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Low Fat Cooking with a Slow Cooker

Low Fat Crockpot Cooking

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Pork and bean chilli
Philip Wilkins/Photolibrary/Getty Images
I’m a relative newbie when it comes to the slow cooker, or crock pot. I realized I wanted to simplify my life so that I could have meals ready for my family after long and busy days; meals that didn’t require a mad 30-minute scramble, or that involved a box and a microwave. Enter the slow cooker, which has been my constant companion throughout fall and winter. The slow cooker has also turned out to be a great appliance in which to cook low-fat meals: a quick spray of the ceramic insert with nonstick cooking spray is all I’ve needed. Ground meats need to be browned and drained, but most other meats can be placed raw.

Hours of slow cooking allow flavors to meld and develop, yielding rich and satisfying low-fat meals. Flavor doesn’t have to come from fat. Wines, broths, and tomatoes make great bases in which to cook lean meats (which become meltingly tender in the crockpot), vegetables and grains. To cut back on fat even more, use less meat, and add protein, fiber, and texture with beans and whole grains. Herbs and spices provide complexity, heat, or subtle sweetness. Anyone who says eating low fat is bland and unsatisfying has never eaten a low-fat slow cooker meal. So here are some delicious low fat slow cooker meals for you to enjoy:

Crockpot Chicken

Recently I cooked my first whole chicken in the slow cooker. My 4-quart slow cooker is a nice oval shape, which is perfect for chickens weighing 4lbs or less. I literally plopped the bird (stuffed with an onion) straight into my crockpot, seasoned it, and cooked it on low for eight hours. It was the most succulent and delicious chicken I had ever tasted, literally falling apart as I tried oh-so-gently to lift it out of the slow cooker (translation: the legs fell off!). My mistake, though, was not to elevate the chicken from the base of the slow cooker. As the chicken cooked with the skin on, its juices became the oily pool in which my delicious chicken stewed. As succulent and flavorful as it was, I decided to do things differently the next time. I would skin my chicken before cooking it.

Now, I wouldn't dream of removing the skin of a chicken before baking or roasting it in a regular oven. The skin keeps the meat nice and moist, and I remove it after cooking instead. But removing the skin ahead of time for the crockpot seemed a wise thing to do. And how hard could it be? After all, I’d come across a few whole-chicken slow cooker recipes that blithely suggested doing so. I gamely rolled up my sleeves and grabbed my knife.

I soon discovered that skinning a chicken is a messy and relatively time-consuming task, and an eye-opening one, too. It’s not simply a matter of removing the skin: it’s also about scraping and scooping out globs of fat adhered to the thighs, breasts and under the wings. Looking at the pile of skin and fatty deposits afterwards made me realize how much fat we can consume from a three-and-a-half pound bird. Eating a slow-cooker chicken without all that fat would surely be better for me.

So I placed a small onion into the skinned bird’s cavity, placed it on top of some balls of foil in my crockpot, sprinkled the chicken liberally with lemon juice, mixed herbs, and freshly ground pepper, and put the lid on. I cooked the bird on high for an hour, then reduced the heat to low for six hours. The result was a substantially less oily and only slightly less succulent bird. I saved the juices for use as a soup base, skimming off the remaining fat after refrigeration.

In future, if I want to prepare crockpot chicken in a less messy and speedier fashion, I'll either elevate my chicken slightly so it doesn't sit in its own juices, or simply buy a pack of skinless chicken pieces.

General Slow Cooker Tips

  • I suggest buying a slow cooker with a removable, dishwasher-safe insert (although crockpot liners are a good alternative), and one that has a "warm" setting, so you can keep finished meals warm until you're ready to eat them.
  • Simply follow manufacturer's instructions for general cooking times: most meals seem to take an average of eight hours to cook on a low setting, and about half that on high, but individual recipes will vary. For some, eight hours is too long. Cooking time will depend partly on the amount of food in the slow cooker, and also on the age of the slow cooker: newer ones tend to run hotter and cook food faster.
  • As food is cooked with the lid on, liquids will not evaporate, so you will need to adjust some of your own recipes, using perhaps half the amount of liquid called for.
  • Thicken sauces either by adding quick-cooking tapioca in the beginning, or adding a cornstarch slurry about half an hour before the end of cooking time.
  • Dairy products sometimes break down with extended cooking, so where possible, add them towards the end of the cooking period, say, the last hour. With non-fat or reduced sour cream or yogurt, stir in a little cornstarch or flour to prevent them from separating.
  • Resist the temptation to stir foods while cooking on low, as enough heat will be lost requiring longer cooking time to compensate.
  • In recipes calling for meat and vegetables, place vegetables at the bottom of the slow cooker, as they take longer to cook.
  • Rice is difficult to cook well in a slow cooker. Most rice will turn to mush in the time it takes for other ingredients to cook properly. Whole grain rice and wild rice are your best options.

For more information on how to use a crockpot, Linda Larsen, About's Guide to Busy Cooks, has some excellent tips.

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