Master Your Slow Cooker With These Tricks

November  7, 2017

Extra hands are almost always a good thing—any time you can save on chopping, stirring, or peeling makes the meal taste that much more delicious. Even better is cooking that requires no hands at all. Yes, I’m talking about slow cookers.

Now, I’m not advocating a ‘set it and forget it’ lifestyle. Adding a slow cooker to your kitchen arsenal should reduce effort, not thoughtfulness. It’s important to consider slow cookers’ strengths and weaknesses, as James Beard Award-nominated chef Sarah DiGregorio describes in her latest book, Adventures In Slow Cooking.

“It’s not about getting out of the kitchen as quickly as possible at any cost to the finished dish,” she writes. Her book has recipes for slow cooker meals require steps like broiling or pre-sautéing in addition to the slow-cook, as well as learning techniques to get the most out of your machine.

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One of the most important aspects of slow cooking is moisture. Cookers trap moisture, making them ideal tools for braising, steaming, or poaching; but sometimes they do their job too well.

“Every fresh ingredient has moisture, and in the closed slow cooker, little of it evaporates,” DiGregorio writes. That’s why putting fresh vegetables or meats with broth in a slow cooker can result in watery dishes. In order to control moisture, she has these tips:

1. Sauté aromatics.

You just can’t just throw raw onions into a slow cooker—they will simultaneously retain their crunch and add too much liquid to the dish. Avoid the pitfall by sautéing onions and garlic before adding them to the pot.

2. Soak up condensation by lining the lid.

When using slow cookers as a water bath for custards, place a double layer of paper towels over the top of the cooker before closing the lid. As DiGregorio writes: “The paper towels soak up the steam and prevent it from dripping back down onto the surface of the custard”. Kitchen towels work too, but won’t let the lid close as tightly.

3. Set the lid ajar to let moisture escape entirely.

If you’re cooking for a very short period of time (like toasting granola or reducing liquid at the end of cooking), you can leave the lid ajar, or even off. “Manufacturers don’t want you to do this because without the lid, they can’t ensure raw food gets hot enough to be safe to eat,” writes DiGregorio. With this in mind, never use this technique with raw meat.

4. Don’t put frozen foods into the slow cooker.

DiGregorio tells us to defrost and drain foods before adding to your slow cooker for two reasons: “First, frozen foods contain water, and defrosting and draining first prevents that water from diluting the dish. Second, and most important, frozen foods will prevent the temperature of the food from rising quickly enough as it cooks, and that’s a food safety issue.”

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Top Comment:
“Obviously "It" - meaning the ham came out of the slow cooker nice and tender. "I" wouldn't fit in to the slow cooker, though "I" do tenderize nicely in the sauna. LOL!”
— sue

How do you use your slow cooker beyond 'setting and forgetting'? Share your tips and tricks, please!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • sue
  • LMGT
  • judy
  • AntoniaJames
  • HalfPint
Katie is a food writer and editor who loves cheesy puns and cheesy cheese.


sue November 12, 2017
Last Easter I wanted to make both a leg of lamb and a ham (big family, new significant others who aren't fans of lamb - shocking, I know).
I used my slow cooker for the ham. I came out nice a tender and not dry while my smallish oven roasted the leg of lamb to perfection!
sue November 12, 2017
Obviously "It" - meaning the ham came out of the slow cooker nice and tender. "I" wouldn't fit in to the slow cooker, though "I" do tenderize nicely in the sauna. LOL!
LMGT November 9, 2017
The "keep warm" setting on mine is helpful for big meals - like Thanksgiving. It lets me do stuff earlier in the day so I'm not running around (like a turkey with its head cut off?) trying to get all the side dishes finished while my husband's carving the bird.
judy November 7, 2017
Does anyone have any suggestion for chicken. Seems to be full of water form processing, I always get at least a cup of extra liquid from the chicken. Waters down my dish. If I don't put water in for something, like say beans or rice, then the recipe burns. Any idea how to estimate the amount of liquid and avoid this problem?
HalfPint November 8, 2017
@judy, check out Nom Nom Paleo blog. I made her Slow Cooker Roast Chicken & Gravy, and it's delicious.
HalfPint November 8, 2017
She has other slower cooker chicken recipes that you might like.
AntoniaJames November 7, 2017
Caramelized onions, polenta, fruit butters, carnitas, etc. ;o)