There’s simply no other way to put it: I am a lazy cook. I tend to limit myself to things. With the weather turning colder, and because I work from home, I’ve become drawn to the kitchen: not just for hot tea and snacks, but also for using my slow cooker to make a delicious meal and fill my house with a savory scent.
Slow cookers are the kitchen’s gift to the busy foodie. Using your slow cooker, you can make delicious desserts, savory stews, and flavorful main dishes. It’s easy to prepare a balanced, healthy meal using a slow cooker. In teaching myself to use my slow cooker, I stumbled a bit along the way, so here are some helpful tips to making the most of your slow cooker.
Understand the importance of liquid
A successful meal from the slow cooker has the right balance of liquid: not too much, not too little. Avoid adding water in large amounts to your slow cooker; it will only dilute the flavors of the veggies and spices you’ve added. Try using veggie, beef, or chicken stock instead of water: it’s fairly cheap and goes a long way. A small amount (usually 1/3 cup) is plenty, but I recommend buying the “low sodium” varieties or, for a healthier option, making your own. Veggies such as tomatoes (OK, it’s a fruit) and mushrooms will secrete liquid as they cook slowly, so be sure to factor that in as well.
Add soft vegetables last
I’m talking mostly about zucchini/courgettes and other squash here. Tomatoes add wonderful flavor to your slow cooker, as do mushrooms. For best results, adjust the temperature to the “high” setting and add your soft veggies 30-45 minutes before mealtime. Make sure to stir!
Don’t be afraid of the “high” setting, and why reheating leftovers is awesome
Slow cookers aren’t just for cooking up stews for eight hours. Depending on your ingredients, they can heat up a meal in two-three hours: just long enough to run home from work, chop things up, throw them in the pot, and head out to do errands. This method works best with leftovers, like rice, and veggies chopped into small pieces, especially onions. Instead of re-heating rice, cooking sausage, and preparing onions for a bland dish, throw it into the slow cooker with some spices for a quick and delicious meal: my favorite last-minute-too-busy-to-cook recipe is Stephanie O’Dea’s Autumn Sausage Casserole.
Learn to love spices
Embrace bay leaves and cinnamon sticks: they add full-bodied flavor to your meal in predictable amounts (one-two bay leaves for a soup or stew, one-two cinnamon sticks for a curry or other dish). Stock your spice cupboard because it’s going to be your new best friend. Don’t be afraid of over-spicing your slow cooker. A dish can smell delicious and taste bland if your meal becomes over-saturated. If you’re afraid of overpowering your meal, check in on your meal 30-60 minutes before serving (make sure your meat is thoroughly cooked!) and try some of your concoction. You can add more spices at this point if necessary.
Embrace dairy with caution
Dairy can congeal in your slow cooker, and it’s a little gross. Don’t experiment with adding dairy to a recipe until you’re familiar with the way it reacts to the other ingredients you’re using. It’s safest to add the cheese to that delicious broccoli cheese soup at the end of the cooking cycle, letting it melt into the soup (or other dish) slowly on the “warm” setting for 10-15 minutes before serving.
Not everything needs stirring
Layering is important when using a slow cooker. I usually mix my powdered spices in with my liquid broth, which goes into the pot first. Followed by meat, heartier veggies (potatoes, carrots, onions), softer veggies (broccoli, tomatoes, mushrooms), a bay leaf or cinnamon stick, and a small amount of liquid on top. I’ve achieved best results in terms of flavoring the meat by layering in this manner and stirring all of the ingredients together 30-60 minutes before serving.
Image via Food Thinker's Flickr