Ask fanatical foodies about slow cookers, and most won’t respond with oohs and aahs. But the fact remains that over 80% of households in the United States have one, and we’re not afraid to say that we love ours to pieces. In fact, we love it so much that we wrote a whole book about it—The Great American Slow Cooker Book—and we’re happy to continue spreading the word here.
See a slideshow of more of Bruce and Mark’s slow cooker recipes.
If you don’t have a slow cooker, you might be wondering, what’s to love? (If you do have one, then feel free to skip ahead to the recipes.) Well, slow cookers are just about the best braising tools on the market, offering low- and slow-cooking temperatures, a high-moisture environment, and the ability to cook dinner while you’re out of the house (or running around it, doing other things).
The biggest knock against these appliances is that they produce bland, everything-tastes-the-same-from-a-slow-cooker food. In creating over 600 recipes for our book, we came up with several ways to combat those results and get the most out of these machines. Read on to learn our top five strategies for achieving the very best slow cooker meals, recipes included.
5 Essential Flavor Strategies
1. Dried herbs often work better than fresh.
2. Yes to fish, but at the end.
3. Use real food.
4. Crisp things up with your broiler.
5. Double down on the chiles.
Dried herbs often work better than fresh
We almost always prefer fresh herbs, but not when slow cooking. Dried herbs (and spices) are the way to go here. Their concentrated flavors and aromas bloom in the cooker’s high-moisture environment, whereas most fresh herbs yield a wan effect at best.
So with the exception of fresh rosemary, which does fine in a slow cooker, save the fresh herbs for adding at the end or as a garnish. And don’t forget: Dried herbs and spices have a shelf life of about a year at most. After that, they’re a bottle of dust—and nobody wants a dust-flavored dinner.
Yes to fish, but at the end
Fish and shellfish don’t do well in a slow cooker, as they tend to fall apart or turn to mush. Instead, use your slow cooker to do what it does best: build a complex sauce through long, even cooking. Then crank the heat to high and slip the fish or shellfish in for only as long as it takes to cook through. You can start the sauce in the morning, head out for the day, and pick up a piece of fresh fish on the way home. Add the fish to the slow cooker, pour a glass of wine, and dinner is practically done!
Use real food
We’re on a mission to eliminate the curse of canned soup and fat-free salad dressing in slow-cooker dishes. At its essence, a slow cooker is best at braising ingredients into a gorgeous, satisfying dinner, so you might as well use the highest-quality ingredients you can afford. This means using fresh food as much as possible, but it also means that some convenience products are fine, as long as they approximate what you’d make from scratch.
Read the labels, picking items that contain ingredients you can pronounce and that have a low sodium content. Think canned tomatoes, chutneys, and preserves.
Crisp things up with your broiler
We’re not usually fans of slow cooker recipes that call for a lot of cooking before and after the actual slow cooking. (Isn’t making life easier the point of this machine?) But some foods, like chicken wings and pork ribs, warrant an exception. Slow cook them until the meat is almost falling-off-the-bone tender, then use the broiler to make them brown, crisp, and irresistible. It’s one additional step that’s well worth it.
Double down on the chiles
Very long cooking mutes capsaicin, the compound in chiles that makes them taste spicy, rendering them almost sweet and much less hot than if you cooked them for a short amount of time. If one canned chipotle in adobo sauce is usually your limit, you’ll probably want to use two or even three in your slow cooker. If you flame out after a teaspoon of Thai chile paste, use a tablespoon or more. Even black pepper is compromised over the long haul in a slow cooker.
Trust us: Add more than you think you should if you want to taste any chile heat at all.
Tips for Slow Cooker Success
Apart from the strategies outlined on these pages, there are a few other things to keep in mind as you cook in these appliances:
• Don’t overfill the cooker. Half- to two-thirds full is best so moist air can circulate around the food.
• When in doubt, overseason but undersalt. Slow cookers mute the flavors of herbs and spices, but amplify the taste of salt.
• Lift the lid as little as possible. Modern slow cookers restabilize the internal temperature more quickly than old models, but peeking is still discouraged unless you think there’s a problem.
• Stir only when the recipe tells you to. For many recipes, the less action, the better.
• Thaw frozen ingredients. Unless the recipe specifically calls for frozen ingredients, you don’t want to waste time defrosting food that should be cooking.
• If your insert is ceramic, treat it gently. Abrupt temperature changes may cause it to crack, so set a hot insert on a kitchen towel or trivet instead of directly onto a cold kitchen counter.