Slow Cooker Secrets
By: Lia Huber
Time-pressed cooks use slow cookers to transform tough, inexpensive cuts of meat into succulent meals with minimal effort. Chop and brown a few ingredients, place them in the cooker, and set the controls. Enticing aromas fill the house throughout the day and, come dinner time, just lift the top and serve.
Our collection features international flavors and proves the slow cooker delivers delicious results that suit the modern global palate. See these recipes, paired with top tips for slow-cooker success.
Strictly speaking, meat doesn’t need to be browned before it’s added to the slow cooker, but it’s a step we find worth the effort. The caramelized surface of the meat will lend rich flavor to the finished dish. And meat dredged in flour before browning will add body to the sauce (as in this Provençal Beef Stew). Ground meat should always be browned and drained before going into the slow cooker. Otherwise, it may clump and add grease to the dish.
Whole spices and dried herbs like cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, caraway seeds, and peppercorns will give intense flavor to a dish that cooks for several hours, so be careful not to overdo them. Chopped fresh herbs such as parsley remain vibrant if you stir them in near the end or when the dish is finished.
Because the slow cooker generates steam that doesn’t escape, there will be more liquid in the food when it’s finished cooking than when it started. If you create or adapt a recipe for the slow cooker, decrease (by as much as half) the amount of liquid you normally use in the dish.
Use the HIGH setting if you need to cook a more tender cut of meat relatively quickly. But for tougher cuts, it’s best to use the LOW setting and cook longer to allow time for the meat to grow tender. Generally, cooker temperatures range from 170° to 280°. This Smoky Slow Cooker Chili requires cooking a pork shoulder on low for 8 hours.
Don’t be tempted to lift the lid until the dish is done. The steam generated during slow cooking is part of the cooking medium. Opening the lid will ¬release this steam and increase cooking time. Moreover, when you lift the lid, temperatures can drop into the “danger zone” (between 40° and 140°) where bacteria multiply rapidly.
Our Test Kitchens professionals have found some slow cookers―particularly some newer models―cook hotter than others. In one instance, liquid imperceptibly evaporated from the cooker, leaving far less sauce than when the same dish was prepared in a different model. Because not all slow cookers are created equal, don’t rely on the stated cook time for a recipe until you know how your cooker behaves.