I have so much to say about slow cookers that I don’t know where to start.
I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with mine. I love the idea of it: throwing a bunch of healthy ingredients into a pot, turning it on, leaving it all day, and coming home to a nourishing stew, soup or chili. What’s not to love about that? But my attempts to execute on this idea have been met with mixed success. Mostly failure, actually.
I expect slow cookering would be relatively foolproof if I used commercial sauces and soups—powdered onion soup mix, canned cream of mushroom, or jarred barbecue sauce, for example. This is what slow cookers (or crock pots) were invented for back in the convenience-food-crazed 1970s.
But slow cooking with real food—vegetables, stocks, fresh herbs, and stuff like that—doesn’t work quite as well. You often end up, in my experience, with a dinner that is bland, soupy and cat-foodish in appearance. I once made a promising slow cooker peanut-butter chicken stew recipe that tasted and looked so terrible it went straight into the trash.
I considered giving up on the slow cooker all together, but judging by the amount of requests I get for “slow cooker recipes, puh-lease!!!!” I figured it would be something like shooting my busy-parent-cooking-blog in the foot. So I persevered. And I’m finally ready to unveil my first (hard won) Kiwi & Bean approved slow cooker recipe.
Before I get to the recipe, a few things I learned in my slow-cooking experiments that I hope will help you maximize your own chance of slow-cooked success:
- Fat is your friend. The slow cooker works best with fattier cuts of meat, like chicken thighs or pork shoulder. Don’t trust a slow-cooker recipe that calls for chicken breasts or pork tenderloin.
- Start with a flavour base. The dump-it-all-in-and-turn-it-on recipes are appealing for their simplicity, but they are generally too good to be true. Raw garlic and onion, in particular, are rendered inedible by slow-cooking. (There are not too many things that I find truly disgusting, but slow-cookered raw onion is at the very top of the list.) I highly recommend spending a tiny bit of extra time to develop a base of flavour, by sauteeing the garlic and onion, toasting the dry spices, searing the meat, or all of these things. I don’t relish the thought of sauteeing onions at 730 am before I leave for work, so I will usually prepare the “flavour base” the night before and store it in the fridge overnight, as I have recommended in the pulled pork recipe below.
- Cut back the liquid. This is key. Liquid doesn’t evaporate from the slow cooker in quite the same way it does when you cook a dish on the stove or in the oven. So if you intend to create your own slow-cooker recipe, or convert your grandmother’s oven or stove-top braised stew recipe to a slow cooker one, cut the liquid by half, possibly even three-quarters of what you would otherwise use.
Pulled pork is right in the slow-cooker sweet spot: a muscular fatty cut of meat drenched in flavour and slow cooked with a small amount of liquid until it is falling apart, super-tender and saucy.
Most pulled pork recipes call for a bottle or two of commercially prepared barbecue sauce, and while I’m sure that would be delicious, I’d rather skip the preservatives and save my sugar quota for cupcakes. Or chocolate. You know what I mean? So this recipe, while it hits all the pulled pork buttons: tender, saucy, salty-sweet is actually pretty good for you, and possibly even “healthy”. Honest. It’s great on a big soft onion roll, of course, but if you want to extend the health theme just a bit, try it on brown rice, quinoa (as pictured here) or tucked into a corn tortilla with a little red cabbage slaw and some pickled jalapeno peppers.
- 4-6 pound boneless pork shoulder roast
- 2 tablespoons cooking oil (I use avocado oil, but grapeseed or vegetable oil will work too)
- 1 large onion, diced
- 4 cloves garlic, crushed
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 3 tablespoons maple syrup
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce (or gluten-free tamari)
- 2 tablespoons chili powder (the Mexican-style spice mix)
- ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
- ½ cup water
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Use paper towels to pat the pork shoulder dry. Place the shoulder into a large (6 quart / 5.6 litre) slow cooker.
- Heat the cooking oil in a medium-sized skillet set over medium-high heat. Add the onions and garlic and sautee, stirring frequently, until the onion is nice and soft.
- Stir in the tomato paste, maple syrup, soy sauce (or tamari), chili powder and apple cider vinegar. Cook until most of the vinegar has evaporated and the mixture has thickened, about 5-10 minutes.
- At this stage, you can transfer the mixture to a small container and refrigerate overnight OR proceed with the next step.
- Rub the onion mixture all over the pork shoulder, then pour the water into the slow cooker.
- Cover and cook on LOW for 8-10 hours or until the meat is very very tender.
- Use two forks to pull the meat apart, then stir it into the cooking juices.
- Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
- Serve over quinoa or rice, on a soft roll, or wrapped in corn tortillas.