It’s that time of year — the time when we dust off our slow-cookers to make hearty stews, chilies, soups, and braises. It might be my favorite culinary time of year, because I LOVE SOUP!!! It’s kind of an obsession. When it’s cold outside, I could eat soup at every meal, including breakfast. I never get sick of it. Ever! And once you bust out the slow-cooker, you step up the game with a ready-to-eat, home cooked meal waiting for you when you get home. What’s better than that on a cold winter evening?
Here in the Bay, it’s been raining and cold — a weather recipe for feeling chilled to the bone. In both Ayurveda and in Traditional Chinese Medicine, a cold, damp winter calls for warming, grounding foods like soups, stews, hearty slow-cooked meats, and root veggies. This simple, slow-cooked lamb shank hits a home run in all of these categories.
Prepping your Lamb Shanks and Veggies
I love starting something in the morning and coming home to the aromas of dinner already made and waiting for me in the kitchen. I will say though, that when I first dipped my toe into the slow-cooker experience, I was surprised to learn that there can sometimes be a bit more prep than you’d expect if you want the best possible outcome.
Sure, you can throw everything into the slow-cooker raw and hope for the best, but you likely won’t get it. You could get something good, but not the best. The best is when you use time-honored cooking methods that bring out the most mouth-watering flavors in the foods you’re planning to toss into the slow-cooker. If you must toss everything in raw, I recommend sticking to vegetarian dishes, but even those are made better with a quick trip to the stove top before ending up in the slow-cooker. For meat recipes — especially red meats like lamb, beef, pork, and wild game — browning the meat first is an important part of the process.
Is it optional? Technically, yes. Do I recommend skipping it? No. Why?
Make the Most out of your Slow-Cooked Meal
1. The Maillard Reaction
The Maillard reaction is a chemical process that takes place on the surface of the meat when you sear it on high heat (without burning it). It’s kind of like caramelizing, but it’s also a bit different. The Maillard reaction is what imparts that rich, nutty, meaty flavor to the cut you’re cooking. It alters the amino acids and sugars on the surface of the meat and melds them together for that beautiful, rich flavor we expect when we bite into a steak or a pork chop. Caramelizing involves sugar only, no aminos.
Common lore is that searing will seal in the juices, but that’s actually not true. Searing does not magically plasticize your meat into an impermeable surface. But that doesn’t mean that searing isn’t important. Even when you plan to toss your cut into the slow-cooker and immerse it in cooking liquid, starting with a good, hot, dry sear to brown the outside of the cut is crucial for achieving the rich flavor you’re expecting from the finished product.
Skipping this step will result in a sad, grey-looking finished product that won’t be as flavorful as you’d hoped. And being disappointed in a slow-cooked meal (at least for me) is a much bigger bummer than being disappointed in something you threw together in a few minutes (even if the slow-cook prep took the same amount of time). I’ve made the mistake of skipping the browning step and ended up with a pot full of very bland, disappointing chili (yes, you should even brown ground meat).
2. Sauteing the Veggies
This step, while (again) technically optional, will ensure that your veggies impart the most flavor to your slow-cooked meal. I remember the first time I saw a recipe that told me to saute all my veggies first, and I was like, “Whaaaat??? I can’t just throw it all in?? WTF?? I’m not doing that.” I’ve since learned my lesson (reference disappointing chili above). Sauteeing doesn’t take as long as caramelizing — you just need to cook everything for a few minutes to unlock the glory — it’s worth it. I wouldn’t skip it.
Kitchen Hack: Timing Your Slow-Cooked Meal Prep
All this is to say that it does take a little bit of time to get your ingredients into the pot, but if you can give yourself 20 extra minutes in the morning to get this meal started before you rush out the door, you’ll thank yourself. All I ask is that you pull your meat out of the fridge before you do anything else so that it has time to warm to room temperature (or as close to it as you have time for) before you brown it. I recommend you take the meat out, do your whole morning routine (shower, make up, hair, walk the dog, whatever), and then get everything ready for the slow-cooker.
- 2 lamb shanks
- 5 ribs celery, finely chopped
- 2 large carrots, finely chopped
- 1 large red onion, finely chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 large root veggie of your choosing (potato, celery root, parsnip, sweet potato), coarsely chopped
- 1 naval orange, thinly sliced
- 1 cup bone broth or veggie broth
- 1 cup red wine (I used cabernet)
- 2 tsp salt
- 6 sprigs fresh rosemary
- 6 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1 tbs coconut oil
- 1 tbs avocado oil
- 1 tbs tomato paste
- If possible, pull lamb out of the fridge and allow to sit for at least 20 minutes (preferably 45 minutes to an hour) before browning
- Heat the skillet and brown all sides of the lamb shanks
- Move shanks to the slow cooker (leave the cooker off for now)
- Toss coarsely chopped root veggies on top of the lamb
- Melt coconut oil on the heated skillet
- Add finely chopped red onions, carrots, and celery
- Allow to soften and sauté for at least 5 minutes
- Stir in finely chopped garlic and avocado oil, and cook for another 5 to 10 minutes, taking care not to let anything burn
- Pour sautéed veggies over lamb inside slow cooker
- Add tomato paste, wine, broth, salt, rosemary, and thyme to slow cooker
- Top with sliced oranges
- Place the lid on the slow cooker and cook on low for 8 hours
- Enjoy a nice, warm, home-cooked meal after a long day's work!