You think you know how to use a slow cooker. What could be easier? Plug it in, add food, and head out the door. and open your door, you’re met with the delicious aroma of a homecooked meal.
Not so fast.
That long, moist cooking process that slow cookers are known for makes for some tender and flavorful dishes, especially with tough (read: cheap) cuts of meat. And chances are you’ll happily to leave beans to simmers away in your slow cooker because they won’t settle to the bottom and burn – yet another way to .
But if something goes awry, you may have a hard time recovering a slow cooked meal. Here are 11 tips to make the most of your slow cooker.
#1 Slow cookers are fantastic for all weather
Slow cookers are a no-brainer for cold weather, with those cozy comfort foods. But keep your slow cooker going in hot weather too.
While slow cookers do emit a little heat, it is nothing like turning on the oven or even cooking on the stove top. The heat is kept low and mostly contained, so you can cook without heating up your kitchen even more.
Try it with slow cooker honey buffalo chicken taquitos.
#2 To brown meat or not to brown meat?
Some people will say you absolutely must brown any meat before slow cooking, others say no. To be honest, it’s your decision between flavor and convenience.
Searing meat is all about flavor; when the meat hits a hot pan, any moisture on the surface evaporates and the meat undergoes a chemical reaction that gives it that satisfying meaty taste. It doesn’t actually seal in the juices. That’s a myth.
If you do sear your meat, make sure to add all those tasty scrapings into the slow cooker!
The downside is that you have to take the extra time to brown it and you end up with a dirty pan. So if you are all about the flavor, go ahead and brown the meat, but if you need to get that meal on with as little time or effort as possible, skip it.
Try it with butternut squash and sage beef stew.
#3 Use tough (cheap) meat
Cooking with tough cuts of meat isn’t just about easing the budget, though we’ll take that too. It’s also about flavor.
Meat that is tough when quickly cooked is full of collagen, or strong connective tissue. And that strong tissue makes it hard to break down.
But collagen is also soluble in water. So, a long, moist cook time (like what you get in the slow cooker) turns collagen into gelatin, which is both soft and very good for you. It’s also tasty, so that’s a win-win all around.
Try it with slow cooker pork shanks.
#4 Preheat the slow cooker?
Most instructions call for preheating the slow cooker, and many slow cooker users don’t. It seems like an extra step when pressed for time, but it’s not as complicated as it sounds.
When begin prepping ingredients, plug the slow cooker in and turn it on. Pour some boiling water in to help heat it up faster and for added safety. If you sear your meat, saute onions, or toast spices, the slow cooker will be ready to go by the time you are.
Why do it?
For three reasons. One, the flavor of the dish is increased, reportedly, because the sauteed aromatics stay warm. Two, the overall cook time will be faster. Three, it’s safer because the ingredients spend less time swimming in a temperate environment where bacteria thrive. And although bacteria will be killed as the dish cooks, they do leave behind toxins that aren’t ideal.
Having said that, however, many folks don’t preheat their slow cooker. And you’ll be just fine if you follow suit.
Try it with Slow Cooker Chicken Tikka Masala .
#5 Layer it right
Got some veggies that are mushy and some that are just right?
The heat source for slow cookers is on the bottom, so put ingredients that take longest to cook on the bottom. For example, root vegetables like carrots and potatoes take the longest to cook, so put those on the bottom. Follow it with meat and then everything else on top.
Bonus: You don’t have to stir, which makes cooking with a slow cooker even less effort.
Try it with farmhouse beef and bacon stew.
#6 Just the right amount
Make sure not to fill the slow cooker to capacity, otherwise your meal won’t cook on time.
Nor do you want just a little in there, or you could end up with a burned food. The ideal amount to fill a slow cooker is 2/3 full, but no less than half and nor more than 3/4.
Try it with easy slow cooker tortilla soup.
#7 When to keep or ditch chicken skin
Unless you are roasting chicken or other poultry after cooking it in the slow cooker, take the skin off. If it’s cut up in a soup or stew, you’ll end up with bits of white fatty rubber floating around.
However, if you’ve got a whole bird or big pieces, you can pop it in the oven at the end to crisp up the skin.
Try it with Slow Cooker Roast Chicken With Lemon And Garlic .
#8 Add these ingredients later
Add dairy and fresh herbs once the dish is already cooked. Dairy can curdle and fresh herbs will lose all taste if cooked for too long. Also add tender greens, like spinach, at the end or it will turn to mush.
And unless the dish is meant to cook for a short amount of time, add rice and pasta later as well.
Try it with spinach, lentil, and sweet potato slow cooker soup.
#9 Don’t open the lid!
You want to see how dinner is getting along, so you open the lid to check, maybe giving a stir like you would if cooking on the stovetop.
Resist the urge.
Every time you lift the lid, heat escapes and adds up to 30 minutes longer to your cook time. Slow cookers are made so you don’t have to stir with the low cooking temperature, so relax. Leave it. Only lift the lid at the end when your meal is ready, or to add last minute ingredients.
Try it with slow cooker kalua pig.
#10 When you’ve got a soupy mess
While cooking, slow cookers keep in all the moisture. So, sometimes you can end up with a meal that is too watery.
If this happens, take off the lid and stir to evaporate some of the water. If you’re in a hurry, dump everything into a pot and evaporate on the stove top.
Try it with this slow cooker southwest black bean dip.
#11 Don’t forget dessert
Slow cookers generally bring to mind soups, stew, and sometimes roasts.
But all kinds of foods can be cooked in a slow cooker, from lasagna to desserts. Even cheesecake!
Try it with Slow Cooked Caramel Apples .