Cooks around America continue to warm to the old-school slow cooker, despite, or perhaps because of its Luddite qualities. Amazon sells 1,397 books on the topic and 1,818 pieces of equipment or tools. Kitchen appliance companies are competing to outdo one another with smart slow-cooker apps that program the tool when you’re far from home. Even Campbell’s has gotten in on the act, announcing a new line of slow-cooker sauces. The key to its success is in large part due to its ease and simplicity, its set-it and forget-it quality. Yet, there are a few secrets that seasoned pros know to optimize your techniques so you’re getting the best out of it:
1) Use tougher—and more affordable—cuts of meat: Yes, you can cook salmon and shrimp or just veggies, but this equipment is really designed to soften tougher cuts with its long cooking time; more fragile and leaner textures can get mushy unless you dramatically cut down the cooking time.
2) Sear protein before putting it in the pot: This will ensure there is a nice seal on the meat, that it will have a brown, semi-crisp exterior, even after hours of cooking.
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3) Place tougher items at the bottom: Whatever is going to need the longest cooking time—usually tough cuts of meats and large root vegetables—should stay at the bottom of the pot, nearest the heat source, and the more delicate items should be on top.
4) Fill only two-thirds of the pot: No matter the pot, you never want to crowd the pan as the food will steam rather than simmer. This is especially true with slow-cookers, which could easily bubble up and leak whilst you’re at work.
5) Don’t overcook the dish: I know—you’re thinking that’s the point of a slow-cooker, to leave it for hours. But letting foods cook for more than 7 or 8 hours will produce a lackluster flavor, as juices and flavors start to fade.
Looking for slow-cooker recipes? We’ve got dozens like these pulled chicken with cherry-chile barbecue sauce, pictured above. What are some of your favorite slow-cooker recipes?