Indian Dal in the Slow Cooker

Urad dal (black gram)“Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for 4 1/2 – 5 hours,” instructs Julie Sahni in her recipe for buttered black beans (kali dal). Even for the most dedicated home cook, it’s an instruction that is asking for trouble, especially for something thick and viscous like Indian dal. When I made these beans in a saucepan on the stovetop a few years ago, it was a stressful experience, having the specter of scorched dal haunting me all afternoon.  Nonetheless, the result was excellent: rich and nicely spiced, a superb example of North Indian cuisine, delicious with naan or basmati rice.

When I considered making them again recently, I immediately thought of my slow cooker, which is perfect for executing a gentle simmer for 5 hours with little risk of burning.  Adapting the recipe was straightforward:  follow Sahni’s instructions up until the 4 1/2 – 5 hour simmer, taking care to preheat the crock in the slow cooker before adding the hot beans.  I have posted my adaptation of the recipe below.

My low-tech, thrift-store, single-setting Crock Pot has been getting quite a workout this year — going into action just about every week for a batch of beans, overnight porridge, or a stew1.  Here are two of my favorite ways to use my slow cooker:

Beans in the Slow Cooker

I follow Rancho Gordo’s simple instructions through the “boil for about five minutes” step, then I carefully pour everything into the cooking vessel, which has been preheated with some hot water. Add herbs and spices as desired (bay leaves, thyme, Mexican oregano, rosemary, etc.). Cook until tender for a few hours, then add salt to taste.

Overnight Porridge in the Slow Cooker

In the crock of a slow cooker, combine whole wheat berries, steel cut oats, a little bit of polenta, various other whole grains (like rice and barley), and chopped pieces of extra-hard dried fruit (like the leathery Blenheim apricots from Trader Joe’s). Add a good amount of water, then hook up the slow cooker to run for about 4 hours overnight between 3 AM and 7 AM with a timer (make sure the timer is rated for the wattage used by your slow cooker). The next morning I add chopped dried fruit, sweetener like brown sugar, a pinch of salt, and maybe some rolled grains (rolled oats, rolled rye, etc.), give it a stir, then let it sit for 20 minutes or so to soften the rolled grains and fruit. Serve topped with chopped walnuts, apple butter or other flavorings.

Buttered Black Beans (Kali Dal)

A complex Indian bean dish that can be made with help from the slow cooker
Course Side Dish
Cuisine Indian
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 4 hours
Total Time 4 hours 20 minutes


The beans

  • 1 cup black whole gram beans (urad dal)
  • 2 tbsp red kidney beans

For cooking beans

  • 1 cup finely chopped yellow onions
  • 2 tbsp finely chopped or grated fresh ginger root
  • 3/4 cup chopped fresh tomatoes 1/2 cup canned drained tomatoes or 1/3 cup canned tomato puree
  • 1 cup plain yogurt
  • 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
  • 1 tbsp ground coriander seed
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper
  • 2 tsp Kosher salt
  • 8 tbsp unsalted butter

To finish

  • 4 tbsp ghee or light vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 cup minced or finely chopped onions
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup firmly packed chopped coriander leaves


Soak the Beans

  1. Clean and rinse the gram beans and kidney beans.  Put into a saucepan and add 4 cups water.  Bring to a boil over high heat.  Turn off heat, let soak, covered, for 2 hours.  Do not drain.

Cook the Beans

  1. Add the “for cooking beans” ingredients to the soaked beans, stir to mix.  Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat.
  2. Transfer to slow cooker with a preheated cooking vessel (alternatively, you can continue cooking on the stove over very low heat for about 5 hours, stirring occasionally being sure to not boil rapidly, which will make the beans slimy).
  3. When beans are cooked through, remove 2-3 cups and finely puree them.  Return to the slow cooker.

Finish the dish

  1. heat ghee or oil over medium-high heat in a skillet. When fat is hot, add cumin seed, and stir until seeds turn dark brown (about 10 seconds).
  2. Add the onion and cook over medium heat until they are golden brown, 10 minutes or so.
  3. Pour over the cooked beans.
  4. Add the heavy cream and coriander leaves, stir well, and heat until everything is warm.
  5. Add more salt if needed.

Recipe Notes

Adapted from Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni 


  1. I’ve had good luck with The Gourmet Slow Cooker, by Lynn Alley (Ten Speed Press) and recipes from Food and Wine magazine.

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