I love slow cooker cooking, especially in the cooler months when I tend to make heartier soups, stews, and casserole-style dishes. With crockpot meals you can throw everything into one pot and forget about it for hours, use less expensive meats since the slow-cooking method will make them more tender, and you have less mess to clean up at the end of the meal. And what’s better than after the end of a long or busy day at work, than to come home to the aromas wafting from the pot and knowing dinner’s ready?
A crocpot can also help when entertaining guests while keeping the oven or stovetop available for other foods you may be cooking. Not only can you use your slow cooker to cook with but it makes a great server for keeping foods warm like hot beverages, appetizers or dips (just keep the setting on warm to maintain the proper serving temperature.)
You can pick up a basic crockpot for around $30 (or of course spend more for additional features.) When you buy a new one, it comes with a book of instructions and usually a few recipes and tips but here are some additional tips on how to get even better crockpot cooking results…
COOKING TEMPERATURES & FOOD SAFETY –
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, bacteria in food is killed at a temperature of 165 degrees. To ensure your food is safe, follow the recommended cooking times and keep the lid on your slow cooker on during the cooking process. Cooking times can fluctuate a bit depending on altitude, extreme humidity, or voltage variations. Always allow plenty time for cooking and remember it’s practically impossible to overcook food in a slow cooker. Through experience, you’ll learn whether to decrease or increase cooking times for your particular slow cooker and recipes.
BROWNING MEAT –
Meat isn’t going to brown as it would if you cooked it in a skillet or at a high temperature. And while it’s not necessary to brown meat before cooking it in a slow cooker, some prefer the look and flavor of browned meat. If so, just brown it in a large skillet with your choice of oil, butter, or nonstick cooking spray. Then place the browned meat into the slow cooker and follow the recipe.
ADDING INGREDIENTS AT THE END OF THE COOKING TIME –
Some ingredients are best added toward the end of the cooking time. These include…
Milk, sour cream, and yogurt: Add during the last 15 minutes or so, which will prevent curdling.
Seafood and fish: Add during the last 15 to 30 minutes if cooking on high and during the last 30 to 45 minutes when cooking on low. This will prevent the seafood from overcooking and becoming tough or rubbery.
Fresh herbs: Fresh herbs (like basil) will darken with long cooking so add during the last 15 minutes of cooking or add directly to the dish just before serving it.
PASTA & RICE –
Converted rice (also called parboiled rice) holds up best through longer cooking times. Most recipes will suggest adding pasta or rice halfway through cooking time for the best texture. If the rice doesn’t seem totally cooked after the suggested cooking time, add an extra 1/2 to 1 cup of liquid per cup of rice and extend the cooking time by 30 to 60 minutes.
COOKING WITH FROZEN FOODS –
You CAN cook with frozen foods in your slow cooker. For best results…
Add a cup of warm or hot liquid to the stoneware before placing frozen meat in the slow cooker.
Don’t preheat the slow cooker.
When using frozen meats, cook for an additional 4 hours on low or 2 hours on high.
HERBS & SPICES –
Dried and ground herbs work great during long cooking times but the flavor and aroma may differ depending on their shelf life and their flavors can lessen during the extended cooking time in a slow cooker. For best results, taste the finished dish and add more seasonings if needed. Add fresh herbs during the last 15 minutes of cooking time or as a garnish to the finished dish.
HIGH-ALTITUDE ADJUSTMENTS –
If you live at an altitude of 3,500 feet (or more,) you’ll want to make some adjustments when slow cooking. Everything will take longer to cook. For tough meats, which require longer cooking times to become tender, you can try cooking on the high heat instead of low heat. For root vegetables, which also take longer to cook, cut them into smaller pieces than the recipe calls for.
USE AND CARE OF REMOVABLE STONEWARE –
If your slow cooker has a removable stoneware insert…
The stoneware insert can be damaged by sudden changes in temperature. Don’t place a cold insert into a preheated base. Don’t place a hot insert on a cold surface or in the refrigerator. Never place stoneware in the freezer. If you place ingredients in the stoneware and refrigerate it overnight, let the stoneware come to room temperature before heating it. And don’t use the stoneware insert if it’s cracked.
Just like ovens, slow cookers can cook differently, depending on a variety of reasons, including higher altitudes, the make and model of your slow cooker, quantities you’re cooking, etc. Cooking times on recipes are guidelines. If in doubt, use a thermometer to make sure food has reached a temperature of 165 degrees.
A few more tips…
Allow breads, cakes, and puddings to cool at least 5 minutes before removing them from the slow cooker.
Opening the lid and checking on food in the slow cooker can affect both cooking time and results. Unless the recipe says to, foods don’t need to be stirred.
To reduce the amount of fat, trim excess fat from meats (some fat keeps the meat tender but you don’t need/want a lot.)
Dried beans can toughen when salt, sugar, and acidic ingredients are added while cooking. Add these ingredients after beans have cooked and are tender or use canned beans.
To remove a small amount of fat from dishes, lightly pull a sheet of clean paper towel over the surface, letting the paper towel absorb some of the grease. Repeat as necessary.
If you’re adapting your favorite recipe for a slow cooker, reduce the liquid by as much as half since foods don’t lose as much moisture during slow cooking as during conventional cooking.
To make cleanup easier when cooking sugary or sticky foods, spray the inside of the slow cooker with nonstick cooking spray before adding ingredients.
To thicken a sauce in the slow cooker, remove the solid foods using a slotted spoon. Mix 1/4 cup cold water into 1 to 2 tablespoons cornstarch in a small bowl until smooth. Whisk cornstarch mixture into the sauce. Cover and cook on high for 15 minutes or until the sauce is thickened OR if the meat is cooked but the sauce is thinner than you’d like, increase heat to high setting, remove lid and cook for 30 to 45 minutes.
If adding alcohol like wine or sherry, just use a splash since the alcohol doesn’t have a chance to boil off, which will leave your food tasting boozy.
Don’t overfill the slow cooker. Fill it around two-thirds full which will simmer the food versus just steaming it, which will make your cooking time longer and the results not as good.
Layer food properly. Since the slow cooker’s heat source is directly on the bottom, you want to add whatever food takes the longest to cook to the bottom of the cooker. (Foods like tougher cuts of meat and root vegetables.)