A Crockpot or slow cooker can become the champion of busy households. You can fill it with tasty ingredients in the morning, let it cook all day long while everyone is out busy doing their thing, and deliver a beautiful meal by the time everyone gets back to the dinner table. That doesn't mean however that cooking in Crockpots always goes seamlessly.
Food can sometimes burn to the Crockpot, infusing the entire dish with a bitter charred flavor. If you don't add ingredients in the proper order, they can curdle or impart the dish with an off flavor. These quick tips can help busy cooks prevent these problems and make the most out of busy weeknight or weekend dinners.
1. Deal with hot spots
Just like most ovens, all Crockpots have a hot spot. This is the area that cooks food more quickly and causes food to burn and stick to that spot. This can make the Crockpot more difficult to clean, and it can leave half a dish sitting in the bottom. This issue does have solutions, however.
The first solution is to use liners. These bags are widely available in grocery stores and fit into the insert of the Crockpot. Once the food is done cooking, just plate it and remove the liner. After a quick wash, the Crockpot is ready to be filled with the next meal.
If you don't want to buy liners or you don't have any when you're ready to use the Crockpot, make one with aluminum foil. Just tear six pieces of foil big enough to sit inside the Crockpot and come up over the sides. Layer them and fold the edges to create a rectangle made up of six layers of foil. Place it into the slow cooker wherever the hot spot is and add the food. The foil works as a barrier and might even work better than liners, because the foil prevents too much heat from getting to the food.
2. Don't use frozen food
Frozen food can be just as convenient as the Crockpot itself. Frozen food can be quick to cook and can be on the table in minutes. You should never use frozen food in a Crockpot however. It takes much longer to come to room temperature to cook, and then to reach a safe temperature once again. Therefore, when frozen food remains in the Crockpot, out of the safe temperature range, for too long, bacteria can grow and make a dish unsafe to eat.
In addition, items such as frozen vegetables that don't require a long cooking time and are left to simmer for too long can become mushy. If you want to cook a piece of frozen meat, take it out of the freezer the night before and defrost it in the fridge overnight. It will be at the right temperature in the morning for placement into the Crockpot.
3. Don't overcrowd the Crockpot
Crockpots are meant to be filled only about halfway — definitely no more than two-thirds full. The heat needs room to move throughout the dish and cook everything evenly. If the slow cooker is stuffed to the rim, you'll end up with some food that's overcooked and some that's undercooked. Also, you might not be able to fit the lid on snugly, which can let a lot of heat escape. This can bring food to a dangerous temperature zone quickly, and food can take a lot longer to cook if it does at all.
This doesn't mean that you can't cook stew for a crowd or place a whole chicken in the Crockpot. It just means you'll need a larger Crockpot, and you'll have to make sure plenty of room exists between the food and the well-fitting lid.
4. Brown food first
One of the things people love most about Crockpots is that they can set it and forget it. Depending on what you're cooking, though, you might need to take a step or two, such as browning the food.
Browning food by giving it a quick sear in a frying pan before setting it into a Crockpot brings out its natural sugars and allows a crust to develop. This yields a richer, more flavorful dish than simply throwing the ingredients into the Crockpot. This is true not only for meat such as large roasts but also for vegetables.
5. Be careful when adding alcohol
When making a large pot of pasta sauce on the stovetop, you might add a cup of wine, knowing the alcohol has lots of time to evaporate out. Even a quick pan sauce can require about half a cup of brandy, wine or other alcohol.
When cooking with a Crockpot, however, you must use alcohol sparingly. This is because the Crockpot's lid hinders evaporation. The amount evaporated won't be as much as an uncovered pan on a stovetop. Use just a splash.
6. Keep the lid closed
Cooks often want to play with their food. They want to stir it, turn it, and inhale the delicious aromas as the food cooks. You should do this just once or twice while food is cooking in a Crockpot, though, to achieve maximum results.
Removing the lid even briefly lets out a lot of the accumulated heat that cooks the food. This adds 15 to 20 minutes to the cooking time. Plus, stirring food too often can prevent it from cooking properly in a Crockpot. Keep the lid on and trust the Crockpot to do its job.
7. Add dairy last
Some foods just seem meant to cook in a slow cooker, such as beef stroganoff and cream soups. These types of dishes often need a little sour cream or heavy cream. If you add them too soon to a Crockpot, the dish will look very unappetizing. That's because dairy left to cook for a long time, even at low temperatures, curdles and breaks up into the dish. To avoid this, simply add any dairy at the very end of cooking time, during usually the last 10 minutes or so.