Arguably, the most crucial flavor in a dish comes from the very first moments, when you sauté a few aromatics like chopped onions and garlic before proceeding with the recipe. That's when those simple flavors start to build, which eventually enhances your final result.
Some slow cooker recipes that call for you to sauté these aromatics separately on the stove before adding them to the appliance require it for this reason; it's a chance to give as much flavor to the dish as you can. But then they have you dump the sautéed items into a cold slow cooker, along with everything else, before turning it on.
The Case for Preheating Your Slow Cooker
For Neela Paniz, chef and author of The New Indian Slow Cooker, it just didn't make much sense. "At first I was doing it that way, but as I was testing recipes for my cookbook more and more, I found that turning the slow cooker on to preheat while I was sautéing my aromatics had its benefits," she says. "I was then adding a hot dish to a hot dish, instead of starting all over again."
Indian cooking, in particular, benefits from this sautéing of ingredients to create a base flavor. In fact, almost all Indian recipes call for you also to sauté your dry spices in oil first as well, aka blooming, which helps wake them up a bit. "But even if I was cooking a pot roast I would use this method, searing the meat on the stove while the slow cooker is warming up," says Neela.
How to Do It
It really doesn't take any more time. In fact, it's actually saving you time. When you put hot ingredients into a cold slow cooker, everything has to heat back up again, which can tack on an extra 15 to 20 minutes of cooking time. "You're talking about having to bring what you already brought up to a certain temperature back up to the temperature," Neela says. Instead, while you're prepping your aromatics, turn the slow cooker on to high heat to get it up to temperature fast, and then turn it down to the appropriate temperature called for in the recipe when you put all of your ingredients in.
"Methodically, it make sense to me. After testing it this way for my cookbook, I went back and added this step to all of the recipes," she says. And we're happy she did, because it makes a whole lot of sense to us too.
Another Tip from You! Add Hot Water.
After we originally posted this article early last year, a handful of you gave us some great tips in regards to preheating. Try pouring boiling or very hot water into the slow cooker and then turning it to high heat. The water will help the slow cooker preheat even faster, as well as alleviate any concerns regarding heating it empty. Then just pour out the water before adding your ingredients.