to a boil, and pour into crock over meat and vegetables. Grind a generous amount of fresh pepper over everything. Cover and cook approximately nine hours (can go longer) on low, or about six hours on high. Sprinkle with parsley. Devour.
Oven braise Use a heavyweight oven-safe pan with lid, like a Dutch oven. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Cut potatoes into quarters. Sear the meat as above, removing it to a platter. Sautée onions and garlic in your fat of choice over medium heat, adding generous pinches salt and sugar, until they brown and soften. Add 1/4 cup white flour and cook a minute or so until lightly colored. Gradually add 1 cup stock, stirring and scraping to get all browned bits. Turn heat to high, add remaining 3 cups stock, beer, thyme, and a good grinding of pepper, and bring to simmer. Return meat to pot, bring back to simmer, cover, and place in oven. Cook one hour. Remove pot, put (cut-up) potatoes, pearl onions, and carrots in with meat, and return to oven for one more hour. Check meat and potatoes for tenderness—they might need a little longer. Once fork-tender, taste to correct seasoning, sprinkle with parsley, and enjoy.