If you use it correctly, your slow cooker can be your best friend. Throw everything in there in the morning, then forget it about it until dinnertime - there's nothing better, right? But as easy as slow cookers are, they do come with rules. Not following them can ruin dinner and your relationship with what should be your favorite small kitchen appliance. I've rounded up the mistakes everyone seems to make when they use slow cookers, so you can be sure not to make them yourself.
Taking a peek: I get it. Whatever's cooking in the slow cooker has your whole house smelling delicious. It's pretty much impossible to let it cook all day without ever taking a peek to see how it's coming together. Gather up your willpower, though - you need to resist. It took your slow cooker longer than you might think to work its way up to the target temperature, and lifting the lid for even a second lets out most of that hot air. Too much peeking means a reduced temp inside the slow cooker, and more time needed for your dish to finish cooking. In fact, each time you lift that lid, you add 30 minutes to the time you need to cook your food.
Using expensive cuts: Those fancy cuts of meat can certainly have their place at your dinner table, but there's no need to spring for the good stuff when you're shopping for a slow cooker meal. Since slow cookers cook low and slow, they make even the toughest (and cheapest) meats tender and juicy. So grab a low-cost cut and let it cook all day. The resulting dish will be so fall-apart tender and full of flavor, no one will guess you bought the bargain meat.
Not searing meat first: It's time to be honest. If your recipe says to sear your meat before you place it in the slow cooker, do you do that … or do you skip it? It seems reasonable to skip it - it's going to cook all the way through in the slow cooker, right? Well, technically, yes. You can skip it and you'll still end up with a fully cooked meal. Still, skipping the searing step does change the flavor of your dish, and not necessarily for the better.
According to Kitchen, searing your meat before slow cooking it caramelizes the outside of each piece of meat, adding texture and an extra layer of flavor. If you've never seared your meat before slow cooking it, you won't know what you're missing. But after you've tried it once, you'll never skip that step again.
Cooking skin-on chicken: Chicken cooked skin-on in an oven or pan usually ends up with a gorgeous, crispy skin. When you're cooking in a slow cooker, you're probably going to end up with a soft, rubbery outside that's anything but appetizing. If you want to be able to serve dinner straight from your slow cooker with no extra steps, use skinless chicken when you slow cook. If you don't mind an extra step (and another dish to wash), transfer the cooked meat from the slow cooker to a broiler pan and cook it under your oven's broiler for just a few minutes, until the skin is golden-brown and crispy.
Adding fresh herbs too early: With all the props given to fresh herbs, it's kind of refreshing to know that dried herbs are actually the go-to seasoning in slow cooker meals. Since they do their best when cooked over long periods of time, dried herbs are the easy winners when it comes to your favorite slow-cooked recipes. That's not to say you can't use fresh herbs in a slow cooker recipe - just don't add them at the beginning. There won't be anything left when it's time to serve. Instead, toss those in toward the end of the cooking time, so they're still fresh and full of flavor when you sit down to eat.
Using the wrong size of slow cooker: One slow cooker does not fit every slow cooker recipe. The cooking time on each recipe counts on the fact that you're using the same size slow cooker as the recipe directs - meaning it's filled to the appropriate level. Your slow cooker should be filled halfway to three-quarters of the way full. If it's not full enough, your food will end up overcooked. If it's too full, it may not cook completely, or you may end up with an overflow - and a big mess on your kitchen counter.
Adding dairy products too soon: Dairy products don't do well warm, and the slow cooker is no exception. If you add ingredients like milk, cheese, cream, sour cream, or cream cheese too early in the cooking process, you'll have a curdled, disgusting mess at the end of your cooking time. To save your dish without sacrificing the creamy flavor you love, cook it without any dairy and then add those ingredients in during the last half hour - cooking them just long enough for them to melt and blend properly into the dish.
Cooking frozen food: Pinterest is full of recipes touting the wonders of freezer-to-slow cooker meals. As fabulous as it sounds, it's not a good idea to put frozen food - especially meat - in your slow cooker. If your slow cooker is full of frozen food, it'll take way too long to reach a safe temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning your food will spend longer than it should at temps that are less than safe. That sounds like a great way to get food poisoning, if you ask me. Go ahead and thaw your food completely before adding it to your slow cooker.
Not layering correctly: Believe it or not, your slow cooker doesn't cook evenly all the way through. The foods at the bottom cook faster, so put foods that need longer cooking times, like root vegetables, at the bottom of the slow cooker, followed by the meat, which cooks faster.
The writer is a freelance contributor at www.mashed.com
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