The One Pot Wonder: Tips for Using a Slow Cooker
Mary T. Englick, MS, RD, CDE
Kaiser Permanente Nutrition Services
What is not to love about a slow cooker? Making meals is much easier and more family friendly. Picky eaters are more likely to sample new foods since everything cooks together. Mushrooms taste a little meatier, carrots wear a gravy overcoat, and potatoes are more tender. Serving all the food groups can be so easy. So what are DOs and DON'Ts for one pot cookery?
- Preheat your slow cooker. A slow cooker is like a small oven. Turning it on 20 minutes prior to adding ingredients can help with the overall cooking process.
- Reduce the liquid. Your slow cooker has a tightly sealed lid so that liquid will not evaporate. When you are adapting a standard recipe (a non-slow cooker recipe), it is best to reduce the liquid by one third. Liquid should just cover the meat and vegetables.
- Prep the ingredients prior to cooking. Consider sautéing the onions, garlic and celery prior to adding to the cooker. Though this is an extra step (that can be done the night before), it adds a great deal of flavor. Browning the meat in a saucepan (or roasting in an oven at 400 degrees) will also add a deeper, heartier flavor to the finished product.
- Layer the ingredients properly. The heat source of the cooker is on the bottom. The foods that take the longest to cook (meats, potatoes, winter squashes) need to be placed on the bottom. The more delicate and quick cooking vegetables should be at the top of the pot so that they don't turn into mush.
- Remove overcooked vegetables. If your vegetables turned to mush, strain them from the dish, puree them with some of the sauce and add back into the dish for extra flavor. Or you can throw them out and serve the recipe with a side of newly cooked vegetables.
- Add fresh herbs and dairy products the last 30 minutes of cooking time. Fresh herbs (like basil leaves) will wilt if added too early. Dairy products such as milk, sour cream or crème fraiche will curdle with the longer cooking time and higher temperature. Reduced sodium condensed soups are good substitutes for dairy products as they can withstand the extended cooking time.
- Don't overfill the slow cooker. The food will not cook as well and it may leak over the top. It also results in longer cooking times. The slow cooker should be about one-half to two-thirds full for the best results.
- Don't start with cold meat. Bring the meat to room temperature (or roast it as listed above) before putting it into the slow cooker. Room temperature meat is more flexible and the juices are more evenly distributed to allow for greater flavor development.
- Don't use canned crushed tomatoes. Use whole peeled tomatoes, drain them, then squeeze them (or use kitchen scissors) to crush into smaller pieces prior to adding them. These are preferred to store-bought crushed tomatoes which end up mushy with the extended cooking time of the slow cooker.