The chuck roasts looked unusually good at the grocery this week, so I bought one and loaded my cart with vegetables. Back in the kitchen, I hauled out my 30-year-old Rival Crockpot from the rear of the cabinet. Then, I browned the beef and added the other ingredients to the pot. I was on my way to my usual overnight beef stew. Then I stopped. Did I want to do this?
I suddenly remembered why I hadn’t used my Crockpot for so long. A friend of mine, who holds a full-time job and wanted to make meal cooking easier, began using her Crockpot everyday for weeks until her family complained that everything tasted the same.
After that, I began noticing a sameness to food cooked in my Crockpot. Maybe it was just the power of suggestion. Or was it? I found similar complaints on line from those who thought beef stew tasted “metallic,” even when the slow cooker had a ceramic liner. There were lots of explanations for this. The one that made the most sense to me came from a food blogger, who noted that ovens cook with dry heat while Crockpots use a moist heat and that effects taste and texture.
Hmm. . . could be. In any event, I recovered my stew from the Crockpot. I put it in a Dutch oven, placed it in the oven, and let it cook like my mother would have done. I let the meat and vegetables stew at 300 degrees for several hours—low and slow—remembering the Irish warning, “A stew boiled is a stew spoiled.”
Yes, there are lots of opinions on how to cook a good stew and what should go in it. The recipe from Cook’s Illustrated comes from long testing in their New England lab and has some great taste-boosting ideas. For instance, their Best Beef Stew allows for replacing beef stock with chicken stock for a more pleasant flavor. Medium-starch Yukon Golds added halfway through cooking won over starchy russets. A chuck-eye is their preferred stew meat, one that’s cut into chunks and seared in batches in an un-crowded pot. Cook’s Illustrated also enlivened their recipe with tomato paste, wine, salt pork, powdered gelatin and anchovies.
My Old-Fashion Beef Stew has fewer “exotic” ingredients, but it’s still quite delicious. I think it was even better when I let it cook in the oven rather than spend the night in a Crockpot. The meat and vegetables were fork tender, but not mushy, and the flavor far superior.
As I shoved my Crockpot back into the cabinet, I had to admit that cooking my mother’s Old-Fashion Beef Stew had captured the taste I once remembered. Even so, if I were working full time and had a family to cook for each evening, my Crockpot and I might become closer friends.