Desiri Wightman, RD
It seems like a no-brainer! Just add the food and turn on the slow cooker. However, techniques to slow cooking success actually do exist. Knowing these tricks will help you make the most of your crockery cooker, and if you're anything like me, they'll inspire you to really put this appliance to full functionality in your kitchen. Additionally, knowing the ways and means of slow cooking will assist you in converting conventional family recipes into crock-pot sensations.
First, fill the slow cooker at least 1/2 full and no more than 2/3 full. Filling the stoneware pot at least half full will ensure food is done in the time specified in recipes. You can cook smaller amounts, but monitor the cooking time, as it will change. In conventional cooking, water evaporates from cooking food through the seams of the pan lid or by other means. But in crockery cooking on the LOW setting, the tight seal of the lid causes steam to build up, condense into water, and drip back down into your meal.
Additionally, on the LOW setting, liquid doesn't come to a boil. The slow simmer of the liquid prevents too much water from evaporating as it does when liquid boils. Because of these reasons, additional moisture always builds up in the cooker, expanding the volume of the original contents. If the cooker is filled too full, expect boil overs and a delightful mess to clean up.
Second, cut vegetables evenly and layer on the bottom and up the sides of the crock. If you've ever bitten into a crunchy slow-cooked potato, you know that vegetables sometimes have a hard time completing the cooking process in a slow cooker. Unlike on the stove, where they cook in boiling water, the simmering water in crockery cooking can make getting vegetables done a very long process.
To boost your probability of tender vegetables, cut all the vegetables into uniform, bite sized chunks. Then, layer them on the bottom and up the sides of the crock. The heating element of the base unit circles up the sides and on the bottom of the unit. Vegetables layered nearest this heat will warm up faster and benefit from a longer cooking time than if they were placed in the center or at the top of the stoneware crock.
Third, trim fat from meat before adding it to the cooker. Unless you like your meat swimming in grease, cut away any excess fat before cooking the meat. One great thing about crockery cooking is that lean, less tender, and less expensive cuts of meat cook up deliciously supple without added fat. Choose cuts of meat containing words like chuck, round, stewing, brisket, or fore shank on the label.
Another way to remember which meats work best in the slow cooker is to picture a cow or sheep, etc. The meat that comes from the leg areas, where the animal exercises its muscles to walk is going to consist of a lot less fat (marbling) and be more overworked (less tender) than cuts of meat from the back or gut area (rib, loin). Reserve more marbleized, expensive, and tender cuts of meat for the grill, where they'll cook up fast, tender, and delicious.
Fourth, sear roasts before slow cooking. Yes, this is optional. You can simply place a roast in the cooker and turn it on. However, your finished roast will taste better and look delectable if you'll brown it on all sides first. It takes about 15-20 minutes, but it will help your roast hold in its natural, flavorful juices better and give it an oven-roasted brown color.
To sear, heat a small amount of oil in a pot large enough to accommodate the roast. When hot, add the roast. Turn and cook each side until nicely browned. Add the browned bits left in the pan to the pot and you'll enjoy a richer tasting gravy. Browning intensifies the flavor of vegetables as well, especially onions and garlic.
Fifth, avoid using frozen meats. Though older cookbooks and instruction manuals that come with slow-cookers suggest using frozen meats or poultry for better texture, it is now not recommended by food safety experts. In order for slow-cooking to be safe, food must reach 140 F. within the first 2 hours of cooking.
This ensures that the food isn't sitting in the temperature danger zone (40 -140 F.) allowing microorganisms to multiply erratically. It takes frozen meat longer than two hours to thaw and heat up to 140 F., allowing ample time for microbes to party. To test whether your crockery cooker will heat food to a safe temperature within the first two hours of cooking, run a slow-cooker test.
Sixth, don't add dairy products at the beginning of the cooking process. Dairy products, like milk, yogurt, cheese, and sour cream curdle and separate during the long hours of slow cookery. To overcome this trouble, stir dairy products into the dish right before serving.
Evaporated milk and processed cheese can be added during the final 30-60 minutes of cooking. Suitable alternatives for dairy products that can be added prior to cooking include reconstituted powdered milk and condensed cream soups. For desserts, condensed sweetened milk can be added during the final hour of cooking.
Seventh, don't lift that lid! I know it smells wonderful and looking at the cooking food might help your tummy stop grumbling (especially if you can sneak a taste). But every time you lift that lid, you are delaying your dinner by 15-30 minutes.
It took much of the day to get that food to a hot enough cooking temperature, and great amounts of heat escape when you peek. Patiently waiting to check the meal at the minimum cooking time suggested by the recipe will give you ample time to snitch as desired without delaying dinner too much.
Eighth, always season food to taste after the cooking process. Whole or leaf spices and herbs deepen in flavor, while ground herbs diminish in flavor. If you fail to taste and adjust seasonings before serving, your food may be too spicy or too bland to be enjoyed. When converting recipes, add whole or chopped dried herbs instead of ground ones but decrease the amount called for in the recipe by half. Then season as needed during the final cooking hour.
If you prefer to use ground forms of herbs and spices, add them during the final hour of cooking to ensure potency. Remember that 1 tablespoon fresh herbs = 1 teaspoon dried herb = 1/4 teaspoon ground herb. So, if a recipe calls for 1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves you'd use 1/4 teaspoon ground oregano, added in the final hour of slow cooking.
Ninth, remove the lid to thicken liquids. If after checking the food towards the end of the cooking time, you find it is swimming in liquid, remove the lid and turn the unit to HIGH. This will help moisture escape and evaporate, thickening the juices. Allow at least a half hour for the liquid to escape and the sauce to thicken. You can also thicken liquid with quick-cooking tapioca, flour or cornstarch.
The tapioca can be added at the beginning of the cooking process to thicken as it cooks. The flour and cornstarch should be mixed with water to make a thin paste before whisking it into the juices at the end of the cooking period. Add these thickeners at least 15-30 minutes before serving.
Tenth, don't leave food out in the pot. Convenient as it is, your crock can be a food-safety nightmare if food is left to cool in it over two hours from the time it finished cooking. In the "off" position, food can be kept safely up to that 2 hour time limit. With a "keep warm" setting, the food can be kept hot longer. After that time, remove the food from the stoneware pot and refrigerate it in shallow containers so it will cool down quickly.
The heat retaining abilities of the pot and the volume of the food contents prevents food from chilling down in that safe window of time. Warm food can breed a bed of bacteria that will put you to bed and into the bathroom if you eat it. Don't store cooked food outside of the refrigerator or freezer, and eat, discard, or freeze leftovers within 3-4 days of cooking.
* DVO welcomes your kitchen hints and cooking or nutrition questions! Email us and we'll post your hints and Q/A's in upcoming newsletters! *