How To: Raise Your Slow Cooker Game with These 10 Essential Tips

Raise Your Slow Cooker Game with These 10 Essential Tips

A slow cooker can be both your culinary companion and your go-to gadget in the kitchen. That's right: the idea of slow cooking is no longer for Southern housewives or purveyors of the Ladies' Home Journal anymore. The times, they are a'changing!

When you need a fuss-free meal, a super easy way to make a snack, or even a vessel for your wassail (or some other hot beverage), a slow cooker is the way to go. Here are 10 hacks, tips, and tricks for getting the most out of your countertop compadre.

1. Brown Your Meat Before Adding It to Your Slow Cooker

Sure, if you're short on prep time (or patience), you can just toss the hamburger into your chili or the beef chunks into your stew. But if you brown your meat first, you create fond—that wonderful, seared brown crust that gives meat much of its delicious flavor.

Brown your meat before slow cooking for better flavor. Image by Sarah/Well Dined

2. Line Your Slow Cooker for Easier Clean Up

Literally the only challenging part of cooking with a slow cooker is the clean up (especially if you're short, like me, and have trouble wrangling the heavy ceramic insert in a sink full of suds). If you use a slow cooker liner or line your slow cooker with foil, you can just toss those troubles away when you're done!

3. Know When to Add Your Ingredients

Yes—it's tempting to just plop everything into your slow cooker, plunk down the lid, push the buttons, and walk away. And there are certainly recipes that allow you to do that!

But if you really want to raise your slow cooker game, there are a number of ingredients that should be added later in the process. Milk, sour cream, and other dairy products can curdle if you let them simmer too long; likewise, cooked pasta will get gummy if it is added too early to its slow-cooked sauce.

So if you are making beef stroganoff, for example, you should add the cooked noodles and the sour cream in the last 10-15 minutes of cooking.

Add dairy in last when using a slow cooker. Image by Serena/Serena Bakes Simply From Scratch

4. Put Your Ingredients in the Slow Cooker in the Right Order

Cooking Light suggests that if you are making a stew or soup, put the veggies in first, then add the fattier meat on the top. That way, your meat won't be sitting in its own fat and the vegetables will be even more infused with all of the delicious meaty flavor.

5. Don't Open the Lid During the Cooking Process (In General)

Don't. Just… don't.

Yes, I know it's hard to see what's going on in the magical machine once the lid is covered with droplets of moisture from the hot food. But the whole point of a slow cooker is that it creates a contained environment in which your food can cook.

If you open the lid for more than a couple of seconds to add an ingredient or two (see above), you are drastically and rapidly reducing the heat that has built up and potentially adding up to 30 minutes of cooking time.

6. Use Your Slow Cooker as a Steamer

To use your slow cooker as a steamer, either build an edible base or use these steamer substitutes on the floor of the insert and pour in a shallow amount of water. Then, place whatever you want to steam on top of your 'steamer base;' the evaporating water will be trapped by the slow cooker lid and will end up steaming your food.

You can even steam dumplings in a slow cooker. Image by Corina/Searching for Spice

7. Or as a Double Boiler

To use your slow cooker as a double boiler, fill the insert halfway with water; then, place a glass or metal bowl or large glass measuring cup into the water. Voilà—double boiler!

This nifty double boiler trick works particularly well for overnight recipes, like this one for oatmeal). It's a great way to melt chocolate, as well.

8. Make Yogurt

You can use your slow cooker to create homemade yogurt, which means you control how much sugar goes into it and what flavors you have. Start with this recipe from Tasting Table, and then follow their instructions to "...use the 'low' temperature to heat the milk, then wrap the turned-off slow cooker in a towel or blanket to incubate the cultures."

9. Go Nuts

Spiced nuts aren't just for the holidays: they make a great, protein-filled snack any day of the year! Food Network has a great recipe for making them in the slow cooker that frees up your oven and creates a delicious treat that will also fill your house with delicious smells.

Making spiced nuts in the slow cooker is easy and makes your house smell great. Image via Food Network

10. Mull Some Cider

Speaking of making your house smell delicious, you can also make mulled cider in the slow cooker. In fact, you can make pretty much any hot cocktail in your slow cooker!

Low & Slow—You're Good to Go

Slow cookers are truly a time-saver: you can toss in a bunch of ingredients, go to bed or to work... and when you wake up or get home, you have a hot and delicious meal ready to eat.

But don't stop just at cooking meals in your slow cooker—use these hacks to turn your slow cooker into a substitute for a plethora of other appliances. Just make sure to follow the instructions/recipes, be patient (don't open that lid!), and enjoy the aroma that wafts through your house.

And if you're interested in what else your slow cooker can do, check this out for some fun non-food uses it'll excel at.

More Helpful Cooking Hacks:

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Cover image by jeffreyw/Flickr

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