There’s nothing like the scent of a home-cooked meal wafting through the house the moment you step through the door after a long day at work. Welcome to the wonderful world of slow cooking. Throw in a few ingredients, press a button, and let that crock pot works its magic. Once you experience the beauty of the slow cooker, life without it seems unthinkable.
But if you want to really get the most out of your slow cooker, you’ll have to go beyond the basics. By studying up on how your crock pot works best, you’ll be able to optimize its performance and churn out even tastier meals. Below, 13 tips to take your slow cooking to the next level!
1. Don’t overfill the pot. Ensure food cooks evenly (and safely) by filling up your crock pot at least halfway– but not more than 2/3 of the wayfull. Your crock pot isn’t meant to be filled to the top, and doing so is pretty much asking for a spill. Slow cookers come in all different sizes, from 1 quart to 8 ½ quarts. Make sure the recipe you’re using is suited for the size of your slow cooker.
2. Bring out the flavor by browning. The slow cooker can do plenty of things, but one thing it can’t do is enhance the flavor of your ingredients. To intensify taste and boost flavor, brown meat and saute vegetables prior to tossing them in the pot. Bonus: browning meat is also a great way to eliminate excess fat. You’ll be rewarded with a rich, caramelized flavor with only a few extra minutes of effort!
3. No peeking or stirring! You might be curious about what’s going on inside the crock pot, but opening that lid is a big no-no. Every time you do, you’re adding up to 20 minutes in additional cooking time. If you really feel the need to glance inside and check for doneness, the ideal time is 30-45 minutes before the low end of the cooking range. Also: no stirring unless the recipe says otherwise!
4. Keep frozen food out of the crock pot. Make sure any frozen veggies or meat are properly thawed before throwing them in the slow cooker. Adding those ingredients to the mix while they’re still icy can pose a serious health risk, leaving food in a dangerous temperature zone that’s a magnet for bacteria.
5. Break up large pieces of meat to ensure thorough cooking. Whole chickens and big chunks of meat should be cut up into smaller pieces around the same size before you dump them in the crock pot. Otherwise you’ll end up with a hodgepodge of over- and undercooked meatnot our idea of a tasty meal!
6. Pick the right cut of meat. Opt for dark meat (drumsticks and thighs) over white meat to avoid drying out your dinner, and choose fatty, tougher meat if you want to enjoy that juicy, extra-tender texture that slow cookers are known for. Some great options include short ribs, pork shoulders and chuck roasts!
7. A little planning goes a long way. If you’re in a hurry to dash out the door in the morning, get everything ready to go the night before. That means chopping veggies, trimming and cutting meat, measuring out ingredients and preparing any sauces. Separate ingredients into containers and refrigerate them overnight. In the morning, just layer everything in the slow cooker according to the recipe and you’re good to go!
8. Dairy and seafood go in last! These ingredients will break down if they sit in the slow cooker for too long, so keep this in mind: seafood should be added within the last hour of cooking, and dairy within the last 15 minutes.
9. Rotate if you’ve got a “hot spot.” If your slow cooker tends to heat up more on one side than another, flip the insert halfway through the cooking time to make sure everything cooks evenly. Bonus: if you’re baking something with a crust, it will brown just right with this one step.
10. If you’re perpetually late, make a casserole or stew. Some recipes are more forgiving than others when it comes to running a few minutes late. If you know you have the tendency to stay overtime at work, a casserole or stew will hold up just fine if it lingers in the slow cooker. Just make sure seafood and dairy aren’t part of the recipe, as they require precise cooking time!
11. Finish with fresh flavor. Don’t underestimate the power of a last-minute dusting of herbs or grated cheese. As your meal finishes simmering, consider adding hot sauce, a splash of lemon juice, olive oil or citrus zest. A touch of extra flavor goes a long way and can tone down a recipe that’s particularly rich.
12. Make cleanup a breeze with plastic liners. Pick up some heavy-duty plastic liners and place one at the bottom of your slow cooker before adding any ingredients. When mealtime is over and the crock pot is cool, simply pull out the liner and toss it in the trash!
13. Consider an upgrade. You don’t need to splurge on an ultra-lux, top-of-the-line machine, but if you’re the owner of an aging crock pot, you might want to make the leap to a newer model. Most slow cookers on the market today come with a digital touchpad and a timer that allows you to adjust temperature in 30-minute increments for up to 20 hours. With prices hovering around $50, it’s a minor investment that can have a major impact in the kitchen.