6 Ways To Get The Most Out Of Your Slow Cooker

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As our lives get busier and busier, the trusty old slow cooker is getting more of a workout than ever. It’s incredibly easy to “set and forget” a slow cooker before you head off to work, and there’s nothing better than coming home to a home-cooked meal that you didn’t even really have to cook. Just about anything can be modified for preparation in a slow-cooker, making this versatile tool a staple in even the most persnickety home cook’s repertoire.

Even if you’ve fully mastered the slow-cooker, it’s likely that you could still be getting more out of this essential kitchen gadget. These seven tips will help you ensure that your budget and schedule friendly dinners are as delicious as they possibly can be, without much (or any) extra effort on your part.

Use the low setting whenever possible

The “high” setting on your slow cooker is great if you need an easy meal with just a few hours notice, but cooking on low is where your Crock-Pot will really shine. Whenever possible, use the “low” setting on your slow cooker to get the full benefits of a slow braise. This “low and slow” cooking is essential for melt-in-your-mouth pot roasts and pork shoulders, and may be even better at coaxing all the tenderness out of cheap cuts than the most technically-sound stovetop braise.

Prepare your crock before cooking for easy clean-up

The downside of long cooking times is that the sauce tends to stick to the sides of the slow cooker’s ceramic dish, which means a lengthy soak in the sink or plenty of elbow grease. Avoid scrubbing altogether by rubbing the inside of your slow cooker’s crock with butter or coconut oil, much in the same way that you would a cake pan. If you’re really lazy, you can use one of those plastic slow-cooker liners that you toss after every use.

Fill ‘er up

You shouldn’t overfill a slow-cooker, but under-filling it can result in some pretty undesired outcomes. In order distribute the heat from your slow cooker evenly, you should make sure that it is at least half-filled for best results. If you need to fill a little space, add a serving or two of slow-cooker friendly veggies, like onions and carrots, to round out your recipe.

Use foil packets to prepare dishes separately

The low heat of a slow-cooker is great for evenly cooking different types of food, but sometimes you don’t want all the flavors to mingle. Instead of sauteing the veggies to go with your slow-cooker prepared chicken breasts or salmon filets, wrap them in a foil packet and place them underneath the protein for a quick side that takes little to no effort. You can also take advantage of extra headspace in your crock to slow-roast a foil-wrapped head of garlic — it’s delicious when mixed with salt and spread on toasted bread.

Go easy on the liquid

Slow cooking meats is a great way to coax out their natural juices, which means that you can usually go easy on the liquids. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, adding too much liquid will almost guarantee that your pot roast will be painfully dry once it’s done. If you’re using a lean cut of beef that is unlikely to produce much natural juice, a few splashes of chicken stock are all you need to coax the process along.

Sear first

It’s an added step, but searing your meat on the stovetop before placing it in the slow-cooker is worth dirtying up an extra dish. Contrary to popular wisdom, you won’t “lock in” the meat’s juices, but you will add an extra level of flavor that many slow-cooked meats seem to lack. Even veggies can benefit from a quick saute in the skillet — they’ll be crispier and have more flavor than their steamed-only counterparts.

Amy McCarthy is Assistant Food Editor at Paste Magazine. She enjoys cooking, lipstick, and fighting with celebrities on Twitter.