If you're a busy cook, you'll appreciate the set-it-and-forget-it convenience of making meals in the slow cooker. So, to make sure all that hands-off cooking turns out just the way you want it, I'll share our top 10 tips to help you get the most flavorful results every time.
Pictured: Slow Cooker Spanish Beef Stew
10 Tips to Make the Best Slow Cooker Meals
Every slow cooker behaves differently—you may have to adjust cooking times depending on whether your cooker runs hotter or faster. You'll get to know your own machine the more you use it. These tips will help you get better results no matter what make or model you're using.
1. Browning is better. You don't need to brown meat before cooking it in a slow cooker, but there are some advantages. If you sear it with a little oil in a hot skillet, the meat develops more complex flavors. If you dredge the meat in flour before you brown it, your sauce will thicken up. Always brown ground beef or any ground meat before adding it to your slow cooker: otherwise, the meat will clump together and add lots of grease to the finished product.
2. Cut with care. Chopping and slicing ingredients into like-size pieces helps them cook evenly. For example, cut dense root vegetables like carrots and potatoes into pieces of the same size. If you're cutting up meats, follow the same guideline.
3. Layers, layers, layers. Put sturdy vegetables like onions, carrots, and potatoes on the bottom. Place the meat on top. More fragile vegetables like peas, mushrooms, zucchini, or spinach can go in towards the end of the cooking time.
4. Go light on liquids. Because slow cookers work at low temperatures with lids on, liquids don't evaporate—they just collect inside the lid and baste the food. If you're adapting your favorite recipes from the stovetop or oven to the slow cooker, decrease the amount of liquid you use.
5. Leave room. The rule of thumb is to fill your slow cooker between half to two-thirds full, but do check your owner's manual. Filling your slow cooker to the very top can affect how the heat penetrates the food.
6. Heat and time. The slow cooker is one of the few cooking methods where you can cut the cooking time by turning up the temperature and still get great results. If something takes 10 hours on the "low" setting, you can safely cook it for 5 hours on the "high" setting with very similar results.
7. No peeking. Don't lift the lid unless the recipe tells you to (e.g., to cook off excess moisture). Lifting the lid releases moisture and heat, and slows down cooking. Every time you lift that lid, add another 15 to 20 minutes to the cooking time. Get a model with a glass top if you absolutely must see what's going on. No lifting the lid to stir while the food's cooking, either. It's really not necessary unless the recipe says otherwise. Having said that, you can partially or fully uncover the food if you need to cook off extra moisture during the last half hour of the cooking cycle.
8. Smart spice. Whole spices such as bay leaves, peppercorns, or cinnamon sticks will give slow cooker items a very intense flavor if left in the pot for the entire cooking time, so use them sparingly. Ground spices as well as fresh and dried herbs, on the other hand, can lose much of their flavor if allowed to simmer for several hours in the slow cooker. It's better to add these items during the last two hours of cooking if you can manage it.
9. Dairy dos and don'ts. Stir in yogurt, sour cream, and milk during the last few minutes to keep their smooth texture from breaking and separating.
10. Freshen up. Brighten flavors at the end with salt and pepper, lemon juice, or vinegar. A handful of fresh chopped parsley, basil, or other leafy herbs are good, too.
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