Tips for Cooking Crock Pot Meals

Slow cooked Beef stew
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Cooking in a slow cooker can be a great way to time-shift your cooking prep, and is a cooking method that "takes care of itself" once it gets going. However, it's quite possible to make some bland, overcooked, or even downright mushy meals in a crock pot. Here are some tips for crock pot success.

What to Cook in a Crock Pot

Roasts: One way to think of a crock pot is as a small oven. This makes it good for things like pot roasts, roast chickens, and other dishes that cook in the oven in dry heat.

Soups and Stews: One way that slow cookers differs from ovens, though, is that they do not allow water to evaporate. This makes them great for soups and stews. The water from the meats and vegetables will come out in cooking, adding to the liquid.

Cooking in a crock pot is trickier for dishes that have a thick sauce, such as chicken cacciatore. The main issue is that vegetables (and, to a lesser extent, meats) are mostly water, so during the course of cooking an amazing amount of water will come out of the fresh ingredients, often creating a very thin sauce, and diluting the other ingredients. For this reason, when creating a dish with a thick sauce, try one or more of the following techniques to avoid a sauce that is too thin:

  • Cook the vegetables on the stovetop first to remove a lot of the moisture. Browning the meat also accomplishes this, although to a lesser extent.
  • Add ingredients that thicken or take on water, such as tomato paste, dehydrated vegetables, TVP, or low-carb thickeners.
  • If adding a flavorful liquid such as wine or tomatoes packed in juice, cook on the stove to reduce the liquid before adding to the slow cooker

Crock Pot Tips

  • Choice of meat is important when using a slow cooker. Generally, cuts which tend to be tough (which are also less expensive and tastier) work well, because the long slow cooking breaks down the connective tissue that makes these cuts tough. Pork shoulder, beef brisket, and chuck roasts are examples of these cuts. When cooking poultry, whole birds or dark meats (legs, thighs) work best.
  • Be prepared to adjust the seasonings near the end of cooking; long cooking can dull some flavors and emphasize others. Herbs, in particular, are helped by an extra addition an hour or so before the end of cooking.
  • Don't lift the lid! Every time you do, heat is lost and you add time to the cooking process.
  • Don't put milk, cream, or sour cream in at the beginning of cooking, as it will separate with long heat.
  • If you want to brown the meat, it will add more flavor and reduce fat, but it isn't necessary. It will release more juice if you don't brown (which could be a good thing for soups, not so good for dishes with thicker sauces).
  • Frozen vegetables are already partially cooked. If you use them, defrost and add in the last hour or so of cooking to avoid overcooking.
  • Fresh vegetables cook a little more slowly than meat. If not pre-cooking vegetables, and there isn't much liquid in the recipe, put the vegetables under the meat.
  • Chop the vegetables and prepare the meat ahead of time (such as the night before) to make the final preparation quick. If you're using a large piece of meat that you want cut into bite-sized pieces, have the butcher do it and ask to have fat cut away at the same time. (In supermarkets, there is usually a bell to ring to summon the butcher.)