To meet our goal of developing healthy recipes using a slow cooker, we had to find ways of building flavor without adding excess fat while also packing more hearty grains and vegetables into our recipes. Here’s what we learned.
1. Choose the Right Cut and Trim Carefully
Once trimmed, cuts like chuck roast, eye-round roast, and blade steaks are good choices when you’re trying to eat healthy, especially in recipes with a high ratio of vegetables to meat. Chicken is a great choice, too, and we used boneless, skinless breasts, bone-in breasts, and meaty chicken thighs; make sure to remove the skin from bone-in breasts and thighs, which will drastically reduce fat and calories. Pork loin and pork tenderloins are especially lean when trimmed, though we leave a 1/8-inch fat cap on pork loins for flavor.
2. Get Out Your Skillet (Sometimes)
When recipes are leaner, building a flavorful base is key. Browning aromatics, vegetables, and meat creates a flavorful fond in the bottom of the pan that, when deglazed with wine or broth, provides the basis for a rich sauce. And browning some roasts like pork loin or eye-round roast adds extra flavor and attractive color. The additional 10 minutes or so it takes to do this will make all the difference in many recipes, such as Country Beef and Vegetable Stew, Old-Fashioned Chicken Stew, and Pork Loin with Warm Spiced Chickpea Salad.
3. Be Smart about Oil and Butter
We found that a teaspoon or two of canola oil was all that was necessary to properly sauté aromatics, vegetables, or meat in a skillet. To add richness to a dish at the end of cooking, we often turned to extra-virgin olive oil—drizzling a little over a finished grain, vegetable, or pasta dish made a big impact without tipping the scales. As for butter, there are times when there is no substitute for its nutty richness; by adding just a little to our Garlicky Braised Greens, the dish became creamy and satisfying.
4. Use the Microwave
When there is no need to get out a skillet, we used the microwave to soften aromatics and vegetables and bloom spices. This helped us use a minimum of fat because we found that, in general, we needed to add only a teaspoon of vegetable oil; stirring the mixture partway though cooking ensured that everything softened properly. The microwave also came in handy when it was necessary to steam vegetables before adding them to the finished dish; when making simple glazes or sauces; and for heating up last-minute additions to a recipe, like coconut milk.
5. Build Layers of Flavor
Lean meats and fish need a flavor boost, especially when they are cooked in a moist heat environment where there is no opportunity for flavorful browning or caramelizing. We found many ways to add flavor: Pungent spice rubs add flavor and appealing color; sauces made by reducing flavorful cooking liquids add richness without much fat; glazes made with fruit preserves and other ingredients coat meat surprisingly well; lively vinaigrettes, relishes, and chutneys can be made while the food cooks and make all the difference in the finished dish without adding much in the way of calories or fat.
6. Wait to Add Fresh Ingredients
Certain ingredients need just a short stint in the slow cooker to warm through and meld into the dish. Delicate vegetables and other ingredients, such as rice noodles, frozen peas, baby spinach, escarole, and corn, turned mushy or lackluster when cooked for hours in the slow cooker, so we stirred them in at the end, letting them heat briefly until perfectly cooked.
7. Make It a Healthy Meal
Through extensive testing, we sorted out which sides, such as potatoes, bulgur, quinoa, barley, couscous, and canned beans, could cook alongside proteins or could cook quickly in the cooking liquid left behind (this was true with couscous). In some instances vegetables needed to be wrapped in a foil packet to stay tender, while in others, they cooked in a flavorful broth along with the meat or fish, soaking up big flavor along the way.
8. Create an Ultrasteamy Environment
Some recipes, like Stuffed Sole with Creamy Tomato Sauce, Swordfish with Papaya Salsa, and California-Style Fish Tacos, are more foolproof when made in the slow cooker because they cook more gently. To harness the power of the slow cooker for these and similar recipes for fish, we created a simple and flavorful poaching liquid with wine and aromatics, elevating the fish on slices of citrus. As the slow cooker heated up, the liquid steamed the fish perfectly. For recipes like Mashed Potatoes and Root Vegetables, we took things a step further by placing a sheet of parchment paper over the vegetables to trap the steam and cook them through perfectly. The slow cooker functions as a water bath, too, cooking finicky desserts like flan, cheesecake, and crème brûlée so they emerge with the perfect silky-smooth texture.
9. Give Recipes a Fresh Finish
Throughout the book you will find easy-to-make sauces and toppings using healthy and nutritious ingredients. For some recipes, like our Moroccan Lentil Soup with Mustard Greens or Turkish-Style Eggplant Casserole, the difference between a merely good recipe and a great one is the finishing touch, in the form of a healthy but lively sauce or topping that takes just minutes to whip together; for both of these recipes we made a lively topping with Greek yogurt, fresh herbs, and other seasonings.
10. Use Lower-Fat Cheese (Sometimes)
Some low-fat cheeses turn grainy in the moist heat of the slow cooker, especially when used as a topping—which is why we sometimes reached for a full-fat cheese when meltability was key. Hard cheeses like Parmesan and Asiago added big flavor with few calories and were a winning choice for many recipes. Fresh cheeses, like feta, goat, and queso fresco, are a healthy way to add big flavor and texture to casseroles and many other dishes.
11. Be Mindful of Sodium
We understand that many people need to watch their sodium intake, so we used a minimum of salt in our recipes and left the seasoning at the end up to you. But the real culprits in terms of sodium are ingredients like commercial broths, canned tomatoes, and canned beans, all of which tend to have fairly high levels of sodium per cup. For recipes including these ingredients, if the sodium level per serving was above 600 mg, we have provided the sodium level should you choose low-sodium or no-salt-added alternatives. Of course you can also choose not to add the salt we specify in the recipes if you want to lower the sodium even further.
➜ See the full list of 200 recipes included in the book.