One of the only possible bright sides of an interminable winter? Cooking up something delicious, warm and filling in your slow cooker or crockpot all day. Then come dinner time, filling your belly with not only food, but the sense of a job well done. But are you making the best stew/soup/casserole you could be?
To make sure you’re getting the most out of your slow cooker, we had the pleasure of talking to Jack Bishop, the editorial director of America’s Test Kitchen, who dispensed some very valuable nuggets of advice designed to maximize any recipe.
One of the biggest mistakes people make, he explains, is thinking you can just take whatever recipe you use to cook on the stove top or oven and think it’ll translate to a slow cooker.
“People often think, ‘Oh, I’ll just dump everything in and it will be fine!’ ” points out Bishop. “But different foods require different cooking times and so sometimes you end up with ingredients way overcooked or undercooked.”
Here’s how you can change everything.
1. Limit your liquids: There’s absolutely no evaporation in a slow cooker — it’s a sealed environment, Bishop points out, so it’s important not to use too much liquid or risk a watery, washed out result without much flavor.
“Most slow cooker recipes are better with less liquid than you would use if you were making the same thing in a pot on the stove,” he explains. “So that could mean draining the canned tomatoes and discarding that juice or it might mean using less broth than you normally would for a stew or a soup.”
2. Save your chicken from drowning: Bishops suggests putting chicken pieces in a foil packet — just take a piece of aluminum foil and wrap them in it — and then setting that on top of all the other ingredients in the slow cooker.
“That means that they cook a little bit more slowly because they’re not sitting in the liquid, and it allows you to make chicken soups and stews and other things with protecting the chicken somewhat.”
3. Give slow-cooking foods a jumpstart in the microwave: If you’ve got something that will take longer to cook — like red or new potatoes — throw them in the microwave for a minute or two before tossing them in the slow cooker.
“Microwaving a slow cooking vegetable allows you to then dump everything in the slow cooker together and have it come out tasting good with each item perfectly cooked,” explains Bishop.
4. Bloom those onions and herbs: If you just drop onions, garlic and dried herbs in the slow cooker, they tend to be kind of crunchy and the flavors are undeveloped. Bishop suggests tossing those ingredients in a bowl with a little bit of vegetable oil, maybe some tomato paste or red pepper flakes, depending on what you’re cooking, and microwaving them for a few minutes to soften the texture and get the flavors to bloom.
“For a lot of things like chills, or stews, it really adds that depth of flavor that’s sometimes missing from slow cooker recipes,” Bishop says.
(Yes, you can do this in a skillet or Dutch oven on the stove, but this way it’s one less pan to clean.)
5. More often low is better than high: Most slow cookers have two settings, Bishops says, and he’s found that the high can be awfully high, to the point where liquids almost start to boil and food can get blown apart, basically.
“If you want a beef stew with nice big chunks of beef, a lot of times the high setting can boil the meat and it dries out and sort of falls apart,” says Bishop. Low in general is better — and it gives you more time, so you can leave, and go to work and come back to it.
6. Use a foil sling to make lasagna, macaroni and cheese and other casseroles: Consider our minds blown — lasagna in a crockpot? Yup. Foil is your friend — use two pieces of foil placed perpendicularly in the slow cooker to make a sort of sling for your lasagna or casserole. Then when it comes time to remove it, you aren’t spooning it out, but transferring a complete dish to be cut and served. Magic.
Interested in that lasagna or looking for some other ideas? America’s Test Kitchen has a new cookbook dedicated to your crockpot, Slow Cooker Revolution, full of recipes designed to get you through the winter.
You can follow MBQ on Twitter where she will profess all things slow cooker to be mighty and beautiful: @marybethquirk