You can prepare great food in your slow cooker without a lot of fuss. Use these tips for preparation and to get the most from your slow cooker to make convenient and delicious meals.
Brown meats and poultry first. Although doing so may add a few extra minutes in prep time, food takes on a whole different look and flavor when first browned. Add a small amount of oil, like canola or olive, to a nonstick skillet large enough to hold the meat or poultry. Warm it over medium-high heat a couple minutes, add the food in small batches, and brown the food evenly on all sides.
Don’t overdo the liquid. Very little evaporation occurs in a slow cooker compared to stovetop or oven cooking. Most slow cooker recipes, with the exception of soups and sauces, call for 50 percent less liquid than conventional ones.
Always cook covered. To maintain the proper balance between time and temperature, always cook with the cover on. If you must peek or stir, do so quickly; it can take up to 20 minutes to recover lost heat after the cover is removed.
Even pieces mean evenly cooked food. Food should be cut into even, bite-sized pieces so that they cook evenly at the same time.
Season liberally. Because slow cooker food cooks longer than other conventional methods, the flavor of herbs and spices can diminish. Fresh herbs should be added during the last 60 minutes of cooking. Also add a pinch or two more of dried herbs than you think is necessary. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Taste again and adjust as needed before serving. Never salt dried beans until they’re cooked to the point of being almost tender. Salt hardens the outer coating of the bean when added too soon.
Never add dairy products in the beginning of the cooking process. Slow cooking causes liquid dairy products to curdle and aged cheese to become oily. Either add dairy products the last 60 minutes of cooking or use canned sweetened, condensed, or evaporated milk. Substitute processed cheese for aged cheese.
Never use frozen ingredients. For food safety, a slow cooker must reach at least 140° in four hours or less. Frozen food prolongs the cooking process, increasing the possibility of harmful bacteria growth. Large pieces of foods like meat and poultry should be safely thawed a day or two before in the refrigerator. Frozen vegetables and the like should be thawed before being added.
Take care with power outages. Resume cooking in slow cooker if the outage has been for less than two hours — or remove food from the cooking container and continue cooking in a saucepan or ovenproof dish on the stovetop or in the oven. If the outage was longer than two hours and the food was still cooking, discard the food to avoid the possibility of food-borne illness.
Don’t subject the ceramic cooking container or glass lid to extreme temperatures. The ceramic cooking container and glass cover react to changes in temperature and can crack or break if cold ingredients are added when hot, or if placed on a cold surface when hot.
Do not overfill or underfill. For best cooking results, fill your slow cooker at least halfway and no more than two-thirds.
Note that cooking times increase above an altitude of 4,000 feet. Check with your local cooperative extension bureau for cooking time conversions.