From creamy oats and soups, to meat and dessert, the slow cooker is one magical kitchen tool. Load it up with ingredients, go about your day, and get rewarded with a delicious meal hours later.
There are a number of dos and don'ts for this handy machine. Today we're focusing on the five most common slow-cooker mistakes and our best tips on how to avoid them.
1. Don't add raw meat to the slow cooker.
There's no doubt that slow cookers are wonderfully convenient and can truly transform a piece of meat. To get the most delicious flavor out of your meal, it's best not to add raw meat straight in the bowl of the slow cooker.
→ Follow this tip: Brown meat on the stovetop before adding it to the slow cooker. It adds a wonderful caramelized flavor you just can't get from the slow cooker.
2. Don't use the wrong type of meat.
Okay, so technically there aren't right and wrong cuts of meat to make in the slow cooker, but there are certain cuts that work way better than others. It's best to stay away from lean and more expensive cuts, like chicken breast, and save them for grilling, stovetop, or oven cooking. When lean meat is cooked for a long time, it can get super tough.
→ Follow this tip: Slow cookers are ideal for tougher, fattier, and inexpensive cuts of meat, like stew meat and shoulder cuts. The longer cook time breaks down the tough connective tissue, and you end up with tender, juicy meat.
3. Don't open the lid during cooking!
It's mighty tempting to lift the lid to see what's going on inside, or even to take a taste, but try to avoid this. Slow cookers work by trapping heat and cooking food over a long period of time. Every time you remove the lid, the slow cooker loses heat, and it takes a while to heat back up.
→ Follow this tip: Unless you really have to, there's no need to remove the lid. And if you do open the lid, keep it as brief as possible.
4. Don't add too much wine or liquor.
Unlike cooking on the stovetop or oven, where the heat is much higher and food often simmers without a lid, wine and liquor don't boil down and reduce in a slow cooker. So instead of subtle wine undertones, you may end up with the harsh flavor of "raw" alcohol, which is far from appetizing.
→ Follow this tip: Use wine or liquor to deglaze the pan after browning the meat, then add it to the slow cooker. The high heat will cook off the alcohol. You can also skip the liquor altogether.
5. Don't add dairy products too soon.
Adding dairy products — like milk, cheese, sour cream, or yogurt — too soon will cause them to curdle.
→ Follow this tip: Wait until the very end of cooking to add any dairy products to the slow cooker.
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What are your best tips for using a slow cooker?
(Image credits: Emma Christensen)