Slow cookers are fantastic tools for saving time in the kitchen and making meal prep that much easier. This makes them the perfect option for busy people and those that just want to spend more time with their families.
Yet, despite all of this, slow cookers aren’t as popular as you might expect. Instead, some people actively avoid them. In many cases, this happens because of flavor and quality. After all, slow cookers do cook your food for much longer than other cooking methods and this does impact the way the food turns out.
But regardless of what people may think, slow cooker meals can taste truly amazing if you follow some simple tips and techniques. Indeed, many of the issues that people have with slow cookers happen because they don’t know how to get the most out of them. So, in this post, we’re going to show you a range of different ways to dramatically improve the flavor and quality of your slow cooked meals.
Many of these are great options for any slow cooker and meal type, while others are best suited for particular meals. But, regardless of what you’re making or how skilled you are with a slow cooker, you’re going to find some techniques to improve the food that you prepare.
Use The Right Cut Of Meat
When you’re using a slow cooker, it’s tempting to just throw any meat in there, especially if the recipe just says beef or chicken. However, the cut of meat will have a dramatic impact on the way that your food turns out.
In particular, slow cookers are best suited for cooking fattier cuts of meat. After all, you’re cooking slowly for an extended period of time. So, the fat in the meat will help prevent it from drying out and will result in a better dish overall.
Honestly, this is one of the appealing aspects of a slow cooker anyway. Fattier meat tends to be less expensive and it can also be harder to cook via other methods.
You can still cook leaner cuts of meat with a slow cooker but you have to pay close attention to your recipe. Typically, you will need more liquid for lean meat than for fatty meat and you may also need to shorten the cooking time.
With this in mind, it’s also worth making sure your recipe is suited for the cut of meat you’re using. So, if the recipe specifies a fatty cut of meat, don’t just replace that with a lean version instead. Rather, you’re better off looking for a recipe that suits the cut of meat you plan on using.
Brown Your Meat
Slow cookers are all about convenience. So, the extra step of browning your meat before putting it in can seem like too much hassle. Plus, people often feel like they don’t need to because the meat will get cooked regardless of whether they brown it first or not.
But, browning can make a huge difference to the quality of your meal. After all, the slow cooking process doesn’t do this naturally and browning does add a more interesting and complex texture and flavor to your meat.
This means it is worth the time and the effort to brown your meat first, even if you are in a hurry to get your meal started. The same pattern is also true for root vegetables. If you brown them a little first, it can dramatically improve the flavor, without requiring all that much extra effort.
Don’t Forget The Leftovers From The Pan
If you are browning your meat prior to cooking (and you really should), then you’ll be left with browned bits of meat in the bottom of the pan and stuck to the sides. This is called fond, and is a part of many types of cooking. These pieces of meat are easy to ignore but they have an amazing taste, as does any liquid in the pan.
To take advantage of this, you can deglaze the pan using wine, stock or water and cook briefly over a medium heat. This gives you the chance to get any browned bits off the pan itself and you can then pour the whole mix into the slow cooker.
This technique is a great way to get some extra flavor from your meat and it’s much better than simply adding water or stock as the liquid.
Don’t Overfill The Slow Cooker
Slow cookers work by simmering and they tend to work the best when they are around two-thirds or three-quarters full. If you fill the slow cooker more than this, then your food is going to cook differently, with a tendency towards steaming rather than simmering.
Needless to say, this change in cooking can have major impacts on the food that you make. In most cases, you’ll end up with something that doesn’t taste nearly as good.
Use The Correct Size For Your Needs
Overfilling a slow cooker isn’t the only issue that you need to consider. Instead, underfilling it can also adversely affect the quality of your food. So, the size of your slow cooker needs to match the meal that you’re making in it.
Additionally, many recipes are written for a specific slow cooker size. For example, recipes for 6-quart slow cookers are the most common, followed by 4-quart ones. However, there are some cookbooks that are different, such as those that focus on feeding large crowds or just cooking for one or two people.
This means that, wherever possible, you need to figure out the size of slow cooker that your recipe is for and actually use that size. If you don’t have the right size, then you may need a different recipe.
On a related note, this pattern means that the capacity of your slow cooker should be based on your needs. For example, if you live on your own, having a large slow cooker probably doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you want a lot of leftovers. Likewise, if you consistently cook for a family of 4, having a 4-quart slow cooker probably won’t cut it.
In some cases, this may even mean you need to buy multiple slow cookers. Thankfully, there are lots of choices out there, including basic and more advanced models.
Keep The Lid On
It can be tempting to take the lid off your slow cooker from time to time to check the progress of your food. But, doing so allows some heat to escape and slows down the process of cooking.
In some cases, doing this could even result in your food being undercooked, especially if you are taking the lid off frequently.
Most of the time, taking the lid off isn’t going to help your meal anyway. Certainly, you don’t need to stir a slow cooked dish like you do with recipes cooked on the stove top. If you have the right amount of liquid in there, you don’t have to worry about it burning either.
Now, there are exceptions to this rule.
For example, some recipes call for the addition of extra ingredients towards the end of cooking. This is often necessary if you’re adding in delicate ingredients that don’t require much cooking time. Likewise, you may need to check whether your meat is actually cooked.
In both of these cases, you do need to lift the lid. However, you should do so towards the end of cooking, like within the last hour or half an hour, rather than earlier on. Likewise, you still want to avoid having the lid off for too long.
Rely Mostly On The Low Setting
With a slow cooker, you’re aiming to cook food slowly and over an extended period of time. To do this the most effectively, you do need to be relying on the low setting, rather than the high one.
Many people equate these two settings to differences in time. So, you might use the low setting if you’re leaving the slow cooker to do its thing overnight or while you are at work. In contrast, you may use the high setting if you want your food ready in a shorter period of time.
But, the difference between the two is temperature, not time.
This means that you will get a dramatically different result from cooking on high versus cooking on low. For most recipes, you need to cook on low to make sure that the flavors turn out well and that nothing overcooks.
This is absolutely essential if you want meat that falls apart and is tender, rather than meat that is stringy and dry.
Don’t Forget About Temperature
Slow cooking is a safe way to make meals but you do still need to be a little careful with temperature. In particular, there is a danger zone for food, where bacteria develop particularly fast.
So, there are a few key steps that you need to take with a slow cooker to reduce your risk of food poisoning.
One of these to avoid using frozen ingredients almost entirely. Frozen items take much longer to cook, which means that they will stay in that danger zone for longer. This is particularly true for meat, which can take quite some time to cook.
The only exception to this rule is frozen vegetables (like frozen peas) that you add towards the end of cooking and cook exceptionally fast. These items aren’t going to have a dramatic impact on cooking time or temperature, so they are safe to use.
Additionally, make sure ingredients and containers aren’t too cold when you put them in the slow cooker.
For example, some people do most of their prep the night before and store the slow cooker insert and ingredients in the fridge overnight. Doing this is actually dangerous because it takes time for that insert and the food to heat up again.
If you’re cooking on low, you can even simmer liquids before putting them in the slow cooker. That process isn’t necessary but it helps to start the heating process off well and further reduces any issues of food not cooking all the way through.
Likewise, you can even preheat your slow cooker, rather than starting out with it cold.
Use Room Temperature Ingredients
You can even take temperature one step further by using room temperature ingredients, particularly meat.
At room temperature, meat tends to be more flexible and has a better distribution of natural juices. So, starting with room temperature meat lets you take better advantage of the natural juices, which will always lead to better flavor outcomes.
Add Delicate Ingredients Towards The End
In many cases, people tend to throw all of their ingredients in the slow cooker at the beginning and leave it to cook. That process might be desirable because of how easy it is but this isn’t how you get good results.
If you do this, you’ll end up overcooking the more delicate ingredients, particularly vegetables like zucchini and peppers.
To get around this, you want to add some ingredients at the end. This is true for delicate vegetables, for any fresh herbs, pasta, and for dairy. In fact, if you add dairy (like sour cream) earlier, you’ll end up curdling it and completely ruining your dish. I made this mistake with fresh basil on my slow cooker pizza!
In most cases, recipes will tell you to add these types of ingredients at the end. But, if they don’t, just remember that anything sensitive will overcook if you put it in the slow cooker right from the beginning.
Use The Right Recipes
There are a lot of cookbooks for slow cookers out there, along with slow cooker recipes in conventional cookbooks. But, these recipes vary a lot in their quality and their end products. In many cases, authors provide minimal instructions and try to reduce preparation as much as possible.
In fairness, one of the key advantages of a slow cooker is that there isn’t much prep work involved. However, sometimes a little extra work at the beginning can result in a much better outcome.
This includes recipes where you may need to brown meat prior to putting it in the slow cooker or where you need to add some things towards the end of cooking.
Our recommendation is to pay close attention to the reviews for recipes and cookbooks, to figure out which ones are worth trying out. Additionally, don’t avoid a recipe simply because it requires more work than you would like. Often the recipes with extra work are the ones that turn out the best.
Don’t Overcook Your Food
Slow cookers have such a long cooking time anyway, it’s tempting to just leave them going, especially if you aren’t going to eat the food immediately.
But, doing so is a really bad plan and will compromise your meal.
Often, overcooking will mean that your meat becomes stringy and dries out, particularly if you are using a lean cut of meat. Likewise, you’ll find that some of your food becomes mushy and the texture becomes much less appealing.
Ideally, you want to cook your food all the way through and then stop. Continuing cooking after that point will typically harm the dish, although this is somewhat recipe specific.
Getting the timing right for cooking can be a little bit of an art but recipes are often the best place to start. Once you have an idea of how long a dish is supposed to cook for, you can tweak the cooking time in subsequent attempts until you get it perfect.
Sticking to the low setting as much as possible also helps you to avoid overcooking. Realistically, the high setting is too intense for most meals and it’s best suited for heating food up rather than actually cooking. You can still overcook food on the low setting but it is harder to do so.
Use Thermometer For Internal Temperature Accuracy
For many dishes, following the recipe and turning the slow cooker off at the end will be enough to avoid overcooking. However, that’s not always the case. After all, different cuts of meat do cook at different speeds and the size of your ingredients will also play a role.
So, using a thermometer can be one of your best options for improving quality and flavor. Doing this allows you to monitor the internal temperature of your meat.
This means that you will know when it is cooked, rather than having to guess based on time.
There are many tools out there that can help with this process but the Hamilton Beach Set ‘n Forget Slow Cooker is one extremely appealing option. This is a reasonably priced 6-quart slow cooker that comes with a temperature probe and a probe jack.
This makes it extremely easy to keep an eye on the internal temperature of your meal. Plus, this particular slow cooker model also has the ability to program how long you want the meal to cook for, along with an automatic warming feature.
That latter feature means that once your meal reaches the desired temperature, the slow cooker will switch to warming mode. This also helps to decrease the risk of overcooking.
Be Realistic About Timing
Many people put slow cookers on first thing in the morning so that they can come home to a fully cooked dinner. This is one of the most appealing features of a slow cooker but not all recipes can be cooked this way.
Instead, cooking for 8 hours (even on low) will completely ruin some meals and you’ll end up losing most of the flavor if you attempt to do so. For example, chicken breasts typically take around 4-5 hours to cook on low. Cook them for longer than that and you end up with dry tasteless chicken.
Likewise, vegetables frequently end up overcooked and mushy if you have the slow cooker running for the entire day. You can get around that by adding the vegetables in later, although doing so may not be feasible if you are at work during that time.
Typically, stews and dishes with large chunks of red meat or dried beans are the best choices for an all-day cook. These types of recipes will tend to work well, without drying out.
So, if you want the best outcomes, you need to make the cook time match what you are making, rather than the amount of time that you have.
It’s also important to note that many cookbooks don’t get this right either. This means that you will often find recipes that result in overcooked food. This is why using a thermometer is so crucial, as it gives a good idea of how much cooking you actually need to be doing. Unfortunately it means that some meals won't work if you set them going in the morning, but maybe you can run home at lunch to toss everything in the slow cooker, or make it in the evening and then reheat it the next day for lunch.
Remove Overcooked Vegetables
With a slow cooker, you’re often preparing meat and vegetables at the same time. This is great for convenience but sometimes you’ll find that when your meat is cooked, some of your vegetables may be overcooked.
You can reduce the chance of this happening by using a good recipe, watching the cooking time and the internal temperature of the food. But, sometimes you will still find that some of your vegetables are overcooked no matter what.
The simple solution to this is not to serve them. Instead, strain them out of the dish.
You can easily cook new vegetables to go on the side if they were all overcooked and this is much better than serving overcooked vegetables. You can even puree your vegetables and add them back into the sauce of your dish if you don’t want to waste them entirely.
Layer Food Correctly
When using a slow cooker, people often just throw ingredients in and this practice dramatically influences the quality of the final meal. Instead, you need to pay attention to the way that you layer food and the order you put it in the slow cooker.
This is critical because the heat source of a slow cooker is on the bottom. So, food at the top of the slow cooker will tend to cook the slowest, while the food that the bottom will cook faster.
With this in mind, you need to put the ingredients that require the most cooking at the bottom. For most recipes, this may include the meat and root vegetables – especially if the meat is tough.
In contrast, ingredients that require little cooking should be placed right at the top.
Cut Up Meat And Root Vegetables
There are some recipes that work with a whole beef roast or entire chicken but most don’t. Instead, you’re normally better off cutting up your meat into smaller portions.
Doing so helps to make sure that the meat cooks all the way through and that it doesn’t dry out. Additionally, smaller pieces of meat will tend to get more flavor from the surrounding juices, so they’ll taste better overall.
The same is true for root vegetables. These often take a long time to cook as well and you may even find that they’re not cooked when the rest of your meal has been finished. Cutting these up can dramatically help with ensuring that everything is cooked at the same time and can also improve their flavor.
Be Careful With Liquids
Slow cooking relies on liquids, so you certainly don’t want to start out with a bone dry dish. But, many people go to the opposite extreme and add in far too much liquid.
When you do this, you can dramatically decrease the flavor of your dish, as you’re not giving the natural juices a chance to shine. Additionally, using too much liquid is a choice that can easily result in mushy food and an unattractive texture overall.
Following a recipe can be a good first step in achieving this and you can then adjust the amount of liquid with subsequent attempts at a dish. Often, you will only need around half a cup of liquid, especially as liquid isn’t lost while your meal cooks.
The overall aim is to have enough liquid to cook the food well but not enough that you’re drowning it (unless you’re actually making soup, of course).
If you do overdo it with the liquids, you can often simply ladle some of it out. An alternative is to leave the lid off for a little while and set the slow cooker to high. Essentially, this lets you boil off some of the moisture.
However, you do need to be careful if you try this technique, as you risk overcooking your ingredients or drying out your meal too much. As such, it’s best to only use this method if you have no other options.
Don’t Use Too Much Alcohol
Alcohol, particularly wine, works well in many slow cooker dishes but you have to be careful with it.
When you use alcohol in regular cooking much of it burns off, so you can afford to be pretty liberal with how much you use. This isn’t the case with a slow cooker. Instead, adding too much alcohol can create a pretty intense ‘boozy’ flavor that doesn’t complement the recipe at all.
Don’t Be Afraid Of Herbs And Spices
One of the most common complaints about slow cooker meals is that they taste bland. Sometimes this can happen just because you’re using a bad recipe. But, more often it is because people under-season.
Seasoning does have different effects in a slow cooker compared to other methods of cooking, so you can’t just use the same amounts that you would normally use. Instead, you’ll typically need to include more seasonings to get a good flavor.
Finding the right balance will be a matter of trial and error, as everybody has their own preferences about seasoning. Nevertheless, don’t be afraid to try new things.
For example, one unusual recommendation is to crumble up gingerbread into your meat dishes. The end result is a fairly appealing ginger flavor, along with an interesting texture. There are other examples out there too that sound odd at first but actually work out extremely well.
Use Dried Herbs, Not Fresh
The general rule with cooking is to always use fresh ingredients whenever possible and this includes herbs. But, the same isn’t true for a slow cooker.
Instead, you want to be using dried herbs in a slow cooker. The reason for doing so is simply the cooking time. Dried herbs stand up reasonably well throughout the extended cooking time, while fresh ones really don’t.
Additionally, dried herbs tend to have a more intense flavor and that’s desirable with slow cooking.
Don’t Pick The Cheapest Wine
Red wine is a common ingredient in many meat-based dishes and stews. While wine does create fantastic depth of flavor, people often make the mistake of picking the cheapest wine possible.
Instead, you should be cooking with the same quality of wine that you want to drink.
Some people also recommend favoring dry wines and those that have a higher alcohol content. These types of wine result in more complex flavors than you would get otherwise.
After all, you are cooking in that wine for an extended period of time, so your choice is going to have a significant impact on the flavor and quality of your final product.
This is actually a good general rule. If you start off with poor quality ingredients, then you’re going to get a similar result. In contrast, if you buy better ingredients, your entire meal ends up tasting much more flavorful.
For example, if you’re doing slow cooker baking, you want to use high-quality vanilla extract, rather than the cheap stuff. Again, the impact on your final meal can be dramatic.
In fact, one of the biggest problems that people have with slow cooker meals is that they start off with poor quality ingredients. Doing so will always influence your final result, regardless of how you are cooking. So, even with a slow cooker, picking good ingredients is critical for creating amazing meals.
Pick The Right Slow Cooker
There are a lot of different slow cooker brands and models out there and these come in a wide range of prices and sizes. When you’re looking for a slow cooker, it can be tempting to simply pick the cheapest option, but that isn’t always the best choice.
Instead, it’s worth shopping around and finding a slow cooker that is going to work well and meet your needs.
For one thing, there is a lot of variation in the features on offer. So, some slow cookers simply have a low and a high setting, and you have to manually unplug them when they are done cooking. In contrast, other slow cookers come with a timer and an automatic keep warm feature, providing you much greater control over the cooking process.
Additionally, there are quality differences. For example, some slow cooker brands seem to perform better than others and you often do get what you pay for.
As such, it’s worth taking the time to research and pick a good slow cooker for your needs. Ideally, you would want a good brand, along with a product that has the features you need and is a suitable size.
If you do all of this, then you’re more likely to get consistently good results, rather than simply relying on a run of the mill slow cooker that doesn’t perform well. Our favorites so far are:
- small, manual: Crock-Pot Oval 4-Quart
- small, programmable: Crock-Pot Smart Pot
- medium, manual: Crock-Pot Cook and Carry 6-Quart
- medium, programmable: Crock-Pot Cook and Carry 6-Quart
- large, manual: Crock-Pot Oval Manual 7-Quart (review coming soon!)
- large, programmable: Cuisinart 4-in-1 Multi-Cooker 7 Quart (review coming soon!)
Wait A Day
Most people cook meals with the aim of eating them on the same day. But, this isn’t always the best idea. Instead, some dishes actually end up tasting better the day after.
This is an especially common idea for soup but it also applies to other dishes as well.
Basically, leaving a meal for a day allows more time for the complex flavors to develop. This also makes for a fairly easy way to improve flavor, providing that you’re organized enough to cook your meal a day in advance.
Know Your Slow Cooker
Every slow cooker is going to come with its own quirks and recipe books don’t take these differences into consideration. For example, the minimum amount of liquid isn’t always going to be the same and some slow cookers will need more liquid than others.
Likewise, slow cookers can vary dramatically in the pace that they cook at. This means that some models actually cook slower or faster than others. You may find that you have to adjust the cooking time of a recipe to take that difference into account.
Now, the only real way to know the quirks of your individual slow cooker is with experience. So, as you use your slow cooker more, pay attention to what works and what doesn’t. This information will be invaluable when it comes to following recipes and creating good meals.
This pattern also means that if you get a new slow cooker at any point, you’ll have to learn the quirks of that one. This is why a recipe can be perfect in one slow cooker but may need adjusting before it turns out well in another slow cooker.
Don’t Be Afraid To Experiment And Learn
Slow cooking is an art and a science. There are many great recipes out there to follow but to get the best results you need to be willing to tweak these as you go.
For example, many slow cooker recipes actually call for too much liquid, which can lead to food with an unappealing texture that lacks in flavor. In many cases, improving the dish may be as simple as reducing the amount of liquid.
As you become more experienced with slow cooking, it is much easier to identify when this is the case and to figure out how much liquid you actually need. The same is true for other areas as well, such as seasonings and cooking time.
So, don’t be afraid to try new things and tweak your dishes. Even if something doesn’t end up great the first time, there is no shortage of different tips and tricks to improve it the next time around.
We’ve covered many such methods to improve flavor and quality within this post but there are probably many others out there that we haven’t even considered. Really though, that’s part of the nature of slow cooking. It is a cooking process that seems incredibly simple when you first look at it but there is actually a lot of hidden complexity and flexibility once you start getting experienced.