It was a strange confession to make, but I felt I had to fess up. A friend who once ran a large recipe-based website was recently explaining to me that slow cooker recipes are wildly more popular online than conventional recipes. This shocked me. And I had to be honest with her... Not only did I never use a slow cooker, I didn't even own one.
Truth is, I love slow cooking, but I'd never done it in a slow cooker. I generally favour cast iron, which lets me brown in the pot on the stovetop, then pop the whole thing in the oven for low and slow heat. But if Americans are so smitten with their slow cookers, maybe there was something I was missing. So I started researching.
The first thing I learned is that today's slow cookers are a lot different than a generation ago. Many models now let you brown or saute right inside them. The saves the annoying step of having to brown meat or vegetables in a skillet on the stove, then transfer them to a slow cooker. That process had always been just enough trouble to turn me off.
So I found a 4-quart slow cooker with a saute feature. That seemed like the perfect combination cooker for me. To test it I made braised short ribs. This is one of my favourite dishes for entertaining because it can be made in the morning and basically forgotten until dinner is ready, or even made the day before.
Slow cooking, no matter how you do it, is perfect for short ribs. They are a tough cut of meat that requires long, slow cooking in liquid to break down the connective tissues and become tender. Braising transforms the connective tissue into gelatin, which gives short ribs their delicious texture. Browning before braising caramelizes the meat and adds richness and depth to the flavour.
I was having friends over for dinner and decided to test the slow cooker. I browned the shallots, celery, carrots and garlic in a little olive oil and I got deep, dark caramelized vegetables. I brushed the short ribs with a little olive oil, then seasoned them with salt and pepper and placed them in the slow cooker. They browned beautifully.
Because it is a small slow cooker, I browned them a few at a time, then stacked them on top of each other to make room for the rest. This only took a few extra minutes and all sides of all the short ribs were browned.
Next, I poured all of the braising liquids into the slow cooker — red wine, crushed tomatoes and Worcestershire sauce — gave it a stir, added fresh rosemary, then set the slow cooker on high cook for about 3 or so hours. My apartment soon smelled divine, and a few hours later the short ribs were perfectly tender. Time for the final step.
I removed the meat, then blended the liquid and vegetables in the slow cooker. What an amazing sauce for the meat! The sweetness of the vegetables and the wine-based braising liquid perfectly balanced the savory rich beef flavours. I was converted! The slow cooker won me over.
SLOW COOKER SHORT RIBS
These short ribs are just the thing for easy holiday cooking. They are a snap to make, but taste like you've been cooking all day. Serve with noodles, rice or garlic-cheese grits. I made these in a 4-quart slow cooker, but the recipe can easily be doubled to accommodate a larger cooker. Since not everyone owns a slow cooker that has a saute mode, I wrote the recipe using the more traditional method of browning the meat in a skillet, then transferring everything to the slow cooker. Feel free to modify for whichever model cooker you own.
Start to finish: 4 hours (30 minutes active)
4 pounds boneless beef short ribs
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
3 large shallots, thinly sliced
1 medium rib celery, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
2 medium carrots, cut into 1/4-inch rounds
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 cups full-bodied red wine, such as cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel or shiraz
15-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
3 large springs fresh rosemary
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Brush the ribs with a light coating of olive oil, then sprinkle all over with salt and pepper. Set aside.
In a large skillet over medium-high, heat 3 tablespoons of oil. Add the shallots, celery and carrots and about 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Cook until the vegetables begin to brown, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and continue cooking until they begin to brown on the edges, another 2 to 3 minutes. Add the meat and turn to brown on all sides.
Transfer the mixture to a 4-quart or larger slow cooker, being sure to scrape the pan to get all of the liquid. Add the wine, tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, rosemary, mustard and vinegar. Stir to combine. Cover and cook on high for 3 1/2 hours or low for 5 to 6 hours.
After cooking, transfer the short ribs to a large platter. Set aside. Remove and discard the stems of the rosemary sprigs. Transfer the liquid and vegetables in the slow cooker to a blender and carefully puree until smooth. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Serve the ribs on a bed of noodles, rice, mashed potatoes or cheese grits with sauce ladled over them.
Nutrition information per serving: 730 calories; 360 calories from fat (49 per cent of total calories); 40 g fat (14 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 180 mg cholesterol; 16 g carbohydrate; 3 g fiber; 7 g sugar; 59 g protein; 910 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a barbecue and Southern foods expert. She is the chef and pitmaster at online retailer CarolinaCueToGo.com and author of three books, including "Taming the Flame."