Slow cookers really can make your life easier: The food goes in the cooker, you turn it on, and then you go about your business before coming back a while later to a delicious, fully cooked meal. Here in the test kitchen, we have a lot of experience testing and cooking in slow cookers, and we want to share some of our knowledge.
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Here are five tips that will help you master the art of using a slow cooker.
1. Brown Food Outside of the Slow Cooker
Browning food adds flavor, and you can do it either at the beginning or at the end of a slow-cooker recipe.
How to Do It: Brown meat for a stew in a skillet on the stovetop before adding it to the slow cooker with the broth and vegetables. Or run slow-cooked chicken parts under the broiler to brown them—and add flavor and texture—before serving.
2. Season Slow-Cooked Food Heavily
Slow cooking can mute flavors, so we like to use lots of potent ingredients to build big flavor in slow-cooked dishes.
How to Do It: Add strong ingredients such as garlic, lemon or lime juice, vinegar, soy or Worcestershire sauce, anchovies, tomato paste, dried mushrooms, and bold spices to slow-cooker recipes. And don’t forget the salt!
Slow-Cooker Sausage RaguA supersavory, slow-cooked red sauce supper, plus plenty more for leftovers.
3. Use a Thickening Agent for Slow-Cooker Sauces
The covered environment of a slow cooker means that there is little evaporation, so sauces don’t naturally concentrate and reduce.
4. Understand High Versus Low in Your Slow Cooker
The best slow cookers (such as our testing winner, the KitchenAid 6-Quart Slow Cooker with Solid Glass Lid) reach a maximum cooking temperature of about 200 degrees. When set to high, these machines get up to 200 degrees faster; when set to low, they get there more slowly. Models that didn’t perform well in our testing often cooked food around the boiling point of 212 degrees, which was too hot for optimal results.
How to Do It: Slow cookers set to low cook food more gently because they take longer to come up to the maximum temperature.
5. Know Your Slow Cooker
Using a slow cooker isn’t an exact science. Discrepancies in heating power can create dramatically different results in different machines. Some models run hot and fast, while others reach their maximum temperatures more slowly. The tightness of the lid seal can also affect how efficiently a cooker heats.
How to Do It: Always pay attention to the time ranges given in recipes: Are dishes cooked in your machine typically finished at the lower or higher ends of the time ranges given? The answer tells you if you have a relatively “fast” or “slow” model and allows you to compensate accordingly.
The Best 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.
With these tips—and a bit of time, but with little hands-on work—slow-cooker success is in your future!