Slow Cooker Tips

Slow Cooker Tips

Make the slow cooker fit your schedule. Prepare a recipe in the morning and let the slow cooker work all day. Or, get everything ready the day before, cover and refrigerate overnight, and wait until morning to start slow cooking.

Avoid using frozen ingredients, especially meat and poultry, which take longer to cook and can disturb the overall timing of a recipe.

For best results, the slow cooker should be half to two-thirds full. When making soups and other dishes that need to simmer, leave a two-inch gap between the food and the top of the slow cooker. Place ingredients that take a long time to cook — root vegetables and large cuts of meat, for example — on the bottom of the slow cooker so they have maximum heat exposure. More delicate items, such as rice, pasta, dairy products, and certain vegetables, should be added during the last hour of cooking.

In general, keep the lid securely on the slow cooker to avoid heat loss, which slows down cooking. However, it's ok to occasionally lift the lid and stir. In fact, if your slow cooker has hot spots, stirring can be helpful.

Slow cooking tends to mellow seasoning so be sure to taste your dish to see if you need to add additional salt and pepper at the end of cooking. Better yet, wait until cooking is nearly complete to season your dish. It's also a good idea to add fresh herbs near the end, as they have a tendency to blacken when cooked for any length of time.

Baking in a slow cooker can be tricky, but it's possible. Be sure to grease the crock before adding ingredients, and halfway through baking, lift and rotate the insert to ensure even cooking.

Slow cookers are ideal for braises, stews, and any recipe that calls for beef or lamb "stew meat." Poultry also works, but stick to whole birds cut into pieces or a combination of legs and thighs (avoid boneless chicken breasts, which will likely overcook). Vegetarian dishes, especially those featuring potatoes and root vegetables, do very well in a slow cooker. Dried beans can cook for longer periods, but canned beans should be added towards the end of cooking.

Be aware of the number of servings a recipe makes — you may need to scale it up or down depending on the size of your slow cooker. A four- to five-quart model easily serves four to six people, while larger ones hold up to seven quarts and are great for big groups or when you want to cook extra food to freeze. It's best to consult the manufacturer's instructions for specific serving information. Many slow cookers are oval-shaped which offers more cooking surface and is ideal for larger cuts of meat. Smaller, round models are best for soups. 

Recipes often call for browning meat and vegetables before adding to the slow cooker. Except for ground meat, which should always be browned to reduce risk of contamination, browning is not essential. However it's an excellent way to add flavor to any dish and reduces some of the grease in fattier cuts of meat.

Slow cooking retains a lot more moisture than other cooking methods so it's safe to reduce the amount of liquid called for in a recipe (try using half to three-quarters the amount). Leftover liquid can be used to make a sauce: Remove the lid, turn the slow cooker to high, and simmer until reduced and full of flavor. Alternatively, transfer to a saucepan to reduce.

Personal preference and differences in slow cooker models make for variation in cooking times and temperatures. As a general rule, cook food until tender. A recipe that cooks for an hour and a half to two hours on the stove will likely take about 4 hours in a slow cooker. Also keep in mind that two hours on the low setting translates to about one hour on high. To ensure meat is sufficiently cooked, divide large cuts into smaller chunks or check with a thermometer.

While milk, cheese, and other dairy products aren't suited for extended cooking, you can in fact use them in a slow cooker — just add during the last hour of cooking or stir in afterwards.