By Carrie Havranek
Your slow cooker can definitely be your friend, but so many slow cooker recipes disappoint. What seems like a really promising idea—a hands-off dinner while you’re out or at work or otherwise engaged in other things—turns into a flavorless, mushy, inconsistently cooked dish with too much liquid. It is ok. We’ve all been there. Here are five tips that will help you understand your slow cooker a bit better, so it can work seamlessly on your behalf, delivering better cooking in the slow cooker. Every time.
1 Develop flavor first.
One of the most common experiences people have with slow-cooked food is that the flavors sometimes don’t always integrate well. Browning your meats or sautéing your onions or garlic, along with whatever dried herbs and spices are in the recipe before putting the ingredients in the slow cooker can make a difference. Make sure you get those burnt bits, too, into the slow cooker from the sauté pan—don’t waste that flavor.
2 Avoid overcrowding the pot.
Make sure it’s between a half and 2/3 full—depending on the manufacturer’s recommendations. If you overcrowd your pot, your food may cook unevenly, or not in the time specified. Or it may overflow altogether.
3 Reduce the liquid by a third.
If you’re adapting a recipe for your slow cooker, reduce the liquid in it by a third—it should just cover whatever meat and/or veggies are in the ceramic insert. Slow cookers don’t evaporate liquid the way other methods of cooking because of the well-sealed lid. Speaking of which….
4 Keep the lid on.
It’s definitely tempting, removing the lid to check on the dinner’s progress, but resist the urge to peek. Removing the lid can drop the temperature so much that it can take 20 to 30 minutes to come back up to the set temperature. You want slow cooking, but not that kind of slow cooking!
5 Add all ingredients at once, except add herbs, dairy, pasta, and rice toward the very end.
If you’re looking to garnish or add some herbs to integrate for flavor, add them in before serving, so their delicate flavors stay fresh and bright, and don’t get lost cooking for hours on end with other ingredients. Similarly, dairy fares better when it’s added at the end, if you’re adding milk, cream, or cheese, for example. Otherwise it can break down and coagulate earlier in the cooking process. Rice and pasta will likely overcook if you add them in the beginning; most good recipes for slow cooker will suggest you add things like pasta or rice toward the end, or cook it on the side, separately.