Choose the Right Recipe
Use recipes for soups and stews that feature hearty beans or call for inexpensive cuts of meat that will become fork-tender during a long cooking period. Examples include beef chuck roast, beef brisket, stew meat, lamb and pork shoulder. Pasta casseroles are not ideal because the pasta will overcook and be mushy.
Trick #1: Whether you are a vegetarian or a meat-eater, pick your preferred protein and build the rest of the ingredients around this.
Success Lies in Layers
Even and thorough heat distribution is essential in a slow cooker to ensure ingredients cook evenly when layered in the cooking container. A slow cooker must be at least half full to ensure the food cooks through properly.
- Place dense vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, and turnips, which take longer to cook than meat, in the bottom and up the sides of the pot.
- Add the meat or poultry--fat trimmed, in pieces no larger than 2.5 pounds (1.12kg); skin trimmed from poultry pieces--on top of the dense vegetable layer.
- Tender vegetables such as broccoli, green beans, and peas should be added towards end of cooking time, or in the last 30 minutes.
- Follow food safety rules and be sure frozen meat is defrosted before being added to a slow cooker; otherwise it takes too long to reach a safe temperature.
Trick #2: Dried beans may be cooked overnight in a slow cooker without cooking or soaking first.
Because very little evaporation occurs compared to stovetop cooking or oven roasting, it's not necessary to add as much liquid or stock to the dish.
- Reduce the total amount of liquid or sauce in the original recipe by about half.
- Fill the container of a slow cooker at least one-half and no more than three-quarters full.
- Keep the lid on; each time you lift the lid for a peek, heat escapes and you'll need to tack on 15 to 25 more minutes of cooking time.
- Because all slow cookers cook differently, you may need to "top off" with some extra liquid, or you may need to dry out a recipe a little.
Trick #3: If the results aren't quite perfect, keep notes on what worked and what didn't so you can keep tweaking.
In addition to layers, adding ingredients in the right order will ensure flavorful results.
To seal in flavor and give meats such as pork and lamb chops eye appeal, first brown the pieces in a hot skillet before placing them in the cooking container.
- Add dairy products such as milk, sour cream, and cheese only in the last hour of cooking to prevent them from curdling due to overcooking.
- If desired, canned condensed cream soups and packaged white sauces may be used to add creaminess; however, add evaporated milk only in the last 30 to 60 minutes of cooking time.
Trick #4: To avoid a greasy, unappetizing mess, always brown any ground meats in a skillet before adding them to a slow cooker.
Using slow cookers requires adapting typical seasoning amounts to accommodate longer cooking times.
- While often welcome, note that the flavors of whole spices such as bay leaves, peppercorns, or cinnamon sticks intensify in the slow cooker, so use them sparingly.
- Add ground spices, fresh and dried herbs during the last two hours of cooking for maximum flavor. If added too soon, they'll lose their flavor from the lengthy simmering.
- When the cooking time is almost finished, taste the dish to check seasonings.
Trick #5: Experiment to find groups of spices that work well together. For example, try some Italian-inspired dishes featuring basil, rosemary, and oregano, or add some Asian flavor with sesame oil, Thai basil, and lemongrass.
Anything cooked in a conventional oven can be cooked in a slow cooker. The actual time will vary between appliances, so experiment and take notes.
General conversion times for oven-baked, casserole-type recipes:
- If the recipe is oven-baked for 30 minutes, slow cook 5 hours on Low or 3 hours on High.
- If the recipe is oven-baked for 1 hour, slow cook 6 hours on Low or 4 hours on High.
- If the recipe is oven baked for 3 hours, slow cook for 9 hours on Low or 6 hours on High.
Cooking times for slow cooker recipes may be shortened with successful results by turning up the heat setting. Food will not burn in a slow cooker because the pot retains moisture so well, and because the heat is evenly and gently distributed around the interior.
Trick #6: If a recipe takes 10 hours on the "low" setting, turn the setting to "high" and cook 5 hours to achieve similar results.