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Master Your Slow Cooker With These Tricks

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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.

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.

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“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.

How to Achieve Perfectly Caramelized Onions
How to Achieve Perfectly Caramelized Onions

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.”

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

Tags: Slow Cook, Tips & Techniques, Books