Slow cooker recipes are amazing because they’re low-maintenance. Set some ingredients in, push a couple buttons, and come home to a house that smells like you’ve been cooking all day. But there are a couple ways to get even more out of those slow cooker recipes. Try these tips to get the best dish every time.
Brown your meat
If you’re cooking a meat-based dish in your slow cooker like a chili, stew, or pulled chicken, you’re totally safe to throw the raw meat in with the rest of the ingredients, set it, and forget it. While there’s no food safety necessity to cook your meat in advance, there are huge flavor gains from quickly browning the meat in a skillet before adding it to your slow cooker.
The Maillard reaction is a fancy word for a complex chemical process that leads to browning food, and it’s responsible for the brown crust that tastes so good on meat from steak to chicken. In order for the Maillard reaction to take place, you don’t just need heat; you need fairly high and direct heat. While throwing a chicken breast in a slow cooker will cook it, it won’t give it the complex flavor of a nicely browned crust.
Before throwing any meat in a slow cooker, sear it on both sides until that crust starts to form. Don’t worry about cooking it all the way through – that will be accomplished later in the slow cooker.
Don’t cook meat from frozen
If you don’t have time to brown your meat, it’s totally safe to add raw meat directly to a slow cooker as long as it isn’t frozen. But if it is frozen, be sure to defrost it first.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the “danger zone” where bacteria is likely to contaminate your food is anywhere between 40º and 140º F. Due to the rate at which slow cookers heat up, frozen meat spends too much time in this danger zone when cooked in a slow cooker.
If you have frozen meat that you want to throw in your slow cooker, thaw it in the refrigerator or by running it under cool water first.
Like meat, aromatics like garlic and onion benefit from direct heat. Ever start a dish by sautéing some garlic or shallots in olive oil and had your whole house suddenly smell amazing? That step brings so much flavor to a dish that you just can’t match in a slow cooker alone.
If a slow cooker dish calls for aromatics like garlic, onion, or shallots, try doing a quick sauté before tossing them into your slow cooker. It’ll bring deeper flavor and caramelization to the entire dish.
Keep the lid on
I’m notoriously impatient in the kitchen and can’t resist checking on that dish I’ve been looking forward to all day. But when you’re cooking with a slow cooker, resist the temptation to open the lid.
Slow cookers work by trapping steam and moisture and cooking a dish over a long period of time. When you open your slow cooker to take a peek at that soup that smells amazing (and let’s be real, to steal a taste) you’re letting the hot steam escape and bringing down the cooking temperature. Because slow cookers heat up slowly, it’ll take awhile to bring your dish back up to the temperature it was cooking at and increase the overall cook time. It also lets out moisture and flavor and can hinder your final product.
When using a slow cooker, as the name would suggest, be patient and I promise it will pay off!
Add extras before serving
Certain ingredients typically serve as garnish and don’t do well under the conditions of a slow cooker. Things like dairy, acidic finishers (think vinegars, lemon juice, or pickled veg), delicate greens, or herbs are best left until the end.
Go ahead and add in anything you want warmed or slightly cooked (hello melted cheese) about 30 minutes before the dish is ready. Other things, like fresh herbs can get sprinkled on at the very end before serving.