Updated on 10.26.14

Our Family’s Eight Favorite Slow Cooker Recipes

Trent Hamm

Two to three nights a week, our family has a dinner that’s served directly out of a slow cooker. It’s something that either Sarah or I assembled in the morning before the daily rush began and it’s ready to eat when our family is gathered for dinner.

This has a bunch of advantages.

One, it enables us to take advantage of whatever evening time sliver finds us all together in the dining room. If our son’s tae kwon do practice is done at five but our daughter has a guitar lesson at five thirty, we can sit dinner on the table at five ten on the dot, even if Sarah’s still commuting home from work and I’m retrieving the boys. Without our slow cooker, successful family dinners would be much more difficult.

Two, it enables us to eat home-cooked food with ingredients up to our standards. We make the meal ourselves using whatever we want to use. If we want to use canned vegetables, we can. If we want to use organic fresh vegetables, we can. If we want to be vegetarian, we can. If we want to use cheese made at a local dairy using milk only from grass-fed cows, we can. A slow cooker allows us to use whatever ingredients we want. It also means that we’re not tempted, in our state of evening tiredness, to turn to fast food or other less-healthy options.

Three, most slow cooker recipes make up most of our meal. Many of the things we make in the slow cooker are the primary component of our evening meal. It’s generally only supplemented by something simple, like a side salad, that can be assembled in just a few minutes. It makes the evening meal prep very easy, in other words.

Over the last few years, I’ve been scheduling (most of) our family’s meals using the wonderful meal planning application known as Paprika. Using that app, I tried to figure out which meals our family ate most often… and these eight recipes pretty obviously bubbled to the top. I hope you enjoy them as much as we have!

These recipes are from a variety of places and, regardless of the source, all of them have been modified several times and are now more or less “family recipes.” If you find these recipes duplicated (or approximately duplicated) elsewhere, don’t hesitate to mention the original source in the comments!

First, A Few Slow Cooker Tips

If you’ve never used a slow cooker, here are a few tips that will help you get started.

First, if you don’t have one, start with a simple one. Don’t drop $80 on a gee-whiz programmable model. In fact, I suggest going to the thrift shop and seeing if they have a slow cooker there. Look for one with minimal features – ideally, it’ll just have a knob with “off,” “low,” and “high” settings. That’s really all you need. You’ll want to make sure that you actually use the thing – and are happy with the results – before you invest in a programmable one.

Second, unless your meal is a soup, you should lightly oil the inside of the slow cooker just before putting food in there. It will help a ton with cleanup. Some use special slow cooker liners – I consider them unnecessary.

Third, start off simple. At first, stick with recipes where you basically just add a list of ingredients to the slow cooker, turn it on low, and check it in several hours. Try using the five-ingredient strategy.

Fourth, many recipes can be overcooked if you let them cook for nine or ten hours. Most work best from six to eight hours on low. How do you get around that? There are a number of ways. One is to have whichever household member leaves the house last to plug in or turn on the slow cooker. Another is to use an outlet timer so that the slow cooker actually turns on at the desired time – say, noon. Considering that a programmable slow cooker often adds $20 or $30 to the price and an outlet timer can be found for $8 (and has other uses, like Christmas lights), I’d just get the outlet timer and use that if you need a timer.

A final tip: if you don’t like the ingredients, you probably won’t like the end result. Cooking them together doesn’t magically make you like them. If you want to be successful with a slow cooker, stick to recipes and ingredients that you know that you like. The same thing is true for any cooking you do at home. Imagine that you’re at a restaurant, ordering off a menu; stick to making things you might actually select off of that menu and you’re more likely to be successful.

Let’s get started with some recipes!

Three Bean Chili

The secret ingredient in my slow cooker chili is a little bit of sweet potato. It adds just enough of a surprise to make the chili unique.

Another thing that I particularly like in chili is a variety of beans, giving each bean-filled bite a slightly different taste and texture.

All you need to do is combine these ingredients in your slow cooker and cook on low for eight to ten hours. If you like a “runnier” chili, increase the amount of broth at the start.

If you prefer a meaty chili, feel free to add a pound of cooked ground beef to the recipe, right from the start.

What You Need

1 28 ounce can of diced tomatoes
2 12 ounce cans of tomato sauce
1 15 ounce can of pinto beans, rinsed and drained
1 15 ounce can of kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 15 ounce can of black beans, rinsed and drained
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 cup of chicken or vegetable broth
1 pound of ground sirloin, cooked (or a second can of kidney beans)
1 large sweet potato, diced into 1” pieces
1 or 2 teaspoons of cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons of chili powder
2 garlic cloves, minced (or a teaspoon of garlic powder)
1 tablespoon of ground cumin
1 tablespoon of molasses
2 teaspoons of paprika
Salt and pepper to taste

Sixteen Bean Soup

This is a winter staple at our house. If we’re spending a winter Saturday doing something outside of the home, you can bet that when we come home, the slow cooker will be running and there’s a very good chance that this soup will be inside. It’s also very variable in terms of cooking time – the beans are usually done after four hours on low, but they’re still solid after ten or more hours on low.

You’ll need to soak the beans overnight before making this recipe. I typically cover the beans in enough water so that there are at least two inches between the top of the beans and the top of the water. I also tend to bring the beans and water to the very beginning of a boil, then remove the beans from the heat. I’ll just leave this pot out overnight to soak, then add the beans the next day when I’m ready to cook.

This is amazing when served with cornbread. Many cornbread mixes make a passable cornbread, but I prefer to either make mine completely from scratch with cornmeal or use Krusteaz when on sale (it’s our family’s favorite cornbread mix). You can make this the night before, but I suggest warming up the cornbread before serving the soup.

If you like meat in your soup, chop up a pound of ham into small pieces and add it to the recipe. Ham works perfectly here.

What You Need

1 pound assorted dry bean mix (my favorite store has a 16 bean mix)
2 cups asparagus, chopped
2 cups celery, chopped
2 cups carrots, sliced
1 1/2 cups corn kernels
4 to 5 cloves garlic, crushed
1 medium red potato, diced
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried cilantro
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 teaspoon dried sage
1 teaspoon dried tarragon
salt and black pepper, to taste

Stuffed Bell Peppers

This is a great recipe if you ever find bell peppers on sale (or have them coming in from your garden). You can use any grain (or quinoa) for the stuffing – whatever’s on sale.

All you need to do is cut a hole in the top of the bell pepper to remove the stem, clean out the inside of each pepper, and then stuff it with a mix of all of the other ingredients (I just mix them all in a bowl before the stuffing process). Repeat this with each bell pepper. If you have some mix left over, just add it to the slow cooker. Cook on low for four to six hours.

One tip: if you don’t think you can jam that many bell peppers into your slow cooker, adjust the recipe downwards for the size of your cooker. I can usually get seven or eight into my cooker, which is a large oval six quart model.

What You Need

8 large bell peppers
1 15 ounce can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
1 15 ounce can garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained (if you don’t like garbanzos, a second can of cannellini beans is a fine substitute)
8 ounces crumbled feta cheese (about two cups)
1 cup cooked couscous, quinoa, or rice
8 green onions, finely sliced, white and green parts separated
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil
salt and black pepper, to taste

Hearty Lasagna

This has been a favorite for our family since before children even arrived on the scene! It smells incredible when you first walk in the door after a busy day, as the house smells wonderfully of the tomatoes and spices in the pasta sauce.

All you need to do for this recipe is make layers – a layer of the sauce, a layer of the noodles, a layer of the meat, and then a layer of the remaining ingredients mixed together. Four layers of each in that order does the trick. Cook it in the slow cooker on low for six hours and you’ll have amazing lasagna!

If I’m making a vegetarian lasagna – which I usually am – I’ll usually replace the meat with a frozen vegetable mix or a fresh vegetable of my choosing (usually spinach or kale).

One final tip: this recipe, as it stands, will usually make a pretty browned layer of cheese on top. If I happen to be at home, I’ll wait until the lasagna is about an hour from being ready to serve, then spread a layer of shredded mozzarella on top – maybe a cup or so. If I’m doing this, I simply remove a cup of mozzarella from the mixture for the “cheese” layer.

What You Need

1 large jar pasta sauce
1 pound ground beef, cooked
12 lasagna noodles, uncooked
2 cups ricotta cheese
2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg
1 teaspoon of oregano, chopped
1 teaspoon of fresh parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

Tasty Tex-Mex Wraps

My oldest son loves “Mexican” food – tacos, burritos, enchiladas, and all of that kind of stuff. Over the years, we’ve tried to perfect something we could make in the slow cooker that would work as a perfect tortilla filling that exudes those flavors – and, after trial and error and lots of borrowing of ideas from different places, we’ve found it.

We simply lay a tortilla in our plate, fill it with a healthy spoonful of this mixture, roll it up, and enjoy. If you want, you can certainly add more lettuce or salsa or cheese or anything else to your tortilla, but we don’t think it really needs anything else!

If a taco just isn’t complete for you without some meat, try cooking a pound of ground beef and adding it to the slow cooker right at the start.

All you need to do is add these ingredients, mix them well, and cook it on low for six hours or so.

What You Need

2 cups quinoa or rice, well rinsed (rice seems more “traditional,” but we love quinoa these days!)
1 15 ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 15 ounce can diced tomatoes with green chiles
1 15 ounce can corn, drained and rinsed
1/2 cup yellow onion, chopped (I just use frozen minced onions)
1 cup mozzarella cheese
1 cup monterrey jack cheese
2 tablespoons chili powder
3 tablespoons cilantro
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon minced garlic
3 cups water

Asian Slow-Cooked Winter Vegetables

Right up front, this is a “love it or hate it” dish. Three members of our family flip over this, even requesting it. Two other members just loathe it. It’s so loved by the majority that we have it pretty regularly, but some people just don’t like this.

Me? I’m in the “love it” camp. I would happily eat this every week.

Take all of these ingredients, toss them in a slow cooker, and cook it on low for eight hours or so. You want the sweet potatoes to be tender but not mushy, which is about where you’re at when you reach the eight or nine hour mark.

We usually serve this with some instant brown rice, which seems to accompany it quite well.

What You Need

1 butternut squash, cut into 2-inch chunks
4 medium sweet potatoes, cut into 2-inch chunks
12 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and thickly sliced
10 green onions, thinly sliced
2 15 ounce cans coconut milk
1 1/2 cups vegetable broth
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 tablespoon Asian hot sauce or chili paste (I use sriracha… and I often sneak in more than a tablespoon… don’t tell Sarah)
salt, to taste

Corn and Potato Chowder

If I were simply cooking for myself, this would be made on a weekly basis, if not more frequently. I simply can’t get enough of this stuff!

To prepare it, just add all of the ingredients except the cream and butter to the slow cooker and cook it on low for eight hours, adding the cream and butter right before serving (stirring it in). I highly recommend having some rolls or corn bread on the side.1

If you’d like to add some meat, a pound of cooked bacon or ham, diced into small pieces, is perfect for this chowder.

What You Need

1 pound of potatoes, diced – peels optional (though I prefer them)
1 bag of frozen corn kernels (16 ounces)
2 green onions, finely chopped (use as much of the green part as you like)
4 to 5 cups of vegetable broth
3 tablespoons of flour
2 minced garlic cloves (or a teaspoon of garlic powder)
½ teaspoon rosemary
1 teaspoon thyme
3 tablespoons of softened butter
1 cup heavy cream (you can use milk as a substitute here)
Salt and pepper to taste

Shepherd’s Pie

This is an extremely hearty winter meal that we turn to over and over again in the winter months. It does take a little bit of prep work in the morning, but it’s well worth it.

What you need to do is boil the potatoes in advance – the evening before, for example. Then, mash the potatoes until they’re at least somewhat smooth. I usually add a splash of milk to the potatoes as I’m mashing them. Then, in the morning, add the other ingredients to the slow cooker, then make a layer of the mashed potatoes on top. Turn it on low and let it cook for eight hours or so. Delicious!

One thing I like to do when I get home and this is our dinner is to throw on the broiler in the oven, then I stick the entire crock in there with the lid off for about four minutes. This makes the top layer of the potatoes just a bit “crispy”… and it’s just wonderful!

Again, this recipe is vegetarian, but you can easily add a pound of cooked ground beef to the recipe to add some additional protein and savor.

What You Need

6 Yukon Gold potatoes, cubed (you use this for the mashed potato topping)
1 15 ounce can peas (or 2 cups frozen peas)
1 15 ounce can corn kernels (or 2 cups frozen corn kernels)
4 carrots, sliced
12 button mushrooms, sliced
2 cups vegetable broth
salt and black pepper, to taste

Final Thoughts

Our slow cooker is an essential piece of our kitchen arsenal. We use ours, without exaggeration, three times a week at least, and sometimes more in the winter. Sometimes, a week will go by where every meal is either a slow cooker meal or a leftover smorgasbord.

It is not a perfect solution by any means. When you use a slow cooker, you’re giving up some control over the food, particularly in terms of keeping an eye on it to prevent overcooking as well as the ability to “time” the addition of other ingredients. Occasionally, you can get some questionable results out of a slow cooker – and that’s fine. This is especially true given that different slow cookers heat to slightly different temperatures and different sizes have different heat distributions. Like any tool, you have to learn to use it. You may have to adjust these recipes a bit to match the size and the heating patterns of your own slow cooker. That’s just the reality of cooking with a slow cooker.

Still, once you get used to the quirks of your specific cooker, it can produce some tremendous meals that are just about perfect. Without our slow cooker, we would have missed out on innumerable family meals. Not only has the slow cooker enabled us to cook at home more often – saving us money – it’s done a great deal to preserve those family meals, where we can all sit around the table and talk about our day together.

That’s the beauty of a slow cooker – and that’s why I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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