On busy days, it’s so tempting to hit up a drive-thru so you can skip cooking and cleanup time. But you can also skip that stuff with a slow cooker. With these tips on how to master that handy kitchen appliance, dinner will be way more satisfying, too.
Mistake 1: Overcooking
Whenever you serve a slow-cooked dish, your family gives it low marks because of the mushy veggies, chalky meat and/or muddy, one-note flavors.
What to do instead: Take advantage of the slow cooker’s Keep Warm setting if you need to leave something on longer than the recipe requires. Or, choose a recipe that actually takes a full workday to cook, so it’s ready-properly-when you get home. Here are our favorites.
Mistake 2: Using the wrong cuts of meat
You didn’t have the cut of meat the recipe called for, so you swapped in something else. Your pork roast turned out tough and dry, yet also greasy.
What to do instead: When slow cooking for an extended time, it’s best to use well-marbled cuts. It’s a great opportunity to use less expensive meats, such as beef chuck roast, pork shoulder and chicken thighs. To minimize fat drippings, trim meats before cooking or plan to skim off some fat before serving. See the step-by-steps to slow cooking a pork shoulder.
Mistake 3: Filling the slow cooker too much or too little
Halfway through cooking, your slow cooker starts rattling. Turns out the lid is clanking against the crock because the contents are bubbling over. Or when you open the lid to dish up dinner, you discover your meal is a hard mass stuck to the bottom of the slow cooker.
What to do instead: Slow cookers operate best when filled halfway to three-quarters full. If cooking with more or less food, cooking times may need adjustment.
Mistake 4: Chopping veggies too big or too small
That beef and veggie stew has smelled so good all day. But when you dig in, some of the veggies are crunchy-hardly even crisp-tender-and others have completely disappeared.
What to do instead: Cutting vegetables to the right size is key to achieving the best texture. They should all be about the same so they cook evenly (and that goes for width, too!).
Mistake 5: Opening the lid during cooking
You’re jonesing for the barbacoa that’s been simmering all day, so you keep checking on it. But when the timer goes off, the meat won’t shred like it’s supposed to.
What to do instead: Don’t peek! Every time you open the lid, heat escapes, ensuring your food will take longer to cook. To determine if the meat is up to temp, consult this handy chart.
Mistake 6: Letting food char around the edges
Your long-awaited lasagna comes out of the cooker scorched in some places.
What to do instead: When cooking “solid” foods, such as lasagna, meat loaves, bread pudding and breakfast bakes, it’s OK to check the sides for overbrowning. In most slow cookers, the side opposite the control panel is where foods cook fastest, so it’s the best place to check first. Just be sure to look quickly and only near the end of the cook time. Here are foods you didn’t realize you could slow cook.
Mistake 7: Sauces are soupy
Tonight’s roast chicken is swimming in broth. It’s a shame to waste the juices, but they’re too thin to use as a gravy as is.
What to do instead: Juices don’t evaporate in a slow cooker because the lid is closed. As a result, they may be thinner or more plentiful than you wish. Transfer them to a saucepan and thicken into a gravy with flour or cornstarch (here’s a no-fuss recipe).