Strata always seemed to me like a super-fancy brunch dish for elegant people. Like the kind of thing you make when you are a really well-organized person of the world, who remembers to assemble this breakfast bread pudding while wearing an organic linen apron you sewed yourself, in between pruning your rosebushes and sending out this week's birthday cards to loved ones and business acquaintances. In the mail. With pretty stamps.
I used to only make strata when we had houseguests for the weekend, and then only because you put it together the day before and let it hang around in the fridge and toss it in a hot oven in the morning, thus eliminating the stress-inducing conversations about how everyone likes their eggs and praying no one wants theirs sunny-side-up or over-easy. Only a skilled short order cook can make those with any competency. I am not a short order cook of any skill. Strata was just not a weekday breakfast—until it hit me. If usually I let my strata sit overnight in the fridge before cooking for a short time, what would happen if I didn’t let it sit at all and just cooked it low and slow all night while I slept?
Magic, that’s what happens people, magic. Layer the ingredients in a slow cooker pot, mix a custard and pour it over. Then cook it on low overnight and wake up to delicious brunch-worthy breakfast without going full Martha.
Strata means layers, and those layers can be anything you want. Any breadstuff you have lying around, part of an artisanal loaf slightly past its prime? Glorious. Even slices of crappy white bread, English muffins, bagels, or frozen waffles are fair game, just use what you’ve got. Tear them into pieces, toss with a bit of melted butter and divide that mess in half. Put the first half in the bottom of your well-greased slow cooker pot. (If you want to swap out bread for a different carb like leftover pasta, tater tots, or cooked rice, go right ahead.)
Now it's time for some fun. You need fillings. Yes, you can layer in last night's kung pao or shred up those last two pieces of chicken from dinner. Any vegetables floating around in your crisper drawer—chop 'em up and layer them in. You just want to avoid packing anything tightly, because you want holes and nooks and crannies for the custard to flow into.
Any cheese you like is great in this, whatever you have, shredded or crumbled over the first layer of filling, then the second layer of bread and repeat. Season with salt and pepper as you go, and feel free to layer in your favorite herbs or spices, fresh or dried. Top with more cheese.
You can even make a sweet version with cinnamon raisin bread or leftover croissants. Layer that with dollops of cottage cheese, or ricotta or farmers cheese and chopped fresh or dried fruit, a sprinkle of warm spices, and a bit of sugar and vanilla, and a healthy plop of sour cream added to the custard.
Speaking of custard, grab 8 eggs and whisk them with a couple cups of milk (or a combo of milk and half and half or cream, whatever you’ve got). I prefer whole milk or 2 percent, but it will work fine with skim. Season that with salt and pepper. Add in a tablespoon of something extra: Dijon mustard, miso paste, gochujang if you’re feeling spicy, or tahini if you’re craving Middle Eastern flavors. It's just a bit of extra punch.
Mix the custard well, pour it over the layers, and give it a press or two on the top to be sure the bread is getting soaked. Pop the lid on and let it hang out in your fridge until bedtime. Then put in in the cooker base, set it on low for 8 hours and go to bed. In the morning you only need a spoon and a bowl and the beverage of your choice.
This strata lends itself to garnishing, which you can easily do while your coffee is brewing. Maybe a bit of a crunchy topping if you’re feeling like you need some contrast, some crispy canned fried onions or crumbled potato chips, chopped nuts, or toasted buttered bread crumbs. Don’t be shy about sauces if you like them, a bit of barbecue sauce, a splash of hot sauce, a drizzle of sweet soy or maple syrup, or even a splash of ranch if you swing that way. You do you at breakfast.
It’s also great cold, like a crustless quiche, cut in wedges on morning two for an easy handheld nosh in the car en route to work.
Note: I make this in a 4-quart cooker, which makes for a nice thick circular strata. If you have a larger oval one, you will end up with a little less loft, but no less deliciousness.
Basic Slow Cooker Strata
Layer half the bread followed by half the filling items in a well-greased slow cooker pot, season, repeat. Mix the eggs with the milk and season well, adding any bonus item you like. Pour slowly over the strata and press the top to help soak the bread. Refrigerate until right before you go to bed, then put in your slow cooker base on low for 8 hours. Garnish, slice, and serve.