Get Going with Slow Cooking

Slow cooker season is upon us again (yay!), though truth be told, I use mine year ‘round because it’s easy and life is busy. I come by my street cred as the author of a couple of slow cooker cookbooks, in case you’re interested in specific recipes.

Vegetable Soup in a Slow Cooker

But here I’ve put together a list of favorite slow cooking tips in case you’re feeling a little rusty in the slow cooker department, or if you are a novice.

Need a new machine?

If you’re looking to invest in a slow cooker, think about your needs. If you just want to be able to make soup or stew once a week for yourself and your spouse, a small size (about 4 quarts) cooker in any shape will do. If you have a large brood to feed, you’ll need a larger machine (5-7 quarts). If you’d like to be able to cook a couple chickens or a turkey breast or large roast, go for the oval shaped cookers.

Be sure you keep the manual that came with it. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for first use of the slow cooker—some need special treatment.

Ingredient Prep

Although you’ll be tempted to do so, it’s not a good idea to put all the ingredients in the stoneware crock, refrigerate it and then plop the whole thing in the slow cooker based the next morning. Why? Because it can crack once it’s starts heating up, which means you’ll have a huge mess waiting for you when you get home—instead of a tasty dinner.  Instead, put together the ingredients and store them in baggies in the refrigerator. The crock stays in the base overnight (not in the fridge), and the next morning you can just dump the ingredients from the baggies into the crock, turn it on and go. Oh, and don’t put frozen meat directly into the slow cooker and turn it on or the same cracked and messy scenario could happen.

Remember to keep all ingredients about the same size so that things cook evenly. It also helps to put the more dense ingredients (carrots, potatoes, squash) on the bottom of the crock, then layer the ingredients on top. Follow the recipe’s directions as usually this has already been taken into account for you.

The Finished Dish

Don’t worry if there’s a lot of broth left at the end of cooking time. This is ok; it’s because it’s a closed environment so nothing is evaporating out. You can use it to pour over the finished product (you likely would use just a few spoonfuls, not the entire amount). You can even thicken it and make some gravy to go along with your dish. Or you can pour it out and save it for another purpose. I suggest refrigerating it, skimming off the fat and using it as the basis for a soup since it’s often very flavorful. You can even freeze this liquid in an ice cube tray and use it when you need just a little broth for a recipe.

Perk up slow cooked food for extra eye-appeal and a burst of lively, fresh flavor. A plate of slow cooked food tends to be all the same texture, so it’s nice to provide a garnish with a contrasting color and texture—along with a shot of fresh flavor to brighten up the plate. Try lemon wedges, a sprinkling of fresh, chopped herbs, or a swirl of yogurt or sour cream. Some chopped apple or fruit goes nicely with pork and chicken recipes in particular, and if you want to really impress, top your slow cooked masterpiece with a small amount of microgreens or a chiffonade of your favorite greens.