Crockpot Orange Ginger Chicken

This sweet and spicy slow cooker recipe is a favorite of my family of picky eaters. Cubed chicken breast simmers for a couple of hours in a sauce flavored with fresh ginger, garlic, orange juice, soy sauce, and brown sugar. The sauce is reduced and thickened, then the dish is served over rice, along with fresh, tender-crisp broccoli, and sprinkled with orange zest. It’s a bright tasting, colorful looking meal in a bowl.

The following recipe is not just a collection of ingredients. Instead, it is a tutorial that attempts to demonstrate how a few simple techniques and some extra care can help you improve the quality of foods prepared with the help of a crock pot / slow cooker.

(This recipe is designed for a classic Crock Pot, not the newer “Insta-Pot” style cooker.)

If you are a seasoned slow cooker cook, and you are happy with the end result of your usual efforts, you can totally skim all the text and use your own techniques. If you haven’t been impressed by the results you’ve gotten from using a slow cooker in the past, try my suggestions and see what you think.

Orange Ginger Chicken is a forgiving dish as you work with potentially new techniques to improve your Crock Pot game. Whatever you end up with is going to taste good.

WHAT I KNOW ABOUT SLOW COOKERS … NOW

A slow cooker can be a tricky appliance, but only if you approach it with faulty, unrealistic expectations. Common wisdom holds that the beauty of a slow cooker lies in how you can toss a few ingredients into the pot, leave them to cook all day, and come home to a warm, tasty meal.

With few exceptions this doesn’t really work. Food prepared this way tends to be too soft, too wet, and too … homogeneous. This method often just kills the ingredients you put into the crock.

A slow cooker is good at three things:

  1. tenderizing any ingredient you cook in it
  2. creating a flavorful base for a great sauce
  3. keeping cooked food warm (and safe to eat) for long periods of time

That third point is perhaps the most important thing to remember about slow cookers. The REAL beauty of a slow cooker is that you can do all of the real cooking hours before you need to eat … IF you turn the temperature setting to “keep warm” when the food is done.

Understanding these strengths (and the weaknesses) of a slow cooker changed my life. Before I “got it” I tried to use a slow cooker to help me manage the crazy schedules and food preferences I have to deal with in my household.

[The craziness, defined: We are five related adults, who migrated from MN to NC together, all working different shifts, trying to save up money so we can eventually split into separate households. One of us is strictly low-carb for health reasons. Two of us barely eat red meat. A different pair won’t eat fish. Three of us won’t touch pork. None of us like dark-meat chicken. And no one is very open to exotic fruits and vegetables. As the work-at-home-writer in the house, most of the meal planning and preparation falls to me. It is just the practical choice. At first, it was awful. I found myself spending way too much money putting food for three different nightly meals into the fridge. It was a nightmare until I took the time to make a 3-month, repeating menu plan, and befriended my slow cooker.]

When I first looked to slow cooking as a possible path to sanity, I scoured the internet, searching out recipes to try. Most such recipes pretend that you can cook meat, vegetables, and starches (like potatoes, rice, or pasta) all together, and all for the same amount of time … and in most cases a very long time. I assumed the authors of these recipes must be telling the truth, or they wouldn’t be proud to share the recipe. I was wrong. At first, I made a lot of bland, soggy meals.

It was a version of this orange-ginger chicken recipe — which had a wonderful flavor, but terrible texture — that forced me to stop buying into the no-work myth of Crock Pot cooking, and start applying the knowledge I’d gained in my former life, of over 20+ years of stove-top / oven cooking.

(The original recipe I found had me adding broccoli and corn starch directly into the pot with the chicken and sauce ingredients.)

ORANGE GINGER CHICKEN

(Please read entire recipe before beginning.)

Serves 5 hungry adults, with few leftovers. I usually double the recipe so we have lunches.

The ingredients:

  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (Approximately 2 lbs. Not the flash-frozen chicken cutlets, but rather breasts from the meat case.)
  • 1 and 1/2 cups orange juice (see  step 2 & 3 below)
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 4 cloves finely minced garlic
  • 3 tablespoons fresh grated or finely minced ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes … make it with this the first time, then increase or decrease to suit your tastes in future meals

Later:

  • 4 tablespoons corn starch to make a slurry (see cornstarch slurry section, below)

Separately:

  • 1 1/2 cups rice cooked in 3 cups water (cooked in rice cooker, see rice note below)
  • 1-2 fresh broccoli crowns, depending on size, prepped, then cooked quickly in boiling water (see broccoli note below)

For serving:

  • zest of 1 orange
  • 3+ tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted (optional, see serving note below)

The process:

  1. Wash, dry and zest orange, setting aside zest in a covered container. (You only use this at the very end.)
  2. Juice the orange into a 2 cup measuring cup. Be aggressive. Pulp is fine. Make sure to extract any seeds from the juice.
  3. Add enough purchased orange juice to make 1 1/2 cups total (or squeeze more oranges if you’d prefer to use all fresh. I don’t bother.)
  4. Peel and grate or mince enough fresh ginger to make 3 generous tablespoons, add to measured orange juice. (FYI, I have no luck grating ginger. I prefer to slice it, stack it, and mince it into tiny bits. Because fresh ginger roots vary so much in size and are so oddly shaped, I can’t tell you to “prepare a 3-inch piece” or some such thing. This is a process of prepare some, measure result, and prepare some more if necessary. I imagine the jarred prepared ginger you can buy would also work.)
  5. Peel and mince garlic cloves, add to orange juice. (I use nice, big, fat cloves. If your garlic bulb is on the small side, chop an extra clove. I prefer to use fresh garlic over the jarred kind, but I’m sure it would work.)
  6. Stir remaining sauce ingredients (soy sauce, brown sugar, rice wine vinegar, sesame oil, and red pepper flakes)  into orange juice. It should all fit into the 2 cup measure. If you can’t stir it well, no worries. Just dump it into the slow cooker and whisk it together in there.
  7. Trim all fat from chicken breasts, then cut into bite-sized pieces. Do not pre-cook. Add raw to slow cooker and stir into sauce.
  8. Cook in slow cooker until chicken is done. I know that’s annoying. We all want a defined time period, but I can’t give you one. Slow cooker cooking times vary. In my pot, I cook my bite-sized chicken  (for all of my slow cooker recipes) on high for 1 1/2 – 2 hours. I check it at about the 90 minute mark. Don’t be afraid to open the slow cooker to check on progress. Pull out a piece and cut it. If it is white, with no tinge of pink, all the way through, you’re good. Note: Cooking lean chicken breast meat too long makes it dry. You could absolutely use boneless, skinless, thighs, if you like dark meat, and allow it to cook longer. In this recipe, it won’t ruin the dish if the chicken does overcook a bit, because the sauce is so luscious.

At this point, everything in the pot tastes good but the sauce is a thin juice, not the glorious, clinging coating we want. This is where we begin to ignore common crock pot wisdom.

  1. Remove the chicken, using a slotted spoon or, better and easier, a kitchen spider. Scoop out all the chicken, and whatever garlic / ginger that clings to it,  and store it off to the side in a bowl or  pot big enough to contain it. (This bowl or pot will wash out easily when you’re done with it.) Now you have a crock full of hot juice in front of you. Do not stir in some corn starch and hope for the best.
  2. Instead, you’re going to reduce and thicken the sauce on the stove top. Set out a pan or pot with a wide surface area — a sauce pan or a dutch oven — that will contain all the juice. (The wide  pan will allow for more surface area, which allows for faster evaporation.) Using pot holders and taking your time, pour the juice from the slow cooker into the pan. Return the crock to its base, turn the temperature control to low, and return the set-aside chicken to the crock, scraping out all the good bits to go with it. Cover to allow the crock and the chicken to reheat.

On the stove top, bring the juice to a low boil. You want to see steam curling up from the juice. In my experience, once you get a hard simmer or a low boil going, the juice will not need much tending for a while. You should stir occasionally to ensure there’s no sticking. The process of reduction will take between 10-20 minutes. While the excess water steams away, you have time to prepare your rice and broccoli.

RICE:

However you make rice is fine. I swear by my rice cooker, which turns out pot after pot of perfectly steamed rice. My rice cooker works beautifully alongside my slow cooker, because once the rice is done, the cooker switches to ‘keep warm’ mode.

BROCCOLI:

You can buy broccoli pre-cut in a bag, but I’ve found that I can improve quality and save money by buying broccoli crowns and cutting them up myself. There are two tricks to perfect broccoli:

  1. Cut the crown into equally sized pieces, even if it means cutting a large floret into 2 or 3 pieces. (I stick to the florets and discard most of the stalk.)
  2. Cook your broccoli briefly in a pot of generously salted boiling water. By briefly I mean, maybe 2-5 minutes, depending on the size of your florets. This is not about boiling all the life out of the broccoli; it’s more of a long blanch. You want bright green broccoli, and you want to be just able to pierce the stem-part with a fork. Once you’re there, you’re done. Don’t overcook it. Drain using a colander.

(This is one of those cases where we’re again ignoring popular wisdom. If you were to put the raw broccoli directly into the slow cooker, it would cook, but it would be almost impossible to control its texture.)

As it sits in the colander, residual heat will cook the broccoli a bit more, then it will cool without sitting in a pool of water, which would make it soggy. Though the broccoli will cool to room temperature quickly, serving it with the hot sauce will warm it right back up.

YOU’LL PROBABLY FORGET THE SESAME SEEDS

…as I did, when I made the batch I photographed for this post, and as I did when I was drafting these directions.

That said, they really do add an extra bit of loveliness to this dish, so take a minute to do it.

To make: simply warm seeds in a dry pan over med to medium high heat, stirring constantly. This only takes a few seconds or a minute. The seeds will brown slightly and give off a nutty aroma when they are done. Under-cooked is better than over-toasted.

These are best-tasting when they are fresh toasted, so you might want to save this step for dinner time if everyone is going to be able to eat together.

BACK TO THE SAUCE

Alright. At this point, your broccoli is cooked and cooling. Your chicken pieces are hot in the crock. Your rice is cooking in its pot. Your juice has been reducing on the stove.

You’re almost done.

Turn your attention back to the juice. Much of the excess water will have turned to vapor and steamed away. Your juice now has an even more concentrated flavor, but it’s still just juice. It’s time to thicken it with a corn starch slurry.

THICKENING THE SAUCE

Many, many recipes suggest that you can measure some amount of corn starch into your crock when you dump all the ingredients in, and it will magically thicken the sauce. Not true. The nature of a slow cooker is that it doesn’t allow for whatever moisture that it draws out of the food to evaporate away. The water content of everything from meat to starches to vegetables and fruit varies from batch to batch. It’s almost impossible to get the ratio right.

But you can have complete control over the consistency of your sauce if you thicken it separately. (To thicken any sauce that you want to be translucent, like the one for Orange Ginger Chicken, you want to use cornstarch. For more gravy-like sauces, like for a beef stew, you want to use a flour and butter roux, and a different method. I’m sure I’ll write a post about that in time.)

TO THICKEN WITH CORNSTARCH SLURRY:

Make no mistake, the use of corn starch slurry is an art, and it requires practice. If you are going to use a slow cooker a lot, you need to master it.

  • Measure 4 tablespoons corn starch into a small bowl.
  • Add 2 tablespoon cold water.
  • Mix together. At first this will be hard to combine, but persist.

You will get a strange mixture that can be compressed to form something that’s too thick to easily stir, but that also freely streams smoothly when poured. This is perfect. If it feels just too weird to you, add 1 teaspoon more of water, no more than that. (You’ll break the slurry if you add too much water, and it won’t give you the near-instant results you want.)

NOTE: I’m deliberately suggesting that you make more slurry than you’ll probably need to make a single recipe of Orange Ginger Chicken. I don’t want you to come up just short of the right amount for your measure of juice, and fail to achieve the desired result. You’ll probably use half of this slurry, maybe a little more. Don’t panic if you have to use it all to get a thick sauce. It just means you could have reduced your juices longer or at higher heat for a more intensely flavored sauce.

Next you will whisk the slurry into the juice. Make sure the juice is at least at a high simmer. If you have enough room in the pan, if can be at a full boil. Start whisking, and slowly pour a thin stream of slurry into the juice where you are whisking. It’s easiest to do this slowly if you hold the small bowl high above the pan with your off hand while you whisk swiftly with your good hand.

Continue whisking and pouring (remember, you’re likely to use half or a little more of the slurry) until you see and feel the juices thicken. This may happen kind of suddenly. The more slurry you add, the thicker the sauce will become. When you think it will do a nice job of clinging to and coating the chicken, you’re done.

Remove the sauce from the heat and pour it over the chicken in the slow cooker. Stir.

TURN THE SLOW COOKER TO KEEP WARM!

That’s it. From this point forward (assuming the rice is done and resting in keep warm mode) anyone can make themselves a bowl of deliciousness over the course of the next 3-4 hours. Maybe longer. (Make sure your slow cooker keeps its contents at a safe temperature of more than 135 degrees F.)

To serve, set the container of zest and a container of toasted sesame seeds out where people can see them.

For the purposes of these photographs, I left the broccoli un-sauced, to ensure good color contrast. Rest assured, I spooned more sauce over the top of this bowl before I ate it!

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