I gave away my slow cooker. I’d stopped using it feeling pretty much like a slow-cooking failure. I’d just acquired a multi-cooker with a slow cook option should I ever feel the urge to try that again.
Besides, who wants to dine on meat that’s an odd shade of gray and vegetables with all the texture of mush? How can boneless skinless chicken breasts cook in liquid all day long and come out tough and dry as dust?
Turns out I was the problem, not my humble kitchen appliance.
If you’re a slow-cooker hater, here’s your opportunity to learn from my mistakes. And get ready, because it just might be time to break out the slow cooker to give it another chance. Knowing how to use a slow cooker properly is about to become your best cost-cutting piece of kitchen equipment! It’s going to keep you out of restaurants, which means you’ll cut your food costs AND as a bonus, you’ll be turning out meals that are so much better than your typical restaurant fare. Trust me.
Mistake: Wrong size cooker
Slow cookers come in varying sizes from small to ginormous, measured in quarts. The cooking time on a slow cooker recipe takes into account the size of the cooker. Here’s the rule: The cooker should be filled halfway to three-quarters. If it’s full beyond that limit, expect a big undercooked mess. It might even overflow while you’re gone for the day. If not full enough—way overcooked is what you’ll have. Most slow cooker recipes call for 6-quart capacity.
Mistake: Not prepping the cooker
If you’ve stopped using your slow cooker because it’s such a pain to clean, you missed a basic rule: Always grease the inner pot with cooking spray or use a slow cooker liner. Or you can use a commercial disposable slow cooker liner. Now you can skip all that soaking and elbow grease required to get it clean. Some manufacturers suggest that doing so will help your cooker last longer, too.
Mistake: Not lining the lid
Inside a slow cooker, there is precious little loss of moisture because it collects on the inside of the lid and drips back down into the cooking pot itself. With stews and the like, this is not a problem. But if it’s a dish where additional moisture is going to ruin it, the rule is to line the lid.
According to slow-cooking expert Sarah DeGregorio, author of Adventures in Slow Cooking, lining the lid with a paper towel soaks up the extra steam and prevents it from dripping back onto the face of the dish.
Mistake: Starting out frozen
There is no shortage of Pinterest-type promises of slow cooker freezer-to-table success, but that’s a mistake. First, it’s not a safe way to cook meat and poultry, where it languishes for hours below the safe temperature of 140 F. If that’s not bad enough, slow cooking from frozen can also affect the texture of the final outcome.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service, “Always thaw meat or poultry before putting it into a slow cooker.”
Here’s the rule: Do not put frozen ingredients in the slow cooker; defrost meat and poultry thoroughly in the refrigerator before slow cooking.
Mistake: Failure to sear
When the recipe says to sear the meat before placing it in the slow cooker—sear the meat! I’m a skipper, I’ll admit it. Seems like such an unnecessary step to drag out another pan to prep the meat for the time-saving slow cooker I know. But it’s a big mistake to skip this important step. Searing changes the flavor for the better. And it creates a more visually appealing dish. At the same time, we should also brown the vegetables—especially the aromatics like carrots and celery, onions, garlic, and ginger.
Mistake: Peeking (a lot)
It’s tempting, but once the cooker is set for its long, slow cook, do not peek until it has finished cooking hours
from now. Here’ the thing about a slow cooker. It takes longer than you think for it to reach the proper slow cooking temperature. Removing the lid, even for a second or two, reduces that perfect temperature, forcing it to cool down and start again. Each time you lift the lid, you set the time back by 30 minutes! Here’s the rule: Do not peek until or unless the recipe instructs you to do so (like “10 minutes before done” or “during the last 30 minutes.”
Mistake: Skin-on chicken
A slow cooker is not an oven, roaster, or grill—the ideally the way to end up with gorgeous, crispy skin chicken. Chicken skin in a slow cooker turns out rubbery, soft, and anything but visually appetizing. And boneless chicken breasts are not the best option either as they turn out tough and dry due to the lack of fat. When slow cooking, the rule is to start with skinless, dark chicken.
Mistake: Expensive cuts
A slow cooker is surely a cheapskate’s dream come true because it is designed for cheap cuts of meat. Expensive cuts are totally wasted in a slow cooker. Low and slow is the way to make cheap, tough cuts of meat tender and juicy. Expensive will not guarantee a better outcome so stick to the rule—cheap cuts are meant for slow cooking.
Mistake: Adding dairy too early
When a slow cooker recipe calls for dairy products—cheese, cream, cream cheese or milk—don’t jump the gun. Add them at the end of the cooking time. If you do this at the beginning (or sooner than the last 30 minutes if so instructed), expect an ugly curdled mess and anything but the creamy flavor you were hoping for.
Mistake: Dry pasta
Pasta and slow cookers do not play well together. The only way you should even attempt this is to cook the pasta in a separate pot on the stovetop and then add it when you’re ready to serve the slow-cooked masterpiece to avoid a mushy mess.
Mistake: Adding herbs and seasonings too early
Fresh herbs added at the start are going to bubble away, some will even become bitter. Salt and pepper added at the start will pretty much disappear after hours of slow cooking. Instead, finish with fresh herbs and a squeeze of lemon. If the recipe says, “add salt and pepper to taste,” add a good pinch and a few cracks respectively at the start; then add more when your dish is done cooking.
Mistake: Too much alcohol
Generally, adding wine to a dish or sauce while cooking on a typical range top doesn’t present a problem. In fact, it’s a cool chef-like thing to do because it makes stews and sauces taste fantastic! But in a slow cooker, because nothing evaporates, the taste of cooked alcohol only intensifies over those 6 or 8 hours, and it’s not good. Here’s the rule: When slow-cooking, skip the alcohol.
Mistake: Improper layering
Because of its low temperature, a slow cooker, unlike your oven, doesn’t cook things evenly. Follow the instructions in the recipe to “add in the order given.” Usually that means root vegetables are on the bottom where the heat is greater, followed by the meat and other ingredients. A good recipe will guide you in this regard. And don’t be surprised when a recipe will instruct you to make aluminum foil balls for the first layer. This creates needed space between the lowest level ingredients and the hottest spot in the cooker.
Mistake: Too much liquid
I must admit that my typical slow-cooker method was dump n’ run! Oops. Not good. Recipes for the slow cooker are not the same as those for the stovetop or oven. My method would be to add as much liquid as looked to be about right—you know, to make the right amount of gravy or sauce—failing to consider that the ingredients themselves would be giving off a lot of liquid during the slow cook process. Too much liquid waters down the flavors to bland and boring. Use a slow cooker recipe, at least in the beginning as you become an expert!
Mistake: Winging it
I’m not talking about chicken wings, but a method of cooking that ignores recipes. And rules. Recipes for the slow cooker have been properly created, modified, and converted specifically for slow cooking. The rule is simple: Use recipes specifically created for the slow cooker. Sites like SlowCookerCentral.com and SlowCookerGourmet.net are places to start.
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