9 Tips and Tricks for Using a Slow Cooker

Photo: iStock
Follow these nine simple tips for effortless cooking all year long.

We'll be the first to admit that when things get crazy (which is typically more often than not), cooking quickly goes out the window. And when you're trying to go easy on the wallet and the waistline, the delivery man isn't always your friend. But that doesn't mean you have to slave away over the stove after a long day to whip up a healthy spread either. This is where the crock pot comes in — it might sound old-fashioned, but it's actually game changing. It's the ultimate in effortless cooking. Prep your ingredients, throw them in the pot, carry on with your day and then come home to delicious aromas and a ready-to-eat meal. It's easy to get carried away with the whole “set it and forget it" appeal of this must-have appliance, so we've put together a few tips, tricks and mistakes to avoid to help achieve tasty meals every time.

1. Safety first. While slow cookers and crock pots make meal preparation a whole lot easier, if used incorrectly they can land you a visit in the emergency room. Getting the temperature right is huge and while most low settings on slow cookers are well above the 40–140 degree “danger zone" (the sketchy range of temps that can be a breeding ground for food borne illnesses), it's better to give the gadget a test drive before heading out. It's not a bad idea to cook food on a higher setting for the first hour to get the temperature up quickly, then bringing it back down to low (200 degrees) for the rest of the cooking time.

2. Don't overfill. To avoid any unpleasant food-safety situations, creating the right conditions for your food to cook evenly is key. Loading up your slow cooker might be tempting, but doing so can make cook time longer than listed on your recipe and may prevent food from reaching safe cooking temperatures fast enough. Check your slow cooker's manual for the manufacturer's recommendation (typically one half to two-thirds full).

3. Pass on lean meats. Fatty cuts like shank, shoulder and ribs work best in the crock pot because the longer the cook time, the more tender they become. Leaner cuts have a tendency to overcook, meaning a tough, rubbery texture that is anything but appetizing.

4. Get your sear on. Don't let the temptation to throw everything in the pot and call it a day get the best of you. To build flavor and develop a nice golden brown color, searing (red) meat beforehand is a must. You can even apply this principle to veggies to really step up your game. After searing, deglaze the pan and add the drippings to the pot for a flavor-packed punch.

5. Trim the fat. Typically keeping the skin on chicken during the cooking process helps maintain moisture and flavor, but in the crock pot it's a recipe for disaster. Unless you like your poultry with a side of gelatinous, rubbery skin, we say take a pass. And while fattier cuts of meat are prime for the slow cooker, trim any excess fat to avoid a finished product with a less-than-fabulous mouthfeel or taste.

6. Add spices, herbs and dairy last. Overcooked herbs and spices tend to lose their flavor (or become bitter, ick) and dairy products have the potential to curdle when cooked for long periods of time, so leave the addition of each to the last 30 minutes. The same can be said for seafood and tender vegetables, like mushrooms and zucchini, and if you like your average, everyday legumes on the more crunchy side, hold off until adding until the last hour of cooking.

7. Find the right balance. Unlike a pot or traditional pan, liquids don' boil off in a slow cooker. Reducing the amount of liquid called for in a recipe by between 1/3 to 1/2 will keep your meal from achieving soup or stew-like status. Still not quite right? During the last half hour of cooking time, turn up the temp and remove the lid to thicken juices and sauces, while deepening flavor.

8. Keep the lid on. Every time you open the lid to give things a once-over or stir, heat escapes, ultimately lowering the temperature of your dish and extending cook time(a crock pot takes about 15–20 minutes to get the temperature back up). If you think back to tip 1, that's a bit of a food safety no-no. If you need to check on your dish's progress, turn the lid to remove condensation, then go from there.

9. Stack it just right. Recipes will typically give you a run-down on how to layer each ingredient and it's definitely in your best interest to listen up. With the exception of tender vegetables, most veggies cook more slowly than meat during their stint in the crockpot. Placing them at the bottom — each cut into equally sized pieces — will help ensure that your dish cooks evenly.

Now that you're feeling like a crock pot pro, here are a few recipes to give a try: