It may not be the flashiest kitchen appliance, but most Americans own a slow cooker. Despite their “set-it-and-forget-it” functionality, slow cookers still can yield underdone vegetables and overdone meat. Here’s how to get the most out of the machine and avoid common mistakes.
Layer it right. Since heating elements are on the bottom and sides of a slow cooker, ingredients should be placed in a certain order: Hearty, tough vegetables cut into similarsize pieces go on the bottom and stacked up the sides. These include potatoes, turnips, parsnips, carrots, beets, soaked dry beans and winter squash. The next layer is less-dense vegetables such as celery, fennel, green beans and bell peppers. To avoid overcooking, meat, poultry and tofu generally are placed above hearty vegetables; meat juices drip down and flavor the entire pot.
Quick-cooking, delicate vegetables and canned beans must be placed on the top to preserve their texture and individual flavors; these include zucchini, spinach, cauliflower, broccoli and peas. Slow cooker recipes should include liquid to prevent food from sticking; if a recipe does not, add about ½ cup water, broth or juice.
Spend an extra eight minutes. That is about how long it takes to sauté onions and garlic or brown meat to add extra flavor. To minimize the risk of foodborne illness and remove extra fat, brown ground meat before adding it to the slow cooker. If time is tight, add onions and garlic to the middle layer with the celery.
Forego frozen meat. Defrost meat or poultry in the refrigerator and cut into smaller pieces before putting it in the slow cooker.
Flash-cook fish. For moist, flavorful fillets, add raw fresh or thawed fish after slow-cooking vegetables for several hours. Three or four fillets cook in about 20 minutes or less when nestled in the steaming vegetables and liquid. It’s harder to overcook fish because the window of doneness is longer than with higher-heat methods.
Garnish galore. Hearty fresh herbs such as rosemary and thyme can be added on top of food in the slow cooker. Hold off on delicate fresh herbs including parsley, cilantro and basil, however, until the dish is served. Their fresh leaves and crunchy stems can be a welcome contrast to a meal of mostly soft textures.
Don’t peek. Lifting a slow cooker’s lid just once can delay food’s doneness by 20 to 30 minutes. Peeking more than once, especially at the beginning of the cooking process, also can put the dish in the food safety temperature danger zone, where bacteria can rapidly grow.
Fine-tune the temp. Soups, stews, chili and casseroles with ground meat are usually fine to cook on the high setting, but poultry can get tough and dry on high. Even on low, boneless chicken breasts cook in about three to four hours. Use a food thermometer to ensure food is cooked to the appropriate internal temperature.
Cook beans. The moist heat of a slow cooker yields beans with soft skins like the texture of canned beans. Soak dry beans overnight, drain and then add beans to the slow cooker and cover with 2 inches of water. Add dry spices such as oregano, cumin or black pepper that can withstand the long bubbling time. A small amount of meat or ham hock adds giant amounts of flavor. Because kidney beans have especially high levels of lectin, preparing them in a slow cooker is not recommended; rather, you should boil kidney beans at a high temperature to destroy lectin.
Prepare pasta. Add 1 pound of tube-shaped pasta such as penne, ziti or rigatoni to a 6-quart slow cooker, then stir in a 28-ounce can of low-sodium crushed tomatoes, a 24-ounce jar of pasta sauce and a 15-ounce container of ricotta cheese. Cook on low for about three hours. Add 1 cup shredded mozzarella during the last 10 minutes of cooking.
Bad Bug Book, 2nd ed. Food and Drug Administration website. Published 2012. Accessed November 9, 2020.
Cook Slow to Save Time: Four Important Slow Cooker Food Safety Tips. United States Department of Agriculture website. Published October 24, 2017. Accessed November 9, 2020.
Cooking Beans in the Slow Cooker. The Bean Institute website. Accessed November 9, 2020.
Selecting and Using Slow Cookers. Kansas State University Research and Extension website. Accessed November 9, 2020.
Slow cookers and food safety. University of Minnesota Extension website. Reviewed 2018. Accessed November 9, 2020.