The appeal of a slow cooker is obvious: throw some things into the pot at the beginning of the day, go to work, and come home with a hot meal waiting for you that tastes as if it's been slaved over all day.
But slow-cooker food has its drawbacks. Often, to get the best flavor, there are a few steps involved in cooking before the slow phase even begins—searing, sweating, reducing—as well as after—reducing, adding fresh herbs and acid. The new line of Campbell's Slow Cooker Sauces (available from Amazon) promise to deliver great flavor with pretty much zero effort. Sounds too good to be true. This we had to taste for ourselves.
The sauces couldn't be easier to use: just add raw meat to the slow cooker, pour the sauce on top, turn it on, and walk away. As the meat cooks, it exudes juices that thin the thick sauces into a soupier consistency, great for ladling over rice or pasta. Because the instructions don't specify what size the pieces of meat should be (should my 2 to 3 pounds of pork shoulder be in one big chunk? Stew-sized pieces?), I tried it with both whole pieces and smaller chunks.
For the larger chunks, the recommended cooking times were not enough to fully tenderize the meat—the pork shoulder and large pieces of beef chuck in particular needed about 20% more time. I'd recommend using 2-inch chunks or steak-sized slabs of meat, rather than whole pieces.
We tasted all six flavors, first as-is, and then with a few minor adjustments after cooking. It's remarkable how much of a difference some fresh herbs and acid can make to brighten up slow-cooker dishes. Here are our recommendations.
These sauces produced results that were not just passably good, but downright tasty.
Mexican Red Chile Taco
Made with onions, vinegar, and a blend of peppers, this sauce has a surprising amount of punch, and is a dead ringer for Chipotle's vinegary beef barbacoa. Our chuck steaks cooked up tender and easily shreddable, adding plenty of flavor of their own to the mix. Packed into charred corn tortillas and served with lime wedges and some chopped onions and cilantro, I'd be perfectly happy serving them at a game day party.
As Max put it: "these compare favorably to most New York tacos," which says something about both the Campbell's Slow Cooker sauce and the state of New York tacos.
Moroccan Spiced Stew
The only chicken-based option in their lineup, it was also the quickest cooking, producing tender chicken in just about 4 hours at high heat (you can also cook it for longer at low heat). This guy comes flavored with lots of warm spices, sliced green olives, cilantro, and lemon. Fresh out of the slow cooker, it has a few problems: most notably, the bright freshness of lemon juice and cilantro is gone, giving the whole thing the kind of muddy flavor that's the hallmark of slow-cooker foods. But a sprinkle of fresh cilantro at the end and a little squeeze of fresh lemon brightens it up nicely.
The packet suggests that you can use chicken breasts, but I've never had a slow-cooked chicken breast that didn't end up too dry to eat.
Some folks found these tasty, others took a bite and left the table. With some doctoring and great sides, they can make for a decent meal.
Sweet Korean BBQ
The sauce straight out of the pack tastes exactly like bulgogi sauce, because... it basically is. Sugar, soy sauce, fruit and onion, plenty of roasted garlic and ginger, along with sesame oil and red pepper. In the slow cooker, it gets a little diluted by the beef juices—the flavor improves once you skim the excess fat and reduce it just a bit—and despite Robyn's observation that "it looks like a meat swamp," the whole plate got eaten when we left it out on the office tasting table.
Apple Bourbon Barbecue
Pulled pork is probably the most common use for a slow cooker—just throw a pork shoulder and some barbecue sauce in there and you're good to go. Given its ease, we had high hopes for Campbell's version, but we came away unimpressed. There wasn't much apple or bourbon flavor to speak of, and the overall impression was one of extreme blandness. The flavor that was there wasn't bad, but there wasn't enough of it. A bit of extra apple cider vinegar and sugar stirred into the shredded pork kicked it up into "delicious" territory.
These were pretty universally panned as not worth eating. We'd recommend avoiding them.
Tavern-Style Pot Roast
The idea of a pot roast flavored with mushrooms and roasted garlic is appealing, but aside from a few token nubs of mushroom bits, the flavor was overwhelmingly vinegary. A touch of acidity can be a good thing, but we want our pot roast richer and meatier.
Hawaiian Luau Pork
The odors coming out of the slow cooker as this guy simmered away were off-putting in an oddly sweet and pungent way, and the flavor was not much better. Despite the promise of "pineapple, mango, and bell peppers," we tasted mostly ketchup.
Our Tasting Methodology: All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.