Slow cookers have become an indispensable kitchen appliance for many home cooks today. According to statistics, sales of slow cookers in the US have steadily risen over the past decade, with over 11 million units sold in 2019 alone. This popularity is easy to understand – slow cookers make it incredibly simple to prepare delicious, home-cooked meals with minimal effort. Just throw in the ingredients, set it, and forget it – hours later, you’ll have a piping hot, hearty meal ready to enjoy. For busy families, working parents, and aspiring chefs alike, slow cookers are a lifesaver on hectic weeknights.
But while slow cookers are designed to be easy to use, some tips and tricks can take your slow cooker dishes from good to great. Whether you’re new to slow cooking or are a seasoned pro, these few tips will help you master your slow cooker and make the most flavorful, foolproof meals every time.
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1. Don’t Skip the Browning Step
Browning meat and aromatics like onions and garlic before adding them to the slow cooker is a must for developing deep, complex flavor. The Maillard reaction that occurs when foods are browned adds a richness and depth that can’t be replicated otherwise.
Take the extra 10 minutes to sear your meat in a skillet before adding it to the slow cooker. The high heat caramelizes the natural sugars and proteins in the meat, creating hundreds of complex flavor compounds. This reaction boosts savory umami flavors to give the dish a meatier, more satiating taste. For instance, when following a pork roast recipe in a crock pot, browning the pork first ensures that the roast is packed with flavor and isn’t bland or tasteless. The payoff of fuller flavor is well worth the small time investment.
In addition to meats, quick-cooking aromatics like garlic, onions, mushrooms, and tomatoes will also benefit from some browning time. Sauteing them for a few minutes over medium-high heat deepens their natural sweetness and brings out new nutty, toasted flavors. Starting your slow cooker ingredients with this quick browning step will boost the overall flavor dimension of the final dish tremendously. Don’t skip this vital searing time for the best results.
2. Elevate with Umami Flavor Bombs
Umami-rich ingredients like soy sauce, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, and miso paste are flavor powerhouses that can make your slow cooker dishes pop. Just a spoonful or two of these intensely savory ingredients enhances meatiness and gives a wonderful complexity to chilis, stews, pulled pork, and more. They add instant depth without much effort.
Umami flavors come from compounds like glutamates and nucleotides that interact with our taste receptors to create a rich, mouth-filling sensation. Soy sauce, fish sauce, dried mushrooms, tomato products, and fermented foods are all high in natural umami. Adding a bit of these ingredients to your slow cooker recipe layers in savory, meaty notes without using more meat. A splash of Worcestershire sauce gives stews and chilis a beefier taste. Miso paste infuses hearty richness into soups and braises. Use them judiciously to amplify the flavor. A little goes a long way.
3. Layer Ingredients Thoughtfully
Pay attention to the order in which you add ingredients to your slow cooker. Sturdier veggies like potatoes, carrots, and celery should go on the bottom. Position meats and tender veggies like spinach and tomatoes on top, with lower temps. Delicate herbs and dairy like cream or cheese should wait until the end.
The key is to think about how long each ingredient needs to cook. Hard, dense vegetables like potatoes and carrots take longer to become tender so they can withstand the higher heat at the bottom. Quick-cooking items like spinach and tomatoes should be nestled on top where temps will be gentler, so they don’t overcook. Depending on the recipe, meat can go on the bottom or middle layers. Tender herbs and dairy need only a warm temperature and a short time to incorporate, so add them at the end so they don’t curdle or lose flavor.
4. Resist the Urge to Peek
Lifting the lid to take a peek while your food cooks adds about 20-30 minutes to the cooking time. That steam release slows everything down. Resist temptation, and don’t lift the lid unless your recipe says so. Trust the process!
It’s understandable to want to check on the progress and take a look at your creation. But every time the lid is lifted, a significant amount of steam and heat escapes. The slow cooker then needs to recover and rebuild that heat, which can add half an hour or more to the total cook time. Opening the lid also increases the risk of overcooking the top layers since the moisture has escaped.
Have faith in your appliance. Today’s slow cookers do an excellent job of cooking food thoroughly and evenly when left alone. Peeking will only disrupt the steady, gentle heat you want for tender, flavorful meals. Keep that lid sealed, and let the slow cooker work its magic!
5. Prevent Overcooking with a Heat Diffuser
Cushion delicate foods like fish and dairy from direct heat by placing them on top of veggies or even a crumpled piece of tinfoil. This heat diffuser protects food from overcooking in the hot spots of some slow cookers.
Place a layer of chopped sturdy vegetables like potatoes or carrots on the bottom before adding fish fillets. The veggies act as a temperature buffer. Or make a foil sling by crumpling a large piece of foil and molding it into the shape of your slow cooker before adding the fish. The foil disperses the heat gently and prevents scorching. This trick works great for dairy products too.
6. Use the Right Amount of Liquid
Too much liquid can lead to a watery final dish. As a general rule, you need about half the liquid called for in conventional stove and oven recipes. Resist going overboard on the liquid.
Standard recipes are designed for the greater evaporation that happens in high-heat oven and stovetop cooking. But a slow cooker’s low gentle heat doesn’t cause liquids to reduce as quickly. Using the full amount of broth or water called for in a typical recipe can lead to a thin, watered-down dish.
Cut back on the amount of liquids, like broth, wine, tomatoes, etc., by about half. The food will still cook evenly and become tender. Then if needed, you can thicken and intensify flavors at the end by leaving the lid off for some evaporation or mixing in a cornstarch slurry to tighten up the consistency. Starting with less liquid prevents a flood at the finish line.
Mastering these simple techniques will ensure you get the most out of your slow cooker. Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned chef, implementing these tips will take your slow cooker dishes to new heights. So embrace the ease and versatility of slow cooking, and you’ll enjoy incredible homemade meals any day of the week with minimal fuss and preparation.