For years, many food professionals, including me, were skeptical about slow cookers. These were seen as more of a convenience to the home cook who wanted to throw everything into a vessel at once, hit a button and go to work than a kitchen appliance that could produce excellent results.
Over time, as readers requested slow cooker recipes and I’ve become better acquainted with this popular appliance, I’ve come to respect it. As it turns out, if you understand how it works and adjust your recipes accordingly, you can get some fine, dare I say, finger-licking-good results.
A case in point would be Slow-Cooker Italian Beef Sandwiches. The key to a good Italian beef sandwich (at least the pot roast type) is to have meltingly tender meat and a flavorful cooking liquid, which can be used to soak the sandwich roll or simply as a dip for the sandwich.
In a typical non-slow-cooker recipe, you brown the meat and braise it in a generous amount of liquid, along with other seasonings. The meat cooks on the stove or in the oven until it’s tender and the liquid has reduced until its flavor has intensified. That’s important, because it will be used to moisten the bread, which doesn’t have a lot of flavor on its own.
The whole thing is then topped with sautéed peppers, pepperoncini and the crunchy, briny Italian pickled vegetables called giardiniera.
If you simply took all the ingredients for this recipe, minus the roll and toppings, and tossed them into a slow cooker you’d be disappointed with the results, which would be lifeless meat swimming in a large pool of bland liquid.
Because the slow cooker is a completely enclosed environment that doesn’t work well with the lid off, there is no evaporation or reduction. With that in mind, you need to make sure all the ingredients pack a maximum amount of flavor, while keeping the liquids to a minimum. Remember, they’re not going anywhere once you add them in and put the lid on.
What I’ve done for this recipe is lower the amount of beef broth and add the pepperoncini to the roast at the beginning of the cooking process, which gives the meat a nice tanginess and liquid with just enough heat to be interesting.
And yes, I brown the meat before adding it to the slow cooker. I know that’s not a popular step to include in a recipe that’s supposed to be convenient, but the flavor difference (I know, because I’ve tried it without pre-browning) is well worth the effort.
The end result, with hot, tender meat, cool, crunchy vegetables and intensely flavorful meat-juice-soaked bread, will make you want to dust off that slow cooker and put it to work. The fact that it works while you’re away at work will make you love it even more.
Slow-Cooker Italian Beef Sandwiches
Note: While traditionally, Italian beef sandwiches are served with rolls soaked in the beefy au jus, you can also serve the au jus on the side and simply dip the sandwich into it. This makes the experience less messy, but also less juicy. The choice is yours. From Meredith Deeds.
• 1 boneless beef chuck roast (about 3 lb.)
• 1 tsp. salt
• 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
• 1 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. vegetable oil, divided
• 1 medium onion, chopped
• 1/2 c. sliced pepperoncini (thin, pickled peppers)
• 2 tsp. dried Italian seasoning
• 4 garlic cloves, chopped
• 2 c. beef stock
• 3 red bell peppers, seeded and cut into strips
• 6 hoagie or Italian rolls
• 1 c. chopped Italian giardiniera (prepared pickled vegetables)
Season the beef roast with the salt and pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the roast to the skillet and cook for 4 to 6 minutes on both sides, or until well browned. Transfer to a 4 or 5-quart slow cooker.
Add the onion, pepperoncini, Italian seasoning and garlic to the slow cooker. Pour the beef stock over the roast and cook on the low heat setting for 8 to 10 hours, or until the meat is meltingly tender.
Transfer meat to a cutting board. Skim off as much fat as possible from the cooking liquid in the slow cooker. Using 2 forks, pull the meat apart into bite-sized pieces.
In a large skillet, heat remaining 1 teaspoon oil over medium heat. Add the sliced red bell peppers and sauté until softened, about 6 minutes. Remove from the heat.
To make the sandwiches: Divide the meat between the 6 rolls and top with some of the sautéed peppers and the giardiniera. Serve with some of the liquid on the side for dipping. (If you don’t mind a messier sandwich, add the meat back to the liquid after pulling it apart. Spoon the meat onto the rolls, making sure to get plenty of juice in the process. The roll will be soaked, and juice will drip down your arms when you eat it, but that’s a good thing, right?)
Nutrition information per serving:
Calories 520 Fat 21 g Sodium 900 mg
Carbohydrates 46 g Saturated fat 7 g Total sugars 11 g
Protein 35 g Cholesterol 75 mg Dietary fiber 3 g
Exchanges per serving: 1 vegetable, 2 ½ carb, 4 medium-fat protein.
Meredith Deeds is a cookbook author and food writer from Edina. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @meredithdeeds.