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 overfill or underfill the slow cooker.
Perhaps second to a Dutch oven and a just-hot-enough oven, slow cookers are the ultimate braising machines. They cook up perfect pot roasts and brisket so tender you could eat it with a spoon. The key to getting that kind of result out of the machine is filling it with the right amount of food and liquid.
Follow this tip: Well-designed recipes will never fill the machine more than three-quarters full. That's enough food to allow for circulation of heat for thorough cooking but also for maintaining a steady temperature inside the pot so things braise or simmer instead of boil or burn.
2. Don't cook recipes past the suggested time.
For as accommodating as a slow cooker is, there are some particulars to keep in mind. Cooking a recipe only as long as suggested is one of them. It's rather easy for something to go from cooked to a hot burned mess in a matter of minutes.
Follow this tip: On your first run through of a recipe, stick to the recommended times and temperature settings. There might be some adjusting you'll have to do based on your slow cooker model on the second go — maybe it runs hot and takes less time, or maybe you're making a recipe in the slow cooker function of your Instant pot, which usually takes longer. Point is, learn how the recipe works the first time around, then adjust.
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 it's noted in the recipe, there's no need to remove the lid. And if you do open the lid, keep it as brief as possible and maybe tack on a minute or two of extra cooking time.
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: If a recipe calls for wine or liquor, just use the given amount. Otherwise, use wine or liquor to deglaze the pan after browning meat, then add it to the slow cooker.
5. Don't add dairy products too soon.
Adding dairy products like milk, cheese, or sour cream 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. And don't forget a splash of something acidic or some fresh herbs too!
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What are your best tips for using a slow cooker?