10 Must-Know Tips for Smarter Slow-Cooking

published Jun 18, 2016
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(Image credit: Diana Yen)

I am a slow-cooker convert. Growing up, I thought the only thing you could do with a slow cooker was make beef stew and chili. It was good beef stew, but I never understood the point of buying a single appliance for the two recipes we only ever used it for.

I’m happy to say I was so wrong. A slow cooker is one of the most versatile appliances in the kitchen. Pot roast? Check. Delicious sloppy joes? Check. Chicken tacos? Yes! Even bread? You get where this is going. With the right set of recipes, the slow cooker proves itself over and over again. But this is a method of cooking — not a machine that’s going to do all of it for you.

To ensure you’re approaching every slow-cooker recipe with a degree of understanding, and maybe even finesse, start by using these 10 simple tips and tricks.

1. Only fill it two-quarters to three-fourths full.

This is the sweet spot for cooking in the slow cooker. Most recipes are written with this rule in mind, so make sure you’re using the correct size. With less, you run the risk of overcooking and burning. With more, it will take much longer to cook than it says in the recipe.

2. Always thaw meat and poultry.

This is a rule with most cooking, but especially in the slow cooker. Frozen meat leads to uneven cooking and potentially dangerous cooking if the food stays in the bacteria danger zone too long.

3. Brown the meat.

While there are some slow cookers on the market that allow you to sear right in the slow cooker insert, most of us have less high-tech gadgets. For the most flavor, it’s worth the extra time to sear and brown meat on the stovetop before adding it to the cooker. Deglaze the pan with a few tablespoons of liquid, scrape up the fond, and add that to the slow cooker too.

4. Don’t peek.

I know it’s hard, but resist every urge to look under that lid. Slow cookers are designed in a way that allow the lid to seal against the insert, locking in all the moisture and heat. One simple lift releases all that heat into the air. When it’s replaced, it takes the slow cooker a long time to get back up to temperature. While stirring the food might be tempting, it adds about 30 minutes more of cooking time.

5. Leave delicate additions to the end.

Even though you shouldn’t lift the lid, you can use that knowledge to your advantage. For recipes with ingredients that cook quickly, such as pasta, bell peppers, green vegetables, rice, and more, it’s best to add them for only the last 30 minutes of cooking. Or you can quickly cook them on the stovetop and stir them in at the end. If you added these at the beginning of a recipe, you’d get an overdone or mushy dish. Even dairy has a hard time in the slow cooker; stir it in near or at the end of cooking for the best results.

6. Finish with fresh toppers.

Hearty dishes from the slow cooker usually benefit from a boost at the end of cooking. Turn to bright and fresh ingredients to help you out. Try fresh herbs, citrus (both juice and zest), fresh vegetables, or fruit salsa. Even an added textural change from toasted nuts, crushed crackers, and crusty bread can make a big difference.

7. Make cleanup a breeze.

Step 1: Get out your grocery list. Step 2: Add slow-cooker liners. You’ll find them in the grocery store aisle by the resealable plastic bags and plastic wrap. These liners were made to make your life easier. The next time you’re making a slow-cooker dish, try fitting the slow cooker with one of these. When dinner is done and the slow cooker has cooled, you can transfer any leftovers from the cooker into airtight containers and easily slip off the liner. No more scrubbing away at caked-on ingredients.

8. Choose a good shape and size.

This one isn’t make-or-break, but can make prepping a slow-cooker recipe a little easier. With large pieces of meat, you may need to cut the meat to fit the cooker. An oval shape holds them a little better, potentially without cutting at all. If you have the space, it’s actually very useful to have a few sizes of slow cookers on hand as well. A dip might only call for a one- to two-quart cooker, while a pot roast could call for a five- to six-quart cooker.

9. Choose the right cuts of meat.

Technically yes, you can cook any kind of meat in the slow cooker. However, it’s designed with low temperatures and long cooking times in mind, so use it to your advantage. As with braising, you’ll want to choose tougher, typically more inexpensive pieces of meat over lean cuts.

10. Skip the wine and alcohol.

Wine and alcohol can add a flavor boost to many recipes, but the slow cooker isn’t the place to do it. Remember how that the lid traps in moisture and heat? Well, that’s the downfall here. The lid traps in the moisture, so the harsh alcohol flavor that typically cooks off over time in other cooking techniques won’t cook off here. There are always exceptions to rules, but if you find yourself with a slow-cooker recipe that calls for either, make sure it’s a smaller portion than you’d expectl or omit it completely and replace it with broth or water.