8 Tips for Making Great Slow Cooker Recipes
Did you get a Slow Cooker for Christmas? Not sure what to do with it? We can help...
This is part four in our series on Cooking with Small Appliances. Don’t miss Parts One to Three: Easy Tips for Making Juices and Smoothies, 3 Great Recipe Ideas for the Panini Maker, and Using Your Stand Mixer: 101.
Having written four slow cooker cookbooks, Judith Finlayson is a foremost expert in using this handy appliance to create an extraordinary range of dishes – from breakfasts to succulent meats to healthy vegetarian meals to desserts. As Judith says, “I’m so pleased with the slow cooker’s strengths that there are many dishes I wouldn’t cook any other way.”
1. Brown meat and soften vegetables
Browning most meats and softening vegetables before adding them to the slow cooker dramatically improves the quality of the dish for two reasons. Not only does browning add color, it begins the process of caramelization, which breaks down the natural sugars in foods and releases their flavor. It also extracts the fat‐soluble components of foods, which further enriches the taste.
2. Reduce the quantity of liquid
If you’re new to slow cooking, one of the first things you will notice is that it generates liquid. Because slow cookers cook at a low heat, tightly covered, liquid doesn’t evaporate as it does in the oven or on top of the stove. As a result, food made from traditional recipes will be watery. So the second rule of successful slow cooking is to reduce the amount of liquid.
3. Cut root vegetables into thin slices or small pieces
Root vegetables — carrots, parsnips and particularly potatoes — cook more slowly than meat in the slow cooker. Root vegetables should be thinly sliced or cut into small pieces: no larger than 1‐inch (2.5 cm) cubes.
4. Use the right cooking temperature
Different foods require different cooking temperatures.
Less tender cuts of meat should be cooked as slowly as possible. Expect to cook whole cuts of meat such as brisket and roasts for 8 to 10 hours on Low to become truly succulent. If you’re short of time and at home during the day, cook whole cuts of meat on High for 1 to 2 hours before switching the temperature to Low.
Many desserts, such as those containing milk, cream or some leavening agents, need to be cooked on High. In these recipes, a Low setting is not suggested as an option.
5. Don’t overcook
Although slow cooking reduces your chances of overcooking food, it is still not a “one size fits all” solution to meal preparation. For example, it is very easy to overcook poultry, which shouldn’t require more than 6 hours on Low. When cooking white meat, which dries out easily, reduce the cooking time to 5 hours.
6. Add ingredients at the right time
Some ingredients do not respond well to long, slow cooking and should be added during the last 30 minutes, after the temperature has been increased to High. These include peas, leafy greens, seafood, milk and cream (which will curdle if cooked too long).
I love to cook with peppers, but I’ve learned that most become bitter if cooked for too long. The solution to this problem is to add peppers to recipes during the last 30 minutes of cooking.
7. Use whole spices and herbs
For best results use whole rather than ground herbs and spices in the slow cooker. Whole spices such as cinnamon sticks and vanilla beans, along with whole‐leaf herbs such as dried thyme and oregano leaves, release their flavors slowly throughout the long cooking period, unlike ground ground spices and herbs, which tend to lose flavor during slow cooking.
If you’re using fresh herbs, add them finely chopped and during the last hour of cooking, unless you include the whole stem (this works best with thyme and rosemary).
8. Maximize the convenience factor!
To get the most out of your slow cooker, consider the following:
- To keep work to a minimum, prepare ingredients up to the cooking stage the night before you intend to cook.
- Cook a recipe overnight and refrigerate until ready to serve.
- Make a big‐batch recipe and freeze a portion for a second or even a third meal.