7 Tricks to Get More Out of Your Slow Cooker

by Camilla Cheung on 16 July 2014 2 comments

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!

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Nancy

I use my crockpot a lot. Even so I never thought to thicken sauce/gravy by pureeing the vegetables added with the pot roast or chicken, so thanks for the tip. One of my favorite ways to use the crockpot is to cook a whole chicken (without added liquid) for use in a variety of ways: burritos, enchiladas, tacos, pasta salad, chicken-rice casserole, etc. Then I make stock with the carcass: Leave the bones and liquid in the crockpot; add odds and ends of vegetables that I've saved in the freezer (celery ends and leaves, carrot tops, onion ends, green bean ends); add herbs and peppercorns; and cook on low for 10 hours. If I can't make the stock right after cooking the chicken, I refrigerate or freeze the bones & liquid for later.

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Sharron Padden

I have used my crock pot for fourth years mostly in Winter. Now that I am getting even older I rely on it a great deal. I have used your tip of liquefying vegetables to thicken vegetables for some time. It was very helpful in getting vegetables into my children. Thank you for the recipes!