14 Tips for Slow-Cooker Meals
Choose the right cut: Chuck roasts, short ribs, pork shoulders and lamb shanks (think fatty and tougher meats) become meltingly tender with the moist, low heat of a slow cooker. Leaner cuts like pork tenderloin tend to dry out. Likewise, dark meat chicken — thighs, drumsticks, etc. — will remain juicier than white meat breasts.
Keep the lid closed: Each peek you take during the cooking process will add an additional 15 to 20 minutes of cooking time. And curb the urge to stir; it's usually not necessary and tends to slow down the cooking.
Care for your crock: The ceramic insert in a slow cooker can crack if exposed to abrupt temperature shifts. In other words, don't place a hot ceramic insert directly on a cold counter; put down a dishtowel first. The same goes for using a filled insert you've stowed overnight in the refrigerator: Let it come to room temperature before putting it in a preheated base.
Browning boosts flavor: You can certainly just pile food into the slow cooker, turn it on and get tasty results. But when you take a couple of minutes to brown your meat and saute your vegetables before adding them to the crock, you're rewarded with an additional layer of deep, caramelized flavor. (This is doubly true with ground meat.) Want a thicker sauce? Dredge the meat in flour before browning.
Don't use frozen food: Loading a slow cooker with icy ingredients will keep food in the danger zone where bacteria can flourish (40 to 140 degrees F). So make sure your meat and vegetables are fully thawed before turning the cooker on. The exception: Prepackaged slow-cooker meals sold in the freezer case are fine to use as long as you follow the package's directions.
Avoid overcrowding: For the best results, fill a slow cooker between one-half and two-thirds full. Go ahead and cook big roasts and whole chickens; just make sure you use a large crock and that the lid fits snugly on top.
Trim fat: For silky sauces and gravies, take a minute or two and cut the excess fat from the meat. Skip this step and you risk ending up with oily, greasy cooking liquid. When possible, remove chicken skin too.
Layer wisely: For even cooking, cut food into uniform-size pieces. Place firm, slow-cooking root vegetables like potatoes and carrots at the bottom of the crock and pile the meat on top.
Set the heat level: A general rule of thumb is that cooking on the low setting (170 degrees F for most models) takes about twice as long as cooking on high (280 degrees F on most models). Keep in mind that some cuts of meat and recipes are better suited to one setting over the other. (See tips on choosing the right cut, above.)
Add dairy last: Sour cream, milk and yogurt tend to break down in the slow cooker, so stir them in during the last 15 minutes of cooking.
Watch the wine: Because the cooker is sealed, the alcohol in wine doesn't evaporate out as it would in a regular pot or skillet. Just a splash goes a long way.
End on a fresh note: A sprinkle of fresh herbs or squeeze of lemon juice at the end of simmering can brighten flavors and cut through the richness of long-cooked recipes. Other excellent finishing touches: hot sauce, citrus zest, grated Parmesan, good-quality olive oil or even sauteed garlic.
Adjust for high altitude: For high-altitude cooking, add an additional 30 minutes for each hour of time specified in the recipe. Legumes take about twice as long as they would at sea level.
Unplugged means unusable: Forgot to turn on your cooker (or accidentally tried to "cook" your meal on warm)? Any food that sits between the temperatures of 40 and 140 degrees F can harbor bacteria. Toss the contents and start again.
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