Are these 10 Wisconsin-flavored dishes really from a slow cooker? You betcha.

·10 min read
Making cheesecake in a slow cooker keeps it from getting too dry.
Making cheesecake in a slow cooker keeps it from getting too dry.

It's the season for slow cooking. From pulled pork to pot roast, you’ve heard of the usual suspects.

But this old-school kitchen appliance is also a must-have for making some of Wisconsin’s most famous foods (who knew?).

For slow-cooking expert Stephanie O’Dea, this appliance is, of course, about convenience. But it’s also about a state of mind.

“I want a peaceful, tranquil life. Just because you can do something fast doesn’t mean you should,” said the San Francisco resident who has also written five books on slow cooking and hosts the Slow Living podcast. “Slow cooking fits into that because I don’t feel rushed.”

For years, O’Dea used a slow cooker every day (she has 14 in her house). That has since gone down to once or twice a week now that her three children are older. But they still remain her favorite tools when it comes time to entertain.

“I really like them because it keeps me out of the kitchen so I can be with my guests," she said. “For the holidays, all the sides are in slow cookers. I try to put as many things as I can in them so I can focus on connecting with family.”

On her website, ayearofslowcooking.com, she has more than 1,000 slow cooker recipes — and yes, several of them are Wisconsin favorites. She shared her expertise, tips and trepidation for our Top 10 list.

From brats to cheese (and more cheese), the gang’s all here.

Brats

Your slow cooker is an easy way to make a ton of brats at once. Plus, they’ll melt in your mouth and give a nice pop when you bite into them from the moisture they’ll hold. O’Dea slow cooks hers in beer and onions and serves them with hoagie rolls.

“After they’re done cooking, you can remove them from the pot and grill them a little on each side to get those grill marks — but only if you want,” she said.

Mac and cheese

Cheese plus noodles … what could go wrong? Actually, a lot if you’re using a slow cooker. “It’s an advanced recipe,” she said. “You can do it, but pay attention and don’t wander too far away, otherwise the pasta will fall apart and disintegrate and turn into a gloppy mess.”

To avoid the tragedy, keep a close eye on it and stir every half-hour.

“I’m a fan of Velveeta mixed with cheddar cheese, with butter and cream. I don’t eat this one for the health benefits.”

Cheesy dips

Cheesy dips and fondue are great for those smaller slow cookers you see on the market (like the Crockpot Little Dipper). You can go with recipes as simple as a block of cheese (or Velveeta) with a jar of salsa or as fancy as a combo of Gruyere cheese with white wine and butter.

The dip won't scald immediately as it might on a stovetop, so you'll have time to add liquid and loosen the dip, if needed, or add spices.

Beer chili

A big pot of chili is one of the most economical ways to make a lot of food and trim your grocery bill. And if you really want to save money, use dried beans instead of canned. Just make sure you slow cook them all night and then drain (at this stage, you can use them like you would any canned bean).

Feel free to add a bottle of beer to your favorite chili recipe to give it some Wisconsin flair (do this before adding other liquids, like water, to make sure you don’t add too much). Although they say the best beer for chili is the one you drink, varieties like a lager, porter or stout go especially well.

Beer cheese soup

Is there anything better? To get your soup super creamy, consider mixing cheddar with cream cheese or Velveeta. Those two ingredients melt super well, but adding the cheddar keeps that sharp flavor beer cheese soup is known for.

Some other tips: Cook your soup only on low (cooking on high can cause it to curdle) and gently add the dairy.

RELATED: When it's cold in Wisconsin, what do you need? Cheese soup!

Cranberry sauce

Slow cooked is the only way O’Dea makes her cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving. She uses fresh, whole cranberries plus orange juice, apple juice or mashed strawberries and a lot of sugar to cut down on the tartness of the cranberries.

“It takes a while, but the cranberries will pop at the end. I’ll take the lid off to have the moisture dissipate and let the sauce gel up,” she said.

RELATED: Packed with flavor: Wisconsin cranberries pair with sweet and savory at any meal

Cheesecake

Those who’ve had issues with cracked or overly dry cheesecakes in an oven may find just what they’ve been looking for in a slow cooker.

You make a crust and cheesecake filling to put in a Pyrex dish or springform pan and then put that inside the slow cooker with a tiny bit of water to make a water bath. All the moisture stays in the pot, so you’ll have a perfectly cooked cheesecake that’s not the least bit dry.

Brandy old fashioned

This drink is a Wisconsin rite of passage, but it’s normally served with muddled fruit, Korbel brandy and a splash of soda over ice. If there’s one thing that doesn’t go well in a slow cooker, it’s ice.

So this old fashioned is served as a hot drink.

Don’s Diner in Milwaukee (1100 S. First St.) serves its in a crockpot, sweet style, with muddled oranges and cherries with bitters, demerara syrup and Korbel brandy. Sorry, soda fans. You’ll have to get your fix some other way.

Wild rice

Native to the Upper Midwest, wild rice has been essential for Indigenous tribes in Wisconsin for centuries. A slow cooker is a great way to make this side dish because of the long, slow cooking time.

Just make sure you buy the type of rice with long grains (short or broken grains mean the rice can end up mushy), and rinse the rice before adding it to the slow cooker.

Meatballs

Although there are many Norwegian-American enclaves in Wisconsin where you’ll see Norwegian meatballs, statewide you’ll find all kinds of varieties. And for good reason.

“Meatballs work especially well in a slow cooker, and you can cook them from fresh or frozen,” O’Dea said.

If you want to make homemade meatballs, they’ll keep their form while slow cooking. And because it takes such a long time for them to heat up, they’ll slowly cook in a way that helps them keep their shape. Place them in one layer on the bottom and make sure they have a little breathing room so they aren't butted up against one another. If you’re going the frozen route, you couldn’t find an easier way.

Putting meatballs and marina sauce in a slow cooker takes just a few minutes and makes it taste like the cook labored all day, she said.

RECIPES

This recipe from Stephanie O’Dea’s “Make It Fast, Cook It Slow” (Hyperion, 2009, $19.99) is more advanced than other slow cooker recipes because you need to keep an eye on it. The key is checking the pasta every 30 to 45 minutes so it doesn’t overcook.

Macaroni and cheese is a great slow cooker dish, but keep an eye on it as it cooks.
Macaroni and cheese is a great slow cooker dish, but keep an eye on it as it cooks.

Slow cooker macaroni and cheese

Recipe tested by Alysha Witwicki

Makes 6-8 servings

  • 1 egg

  • 4 cups milk (2% or lower fat content)

  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt

  • ½ teaspoon black pepper

  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard

  • 4 cups shredded cheddar cheese

  • ½ pound uncooked macaroni noodles

Spray the crock of a 4-quart slow cooker with nonstick cooking spray. In a mixing bowl, whisk egg and milk together. Stir in the seasonings. Add the cheese and the noodles, and stir well to combine.

Pour the mixture into the slow cooker. It will be very liquidy. Cover and cook on low for 2 to 5 hours, or on high 1 to 3 hours, stirring every 30 to 45 minutes, or until the cheese on top is bubbly and brown and the macaroni noodles are cooked through.

*****

This recipe is also from Stephanie O’Dea, and it’s found on her website, ayearofslowcooking.com.

Slow cooker cheesecake

Recipe tested by Alysha Witwicki

Makes 8 servings

  • 1 cup graham cracker crumbs

  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar

  • 3 tablespoons melted butter

  • 16 ounces cream cheese, softened

  • ¾ cup sugar

  • 2 eggs, room temperature

  • ¼ cup heavy cream

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  • 1 tablespoon flour

  • Fresh fruit for garnish

Find a heat-resistant dish for your cheesecake that will fit into your slow cooker, such as a 1½-quart dish or an 8-inch springform pan.

In a medium bowl, combine the graham cracker crumbs, melted butter and brown sugar until mixture is wet and crumbly. Press the crumbs into the bottom of the cheesecake dish. In a clean bowl, combine the cheese, sugar, eggs, cream, vanilla and flour with a hand mixer. Pour the filling on top of the crust in the cheesecake dish. Place the cheesecake dish inside a 6-quart slow cooker. Pour 1 cup of water into the crock, being careful not to get water on the cheesecake batter.

Cover and cook on high for 2-3 hours, checking every hour. The cheesecake is done when the edges are set and no longer shiny.

Turn off the slow cooker and keep the lid on. Let the cheesecake sit in the cooling slow cooker for one hour before removing. Cover with foil and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving. Serve with fresh fruit.

*****

Slow cookers are the perfect vehicle for making cheesy dips. This recipe from the blog xoxobella.com features corn and jalapeños in addition to lots of cheese for the perfect game day (or any day) appetizer.

Game time! Slow cookers can be used for a variety of dips, including this spicy corn and jalapeno cheese one.
Game time! Slow cookers can be used for a variety of dips, including this spicy corn and jalapeno cheese one.

Slow cooker spicy corn and jalapeño cheese dip

Recipe tested by Alysha Witwicki

Makes 6-8 servings

  • 3 cups frozen whole kernel corn, thawed

  • 2 jalapeños, seeded and diced

  • 1 cup Colby jack cheese, shredded

  • ⅔ cup sour cream

  • 8 ounces cream cheese, cubed

  • 6 slices cooked bacon, chopped

  • ¼ cup cilantro, chopped, for garnish

  • ¼ cup queso fresco for garnish

  • ½ lime, juiced

  • Corn or tortilla chips for serving

Place the corn, jalapeños, Colby jack cheese, sour cream and cream cheese in a slow cooker. Turn on low and cook for 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Reserving some of the bacon for garnish, add the rest and stir.

Place the dip in a dish and sprinkle with cilantro, queso fresco and lime juice. Garnish with reserved bacon. Serve with corn or tortilla chips.

*****

Norwegian meatballs are bigger and flatter than Swedish meatballs. But if you’re looking for frozen meatballs that you can cook in a slow cooker, you’ll only find the Swedish variety at your local grocery store. But you can serve them with mashed potatoes and gravy, Norwegian style.

This recipe is adapted from thecountrycook.net.

Since they heat up slowly, meatballs will hold their shape in a slow cooker.
Since they heat up slowly, meatballs will hold their shape in a slow cooker.

Slow cooker meatballs with Norwegian flair

Recipe tested by Alysha Witwicki

Makes 6 servings

  • 1 (10.75 ounce) can cream of mushroom soup, low sodium

  • 2 cups beef broth, low sodium

  • 1 packet (2 ounces) dry onion soup mix

  • 2 tablespoons steak sauce, such as A.1.

  • 2-pound bag frozen Swedish meatballs

  • 1 cup sour cream

  • Mashed potatoes for serving

In a 5 or 6-quart slow cooker, mix cream of mushroom soup with beef broth, onion soup mix and steak sauce. Whisk together well. Then add in frozen meatballs. Cover and cook on low for 6-8 hours or on high 3-5 hours.

After meatballs have finished cooking, stir in sour cream and cook for an additional 15 minutes. Serve meatballs and gravy on top of mashed potatoes.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: 10 surprising Wisconsin-flavored dishes made in a slow cooker

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