Dinner cooked in a Crock-Pot doesn’t have to be bland and mushy, but too often it is.
Lately, I’ve made too many disappointing meals with my slow cooker, and was ready to stow it in the basement. Still, the siren call of easy dinners and less-stressful meals continued to sound from Pinterest and recipe websites, and I wanted an answer. Could dinner in a slow cooker be easy, but actually taste like something my family wanted to eat?
I talked with expert chefs Sarah Stegner, co-chef and owner of Prairie Grass Café in Northbrook, and Chris Koetke, vice president at Kendall College’s School of Culinary Arts for their tips and suggestions on how to make slow-cooked meals tasty.
1. Slow cooking doesn’t mean all day
I’d been throwing the food in the crockpot before I left for work, and 12 hours later when we were ready to eat, was shocked that the pot roast was dry even though it was swimming in juice. Tip: Most slow-cooker recipes have a range of cooking times, and 6 to 8 hours means just that. Even if your model flips to “warm” after the cooking time, know that your meal isn’t getting better.
2. Brown meat and veggies first
For texture and flavor, sauté your meat and veggies in a little oil or butter before adding to the slow cooker. The carmalization really ups the flavor. Tip: Don’t forget to deglaze your sauté pan with the recipe’s liquid before adding it to the slow cooker.
3. Use larger, tougher cuts of meat—really!
Save your pricey pork tenderloin, salmon filets and boneless chicken breasts for quick sautés or grills. The slow cooker does best with larger, tougher cuts of meat like pork shoulder, chicken thighs, pot roasts and short ribs. Tip: Even though you can find recipes for cooking fish and boneless chicken breasts in the slow cooker, that doesn’t mean you should use them.
4. Add more garlic, chilis and spice to your recipe
Slow cooking really mellows out otherwise sharp tastes like garlic. So if your Slow Cooker Three Bean Minestrone calls for 3 cloves of garlic, consider doubling it. Tip: Most recipes’ spices can be increased without the dish becoming too hot or spicy. It takes a lot to get a flavor noticed after mellowing for 6 hours or so.
5. Fresh herbs get lost in the slow cooker
Fresh parsley, rosemary, thyme and cilantro are going to lose flavor and texture in the slow cooker. Add these in the last 15 minutes. Tip: A gremolata sounds fancy, but it’s just parsley, lemon, garlic and olive oil—it’ll take a so-so dish to fabulous.
6. Add a zing of flavor at the end
Koetke recommends adding a squirt of lemon juice, vinegar, red wine or green onions to slow cooked dishes. “Flavors get heavy and end up with just one flavor profile,” he says about dishes made in a slow cooker. “If you add something at the end, you put freshness and balance back in the dish.” Tip: Start with just a small amount, taste and then add more until the dish has a brighter, fresher note.
7. Concentrate the liquid
Stegner notes that part of what makes braised food delicious is that the cooking liquid evaporates and concentrates—something that doesn’t happen in a slow cooker, which traps the liquid. Tip: Remove the lid for the last 30 minutes of slow cooking. This one easy slow-cooker tip will also thicken the sauce.
8. Great slow-cooker recipes make a difference
Banish the cream of mushroom soup and any recipe that has you dump a can of this and a can of that. Just as easy, but far more delicious slow-cooker recipes are everywhere. In my research, these were mentioned again and again as reliable and delicious.
Favorite Slow Cooker Books
Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker Cookbook by Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufman
More Make it Fast, Cook it Slow by Stephanie O’Dea
Mexican Everyday by Rick Bayless
Favorite Websites with Slow-Cooker Recipes
Make It Better (of course!)
Get Crocked Recipes from the Crock Pot Gal
Do you have a favorite tip for the slow cooker? Share it with a comment below.
Laura Hine is an editor and writer based on the North Shore of Chicago. Her focus is on getting smart information about relationships, fun and food to other moms. For more of her writing, visit her website: laurahine.com.