Low and slow: From dinners to desserts, slow cookers can be a cook’s best friend

Slow Cooker Bread (Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS/Nicole Hvidsten)
Slow Cooker Bread (Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS/Nicole Hvidsten)

As we rush through another week of preparing meals, call on the trusted kitchen appliance to lend a hand.

We always seem to be searching for ways to save time — in life and in the kitchen. Shortcut recipes for frazzled cooks have been around as long as we've been cooking, and appliances like Instant Pots have made quick work out of even the most time-intensive dishes.

But fast isn't the only way to a filling weeknight meal.

In their heyday, slow cookers were a cook's lifesaver. Dump-and-go meals required little intervention, and its low-and-slow approach made even the toughest (and most economical) cuts of meat fork-tender. They're amazingly versatile, keeping dips and dishes warm, feeding pulled pork to the masses and even baking breads and desserts.

While I embrace anything that will help solve dinnertime dilemmas, revisiting cherished recipes and adding new ones to my repertoire were reminders that even in this hustle-and-bustle world, sometimes low and slow is still the way to go.

For those who fear bread baking, this recipe is for you. We used a 6-quart round slow cooker with a ceramic insert. The finished bread will be browned on bottom, but not on top. You'll want to give it a few minutes under the broiler, which is a great opportunity to flavor it with garlic, rosemary, sesame seeds — whatever goes well with dinner.

Slow Cooker Bread

  • 2 ¼ teaspoons active dry yeast (¼-ounce envelope)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 ½ cups lukewarm water, about 110 degrees
  • 3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Melted butter, for finishing
  • Seasonings such as garlic, rosemary or everything bagel, for optional garnish

Line a slow cooker with parchment paper or coat with cooking spray.

In a large mixing bowl combine the yeast and sugar. Add lukewarm water and stir until yeast is dissolved. Let sit for 5 minutes. (If the mixture does not bubble and foam after 5 minutes, discard and begin again with new yeast.)

Add flour, olive oil and salt and stir until combined and a shaggy dough begins to form.

On a lightly floured surface with floured hands, knead dough until it becomes smooth and soft and no longer sticky, about 5 minutes. Or, combine all ingredients in a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment and knead on medium speed for about 5 minutes.

Form dough into a round shape that's a little smaller than the size of your slow cooker and place in prepared slow cooker. Cook on high until golden on the bottom and cooked through, about 2 hours, or until the internal temperature reaches 200 degrees. The bread will not brown on top. Quickly remove slow cooker lid; avoid spilling condensation onto the bread.

To brown crust: Turn oven to broil setting. Remove bread and parchment (discard parchment) from slow cooker and place bread on baking sheet. Broil until golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Immediately brush with butter and sprinkle with desired seasonings. Let cool for at least 20 minutes. Slice and serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

  photo  White Chicken Chili (Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS/Nicole Hvidsten)  The addition of corn gives this warming chili a sweet touch. Using masa to thicken the chili is a fun touch that's in line with the flavor profile. Adjust to your spice tolerance and your preferred bean-to-meat ratio.

White Chicken Chili

  • 5 to 6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 1 ½ tablespoons ground cumin
  • 1 ½ tablespoons ground coriander
  • 3 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • Kosher salt and ground white pepper
  • 3 (15-ounce) cans Great Northern beans, drained
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 (4-ounce) cans green chiles, chopped
  • 2 medium onions, diced
  • 1 jalapeno, sliced, seeds removed, if desired
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • ¼ to ½ cup masa
  • 1 ½ cups frozen corn
  • ½ cup grated Monterey Jack cheese, plus more for serving
  • Sour cream, for serving
  • Chopped fresh cilantro, for serving

Add the chicken breasts to a slow cooker.

In a small bowl, mix the cumin, coriander, oregano, paprika, red pepper flakes and salt and pepper. Sprinkle mixture over the chicken. Add the beans, garlic, canned chiles, onions and jalapeno. Pour in the chicken broth, put the lid on and cook on high until the chicken is cooked through and the vegetables are soft, about 5 hours.

Mix the milk with the masa (more masa for thicker chili) and add to the slow cooker. Add the frozen corn straight from the freezer and continue to cook until the sauce has thickened, another 30 minutes.

Remove the chicken to a board and shred using 2 forks. Return to the slow cooker, stirring. Sprinkle the Monterey Jack cheese, stirring to melt. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.

To serve, ladle the chili into bowls and garnish with a dollop of sour cream, extra cheese and cilantro.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Recipe adapted from the Food Network

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When preparing pulled pork, make it worth your while — it freezes beautifully. In this scalable recipe, the seasoning is versatile enough that the pork will work in a number of ways: with barbecue sauce in sandwiches, as carnitas or in a rice bowl. The liquid isn't necessary — the meat makes plenty on its own — but it does add flavor. Use anything from broth or water to apple cider or orange juice.

All-Purpose Pulled Pork

  • 6 to 8 pounds bone-in pork butt roast or pork shoulder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 3 teaspoons paprika
  • 3 teaspoons cumin
  • 3 teasxpoons oregano
  • 1 large onion, sliced
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • ½ cup chicken broth, OR apple juice OR orange juice, OR water (optional)
  • Buns, tortillas, pico de gallo, barbecue sauce or baked potatoes, for serving (optional)

Bring roast to room temperature and pat dry with paper towels. Trim large fat pieces from roast and, if necessary, cut roast into pieces to better fit into the slow cooker.

In a small bowl, add the salt, pepper, paprika, cumin and oregano and mix well. Liberally apply to all sides of the roast pieces.

Place onions and garlic on the bottom of the slow cooker. Place seasoned meat on top; add broth, if using. Cook on low for 8 hours, checking doneness after 6 hours. It should easily shred with a fork. Remove from slow cooker and transfer to a rimmed baking sheet to cool slightly. Once cool enough to handle, use two forks to shred the meat.

Drain juices from the slow cooker, removing the garlic but reserving the onions. If using right away, add shredded meat and onions back to the slow cooker along with 1 to 1 ½ cups of reserved juices, or until it's the preferred consistency. Keep on warm setting until ready to use.

Serve with buns and barbecue sauce, tortillas and pico de gallo, as part of a baked potato bar — whatever works for the occasion.

If freezing, put cooled, shredded meat in meal-size freezer-safe containers, adding enough of the juices to cover. Pulled pork can be stored in the freezer for up to 6 months.

Makes 12 servings.

  photo  Gooey Dark Chocolate Brownie Cake (Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS/Nicole Hvidsten)  Is it faster to bake a brownie cake in the oven? Yes. But using the slow cooker is an open invitation to eat it while it's still warm — no cooling on a baking rack here. Serve with vanilla ice cream and top with melted peanut butter (or caramel) for dessert nirvana.

Gooey Dark Chocolate Brownie Cake

  • ¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, melted, plus more for greasing insert
  • 1 ½ cups granulated sugar
  • 2/3 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ cup dark chocolate chunks
  • Vanilla ice cream, for serving
  • Creamy peanut butter, melted, for serving

Line the insert of a 4- or 6-quart slow cooker with a large piece of foil, then generously butter the foil.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the melted butter, sugar, cocoa powder, flour, eggs, vanilla and ½ teaspoon salt. Fold in the chocolate chunks. Scrape the batter into the prepared insert in an even layer. Cover and cook on low for 3 hours; the cake should be set around the edges and gooey in the center. (Cooking time will depend on the size of slow cooker; a smaller slow cooker will require more time, up to another 90 minutes.)

Serve the cake warm, topped with ice cream and melted peanut butter or your preferred topping.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Recipe adapted from the Food Network