If you want dinner on the table with the least amount of effort, a slow cooker is a no-brainer. Braises, stews, and chili essentially take care of themselves over the course of 5–8 hours.
But cooking that long can dull some of the flavors, making the food taste flat.
We get it. The whole point of buying and using a slow cooker is to save time and make meals easier. But while it may seem appealing to simply toss everything in and turn it on, this method often leads to mediocre food, at best.
There is a happy, flavorful middle-ground.
Our cookbook The Complete Slow Cooker helps you navigate these dishes and more with key tricks and techniques that may require a bit more thought, but the tastier results are well worth it.
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Brown Meat to Boost Flavor
For some recipes, spending just 5 or 10 minutes sautéing aromatics or browning meat makes all the difference between a quick meal and a great meal.
Browning creates a flavorful fond in the bottom of the pan. Scrape it up and deglaze with broth or wine to provide the basis for a rich sauce in an osso buco, for example. Browning a whole roast, such as the eye-round roast in our Slow-Cooker Roast Beef with Hearty Mushroom Gravy, or a halved roast, as in a cider-braised pork roast, adds both extra flavor and attractive color.
The Complete Slow CookerThe definitive guide on how to use a slow cooker, The Complete Slow Cooker builds on the test kitchen’s work testing and retesting slow cooker recipes and pushing the limits of what a slow cooker can do.
Use More Spices and Aromatics
The flavors in a slow-cooker dish can become muted over the long cooking time. So we up the amounts of aromatics and spices in the recipes beyond what is normally used.
But it’s not just increasing spices that does that trick; you’ll also want to increase their potency. For example, we bloom spices in either a skillet or the microwave to increase the flavor for the richest sauce in this Slow-Cooker Shrimp Boil with Corn and Potatoes. You’ll also want to use bold, robust spice rubs for things like roasts.
Note: We never put raw aromatics or spices directly into the slow cooker.
Slow CookersCan machines designed for the same simple purpose—cooking food slowly enough that you can walk away—be all that different? You’d be surprised.
Amp Up the Umami
Aiming to cut down on stovetop work? Call upon glutamate-rich ingredients such as tomato paste (which we used in our Slow-Cooker Braised Chicken Thighs with Garlicky Spinach for Two), porcini mushrooms, and soy sauce, which can mimic the deep flavor that comes from browning and traditional sauce making.
Brighten Everything Up With a Fresh Finish
Many slow-cooker dishes need a flavor boost before serving, so we turn to fresh finishers such as herbs, citrus juice, or vinegar, stirred in or sprinkled on top at the end of cooking. We even think outside the box and lean on other flavorful ingredients like brown sugar or coconut milk.
We top our Slow-Cooker Chicken Tortilla Soup with cilantro and a squeeze of fresh lime juice to brighten up any flavors that may have dulled during the 4- to 6-hour cooking time.