We've said it before, and we'll say it again
: it's now slow-cooked food season. While we usually tend toward our Dutch ovens for things like chili, braised chicken, and pulled pork, we totally understand the "set it and forget it" appeal of a plugged-in slow cooker. But people often take that mentality too literally and screw up what could be a deliciously low-and-slow-cooked meal. We asked senior food editor Dawn Perry how to make the absolute worst crock pot dish ever-i.e., how to avoid making mistakes and instead produce tender, delicious meat and absolutely no mushy vegetables.
1. Use the leanest meat you can find
Lean meat cooked for a long time-no matter what the temperature-gets tough and stringy. Big hunks of fatty meat like short ribs and pork shoulder work best in a crock pot. The fat will keep the meat moist, and the slow cooking breaks down the connective tissue that makes those types of cuts tough. So with a slow cooker, fatty meat = good.
2. Throw your meat into the pot raw
Everyone wants a crock-pot recipe where you just toss everything in the pot, then magically have an amazing dinner eight hours later. Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that. Always brown your meat on the stove first- it adds a layer of caramelized flavor you can't get otherwise.
3. Don't add anything with low notes or sweetness
A low note is a flavor that adds a depth and richness to a dish-like bacon, browned onions, black pepper, and Worcestershire sauce-and they're integral to any good crock-pot recipe. As are sweet ingredients like brown sugar and tomato paste. Because most flavors break down and become one, those types of strong flavors make a great base for a sauce.
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4. Add bright notes, crunchy vegetables, and dairy at the very beginning
Bright notes are fresh flavors like acid and herbs. They'll get lost in the mix (and your herbs will turn brown and limp, ew), so it's better to add those ingredients last. If you want some kind of crunchy vegetable in your dish, it's also best to add it toward the end to avoid mushy veggies. And dairy? It will curdle, which looks terrible. Stir in any dairy at the very last moment.
5. Leave the skin on chicken
Do you like rubbery, chewy, gelatinous chicken skin? Then take it off before throwing your bird into the crock pot. Do leave in the bones, though-they'll help the meat stay tender. And chicken is the magic meat that doesn't need browning before going into the pot, mostly because it would be cooked too much after a long stint in the slow cooker.
6. Cook something that needs to hold its structure
Macaroni and cheese? Lasagna? Sure, there are slow-cooker recipes for them out there, but you definitely shouldn't attempt to make them. More often than not, pasta (and other things that should hold their shape) becomes a mushy mess. Just don't do it. Make something like chili instead if you really want to make an easy slow-cooker recipe.
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