A whopping 81 percent of U.S. households already own or plan to buy a slow cooker, according to a report by the retail research firm The NPD Group. But just because many of us are using the handy countertop appliance, that doesn't mean we're using it right.
Rather than stewing (pun intended!) about potential missteps, we spoke to two culinary experts for some slow cooker meal myth-busting. Read on for solutions to the most common slow cooker mistakes straight from pros who know: Matthew Fairman, associate editor of Cook's Country Magazine, and Dan Zuccarello, executive food editor of America's Test Kitchen books, including the new America's Test Kitchen 20th Anniversary TV Show Cookbook.
1. Opening the Lid
One of the most essential rules of slow cooker success: Keep a lid on it.
"While it can be hard to resist lifting the lid early to check on how your pot roast or casserole is coming along, don't do it! The slow cooker builds up heat over time and maintains a relatively low even temperature," Zuccarello says. "Lifting the lid releases steam and ruins the slow cooker's effectiveness."
Instead, add all of the ingredients for your meal into your slow cooker and leave the lid secured until you've followed the cooking length listed in the recipe or in this cook time guide from the Iowa State Extension.
Most slow cookers have a maximum fill line etched into the pot. But if yours doesn't, a safe rule of thumb is not to exceed 2 inches below the lid, Zuccarello explains.
However, there is an exception: Some recipes may require you to lift the lid while your meal's stewing.
"For some meals, quick-cooking ingredients like spinach, peas or shrimp are left out until the end," Fairman, who develops all of the slow cooker recipes for Cook's Country Magazine, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Open the lid to add them, and cook them until they are just done." This can save you time and effort rather than steaming those late additions separately and stirring them in afterwards.
2. Using Raw Noodles
Zuccarello admits that "recipes that include pasta can be challenging to cook perfectly in the slow cooker," but that doesn't make them impossible. "Over the years, we've learned that pre-treating the pasta makes a huge difference in the success of the dish," he says.
Adding raw noodles will cause the pasta to absorb too much liquid from the recipe. In other words, you'll be left with bloated bucatini. Instead, toast your pasta with a little extra-virgin olive oil in the microwave. "Microwaving the pasta at 50 percent power and stirring it occasionally gently toasts the noodles," Zuccarello advises. Just note that only a portion of the pasta will look toasted and blistered.
"Starting the pasta in the Crock-Pot with boiling water or broth also helps combat uneven cooking. By the time room-temperature water or broth heats up enough to cook the pasta, the bottom of the dish will be over-cooked and the top portion will be dried out," Zuccarello says.
And if you're whipping up lasagna, boiling the pasta beforehand is a necessity, so no-boil noodles won't work, Fairman adds.
3. Spicing at the End
"The flavors in a slow cooker dish can become muted over the long cooking time," Zuccarello says. To combat that, season each component of the recipe upfront, Fairman suggests.
"Waiting until the end to season your food will leave your dish tasting like salt rather than a well-seasoned version of itself," Fairman says. So if your recipe calls for a protein, sauce and sautéed onions, make sure to well-season all three components.
If you're seasoning something you can't taste test right away — like raw protein — then take it easy. You can always adjust and add more salt later, but you can't remove excess salt.
Converting a recipe from the oven to a slow cooker? Increase the amounts of aromatics and spices beyond what is normally used. Or amp up the flavor of the spices by blooming them with oil in either a skillet or in the microwave. Just before serving, give the recipe a taste test and if it needs a little more flavor, stir in extra fresh herbs, add a squeeze of citrus juice or a splash of vinegar.
4. Saying 'See Ya!' to the Skillet
Speaking of prep work, using a skillet is a brilliant way to build bonus layers of flavor in your slow cooker recipe.
"I get it, you're using a slow cooker because life is busy and you don't have lots of time to spare. It can seem like a pain to pull out your skillet first, but for some recipes, spending just 5 or 10 minutes sautéing aromatics or browning meat makes all the difference between a meal that is so-so and one that's great," Zuccarello says.
So if the recipe calls for searing meat or blooming spices before adding them to the pot, don't skip it. You can, however, start with raw meat if the recipe calls for it. Just expect a milder final result, Fairman says.
5. Reserving Your Slow Cooker for Just Roasts and Stews
"Some may tell you to avoid lean cuts such as chicken breasts, pork tenderloins and fish, but we've had great success with all of these," Zuccarello says. The key is not treating them like more traditional (read: tough, fatty) cuts that can cook all day. Lean cuts rarely, if ever, take longer than three hours in the slow cooker and you'll achieve the best, most juicy results by using the low setting.
For delicate vegetables, such as frozen peas or fresh baby spinach, always stir them in at the end to protect their freshness and texture.
"The only proteins you should absolutely avoid cooking in your Crock-Pot are mollusks in their shells like clams and mussels. By the time they get hot enough to open up, they will be overcooked," Fairman says.
6. Confusing the Settings
If you think "low" and "high" relate to temperature, think again.
"Surprisingly, on most slow cookers, these settings have less to do with overall temperature and more to do with the time it takes for the slow cooker to reach its target maximum temperature," Zuccarello says.
"Most slow cookers will reach a target temperature of around 200 degrees and then hold it for the duration of the cooking time. Choosing low or high is better equated to telling your slow cooker to reach its target temperature slowly or quickly."
That being said, selecting low or high determines when your meal will be ready.
- Low setting: Low would work if you need chili to simmer all day while you're at work.
- High setting: Slow cooking on high would be helpful if you're in need of a game-day dip and kickoff is in two hours.
- Keep warm function: This setting, as its name implies, keeps your food at a steady 145 to 165 degrees Fahrenheit. "It's great for tailgates and potluck buffets," Fairman says.
7. Dusting It Off Come Fall
Don't forget about the set-it-and-forget-it appliance come spring and summer.
"I think a slow cooker should be used year-round. It's perfect for cool weather months when a hearty stew or braised pot roast is on everyone's mind, but it's equally valuable during the warmer months when you don't want to heat up your kitchen by turning on your oven," Zuccarello says.
Consider cooking the filling for lettuce wraps, tacos or sandwiches in the slow cooker. Or "bake" cobblers and crisps in the slow cooker rather than the oven.
8. Ditching the Dairy
Cheese, milk and yogurt are A-OK in the slow cooker, too. Just choose wisely.
"To prevent curdling, opt for high-fat dairy or dairy alternatives such as heavy cream, full-fat yogurt or coconut milk which are more stable," Zuccarello says. "Then, plan to add most of your dairy just before serving."
For an extra layer of curdle-free protection, try tempering. Here's how: Add a bit of the hot liquid (say, broth or white wine) to the dairy before adding that mixture to the rest of the recipe.