Those of us who work a 9-to-5 job rarely have time to do the prep work required for a soup before going to work in the morning. And while most soup recipes require little preparation other than browning onions, chopping vegetables and grinding spices, all of these tasks can be done ahead of time to save stress and strain in the morning before you leave for work.
Ingredients can always be chopped and stored overnight in the refrigerator in plastic bags for easy assembly in the morning. Onions can even be browned and stored ahead of time, and spices can be ground and stored in plastic bags (or in a pinch, you can use already ground spices). In the morning, you can consign everything to the pot and turn it on before you walk out the door.
Choosing a Slow Cooker
Choosing the right slow cooker is important. For several years, I have used and recommended the inexpensive slow cookers from Home Depot, Walmart and Target. The big, fancy, very expensive digital models have always seemed superfluous to me. A digital panel is just one more thing that can break, and up until recently, I have been unable to discern any significant difference in the finished product or the ease of cooking between the cheap models and the more expensive ones.
That is to say until I recently found an expensive slow cooker that I enjoy very much: the All-Clad slow cooker with an anodized aluminum insert. The All-Clad insert can be used directly on top of the stove, so you can brown your ingredients, then lift the insert very carefully into the slow cooker casing so you never have to use any other pans for your slow-cooked meal. It is very easy to clean (unlike some cookware that claims to be easy to clean but really isn’t) and has worked beautifully for me.
I keep several sizes of slow cooker on hand: a simple little Proctor Silex 1.5-quart oval slow cooker when I want to cook something for one or two people or melt small quantities of chocolate; a 3-quart round slow cooker for slightly larger quantities of soup, chili, polenta or oatmeal, or for making fondue; a more conventional 5- or 6-quart oval model for cooking family-size meals that serve four to six people; and my favorite, the 7-quart All-Clad.
The easy slow-cooker soup recipes linked to in the beginning of this article were tested in the 7-quart slow cooker. If you are using a smaller slow cooker, your recipes may take a little longer to cook than the times recommended. The slow cooker is very forgiving, and while you may have to watch closely at first to see how long the recipes take in your own slow cooker, the cook times should be fairly accurate. I would caution you that different manufacturers and different sizes, however, can sometimes make a difference in cooking times, so keep your eye on the pot, and if something does not seem to be done by the time it should be (according to the recipe), just keep on cooking.
A Word about Soaking Beans
Although many authors, experts and cooks soak beans before cooking them, I never do. Soaking them may reduce your cooking time, and it may help rid the soup of the polysaccharides that give some individuals gas, but by and large, soaking beans is not necessary. Beans that have recently been harvested are likely to be in good condition and will hydrate fairly quickly. Try to purchase beans from a source with a rapid turnover rate, and check the package. If the beans look chipped or there are “crumbs,” chances are the beans have been sitting around for a long time.
Tip: Two other indispensable tools of the trade for making slow cooker soups: A handheld immersion blender and a spice grinder.
Lynn Alley is a writer who lives in Southern California. This article is excerpted from her new book, 50 Simple Soups for the Slow Cooker (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2011).