7 Tricks to Get More Out of Your Slow Cooker
A slow cookers is one of the best tools for making delicious, easy meals (which can conveniently be ready right when you get home from work). Make your slow cooker recipes even more awesome with these seven tricks. (See also: 35 Slow Cooker Recipes for Busy (or Lazy) Vegetarians)
1. Sear and Brown Meats
A common criticism of slow-cooking methods is that meats end up gray and tasteless, although my personal opinion is that this is usually due to a faulty recipe, not to the method itself. You can also boost the flavor of your slow cooked meats by searing or browning them before placing them into the slow cooker.
Browning ingredients produces the coveted Maillard reaction, which caramelizes the sugars and amino acids in the food and gives it a deeper flavor (contrary to popular belief, browning does not "seal in juices"). Even non-meat ingredients can benefit from a little browning in a pan — browning onions, carrots, and other aromatics, for example, can help to give a little more oomph to your final dish.
2. Add Less Liquid
Because very little liquid evaporates from the slow cooker, you don't need to add much additional liquid, which can make the finished dish soupy and less flavorful. For a typical stew, I add less than half a cup of additional liquid. The juice from the meat and vegetables makes plenty of savory sauce. Since it doesn't reduce down, make that additional liquid count in terms of flavor, using a flavorful stock, salsa, tomato sauce, or pureed vegetables.
3. Make Plenty of Gravy
One easy and healthy way to make gravy is to slow-cook some aromatic vegetables, such as onions and carrots, along with your meat. When the dish is done cooking, remove the meat and puree the leftover vegetables and liquid together with an immersion blender. This creates a thick and flavorful sauce which can be seasoned to taste.
Another way to thicken your sauce is to roll the meat in a little flour before browning it and adding it to the slow cooker. By the time the dish is finished cooking, the flour has thickened the sauce. You can thicken sauces after they are done cooking by using a cornstarch (or arrowroot flour) slurry.
4. Use the Low Setting
Try to plan ahead and use the low setting instead of the high setting, even though it will take twice as long. Higher temperatures can toughen meat, especially the already tougher cuts (chuck, rump, shoulder, shank), so keep it low and slow. The lower temperatures are more forgiving too, so you're less likely to overcook the dish. (See also: 25 Easy Ways to Make Cheap Meat Taste Expensive)
5. Don't Under or Over-Fill
For the most even cooking, and to avoid burns and spills, your slow cooker should be at least half-full and no more than two-thirds full. If you're making individual portions, then a smaller slow cooker (a 1.5 quart slow cooker, for example) might be better for you. Although, why not make several servings and have plenty of leftovers for the rest of the week?
6. Make a One-Pot Meal
Make meals easier on yourself by cooking a full meal in the slow cooker. Not only can vegetables be cooked along with the meat, but you can also add beans, rice, couscous, quinoa, and other staples to the dish as well.
If adding rice or quinoa, add it about 2-3 hours before the end of the cooking time. Add canned beans within the last hour (they're already cooked and you don't want them to turn to mush), and couscous within the last 10 minutes.
7. Think Outside the Box
While cooking with your slow cooker works extremely well for braises, curries, soups, and stews, don't forget other kinds of dishes that you can make in the slow cooker as well. Yogurt, lemon cake, mac 'n' cheese, brownies, lasagna, and overnight oatmeal, are all dishes you can try making in this great kitchen multi-tasker.
What are your go-to slow cooker secrets? Please share in comments!