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Healthy Slow Cooker

Chapter 5

Top Tips for Slow-Cooker Stews, Chilis & Curries

It’s hard enough to make healthy, hearty stews and chilis on the stovetop, where you have the benefit of browning and reduction to develop big, bold flavors, not to mention complete control of temperature to ensure that everything is cooked properly. But in the slow cooker, achieving this is even harder.

Sure, the moist, gentle heat of the slow cooker helps cook lean proteins without much additional fat, but it took some test kitchen creativity to develop slow-cooker stews and chilis that were both healthy and worthy of the dinner table. Here is what we have learned. (For more information, see our guide on chicken and vegetable broths and their sodium contents.)

Handle Vegetables with Care

We worked hard to pack our stews with interesting combinations of vegetables, so naturally we also focused a lot of attention on ensuring that they were perfectly cooked. For stews that had a short stay in the slow cooker, sturdier vegetables like potatoes and carrots, depending on how large they were cut, just could not cook through properly. In these instances, we parcooked them before adding them to the slow cooker. For longer-cooking stews, the opposite was often the case, with vegetables turning mushy, colorless, and flavorless. In these instances, we often needed to slow down their cooking by insulating them in a foil packet and placing it on top of the stew.

Recipe Testing: Thai Eggplant Curry

Adjust the Ratio of Meat to Vegetables

Meat stews are traditionally heavy on the meat and light on the vegetables. In order to create healthier stews, we limited the amount of meat to 4 ounces (once trimmed) per person and added plenty of extra vegetables—this kept portion sizes ample but trimmed fat and calories substantially.

Stew on This

Recipe Spicy Pork Chili with Black-Eyed Peas

For a slow-cooker chili that was both healthy and out of the ordinary, we looked for a way to pair sweet potatoes with a Southern staple: earthy black-eyed peas.

Microwave and Use Less Fat

Over the years, we’ve learned that the microwave is a great ally when creating slow-cooker recipes. In many (but not all) recipes it can eliminate the need to get out a skillet, especially if you are just softening aromatics and blooming spices. As an added benefit, this method usually requires less fat—just a teaspoon or two of oil. In our recipes, when we add delicate fresh vegetables at the end of a long cooking time, we often simply “steam” them in the microwave with a little water before adding them to the slow cooker. This helps the vegetables cook without any loss of flavor and ensures that they remain bright and crisp-tender.

Microwave and Use Less Fat

Finish with Fresh Flavors

The moist heat environment and long cooking times that come with the slow cooker are notorious for muting flavors, so many stews need a flavor boost before serving. you’ll see that we often finish our stews (and other dishes) with fresh herbs, citrus juice, vinegar, or other flavorful ingredients, like brown sugar and coconut milk.

Think Differently About Thickeners

Since there is no opportunity for stews to reduce and thicken naturally in the moist environment of the slow cooker, thickeners are often necessary. Classic fat- and flour-based roux add unwanted work (and fat) because they require extra stovetop cooking to remove the raw flour taste. So when possible, we try to use ingredients already in the stew to help thicken it. We have found success processing portions of canned beans and frozen corn before building the stew base, or finishing a stew by mashing some of the cooked beans and vegetables. If all else fails, we typically grab instant tapioca, which we have found over the years to be a great no-fuss thickener that can be stirred in at the start.

Thickening Chili with Blended Beans

Fresh Meals From A Slow Cooker Healthy Slow Cooker Revolution

200 flavorful, fuss-free recipes featuring leaner cuts of meat, fresh vegetables, and hearty grains. Discover the test kitchen’s easy tricks for building flavor with less fat.

“It’s packed with recipes for familiar favorites, but with a more healthful twist. And couldn’t we all stand a little more of that?”

Santa Cruz Sentinel