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Betty’s Five Slow-Cooker Commandments

Created September 23, 2020
It's slow cooker season, so let's get off to a quick start with tips and tricks that will help you get the most out of every slow-cooked meal.

Contrary to slow cooking belief, not everything you make in the slow cooker can go in cold and raw at 7 a.m. and come out tasting like something from a restaurant at 5 p.m. While that’d be amazing, it’s unrealistic. Our easy slow cooker tips will help you take your meals further than you've ever taken them before.

To pull it off, you need to know the ground rules. For example, cook time is based on the size of the slow cooker, the amount of food and the heat setting. This is why the first commandment of successful slow cooking is: Thou shalt not switch the cooking temperature. Another key? Understanding the slow cooker’s moist and steamy cooking environment makes it ideal for cooking soups and roasts but that’s not all it’s capable of—bringing us to the second commandment. Thou shalt not skip important steps, like browning meat before slow cooking to create incredible depth of flavor. Keep reading for all Betty’s five commandments successful slow cooking and the whys behind them.

1: Thou Shalt Not Switch the Cooking Temperature

slow cooker beef brisket

We get questions about this all the time, and we’re here to tell you a fundamental truth of successful slow cooking: You cannot cook on High heat when a recipe calls for Low heat, and vice versa. It’s so tempting to try and speed up (or slow down) dinner by switching the heat setting, but slow cookers’ heat levels and cook times are not an either/or proposition.

Let’s back up for a second and revisit how slow cookers work. Think of them as plug-in Dutch ovens. They’re heated from the bottom (just by coils, instead of a burner), and heat is controlled by Low or High settings (rather than by an exact temperature). The main difference is that heat is lower in the slow cooker than it is on the stove, which is why slow cookers are so wonderfully convenient—you can’t leave your Dutch oven unattended, but you can leave your slow cooker. That low heat builds over time to cook the food; as long as you leave the lid on and keep that slow-building heat contained. The time needed to build enough heat to cook your food properly will depend on the size of your slow cooker (smaller cookers will heat up quicker), the amount of food inside (the more food, the more time) and the heat setting (see below for more on the difference between High and Low settings.) So you see, it’s not as simple as 4 hours on High or 8 hours on Low.

Here’s what you need to know about slow cooker heat levels to ensure your meal turns out:

  • As a general rule of thumb, meat will turn out better when cooked on Low. This is particularly true of foods like meatballs and chicken thighs, which need gentle heat to turn out tender.
  • Cook recipes on High when they need high heat to achieve a certain texture or finish. For example, our Slow-Cooker Deep-Dish Pizza needs high heat, mimicking that of an oven, to cook the crust to crunchy perfection.
  • Switching from Low to High means bad—or even unsafe—results. Let’s say you want to slow cook a pork roast recipe that calls for 8 hours on Low, but you need it done in much less than 8 hours. Switching to High for the sake of time savings can leave you with a roast that’s dried out or even burned on the exterior, but undercooked and not at a food-safe temperature in the center. You’ll have cooked a pork roast, but not one you’ll want to eat.
  • Switching from High to Low means mucky or dry results. There’s a good reason you don’t often see chicken recipes for the slow cooker clocking in at 6 or more hours. Such a lean meat doesn’t have much to give in terms of fat, and if a long cook renders out what’s there, you’re on the road to overcooked, dry meat. And you definitely don’t want anything involving dough or pasta cooking long and low—you’ll end up with slimy mush.

2: Thou Shalt Not Skip Important Steps

browning chicken on the stovetop prior to slow cooking

The key to making a dish that tastes delicious is to take the extra steps necessary to develop flavor and turn out ideal textures. In some recipes, you don’t have time to do more than dump ingredients in and turn on the machine, and that’s OK! But as with all cooking, putting in a little more effort means you’re rewarded with better results. Trust us—nothing our recipe developers do is random, and it’s all aimed at producing a great meal.

These are the steps you shouldn’t ignore when you see them in a slow-cooker recipe (and why):

  • Specific layering of ingredients. In slow cooking, you rarely move ingredients around, so the order in which they go in is crucial to building flavor and cooking them for the appropriate amount of time. For example, larger pieces of food need to go on the bottom of the insert, because they take longer to cook. If added at the wrong time, dairy ingredients could curdle, herbs turn black and spices go bitter.
  • Cutting ingredients to specific shapes and sizes. Don’t substitute a quartered onion—or even a coarsely chopped one—when minced is called for. Ingredients cut differently than indicated will cook differently—and could either end up undercooked or as overcooked mush.
  • Browning meats just before placing them in the slow cooker. This is a big one, because a lot of people see browning in a pan as a bothersome step. However, browning will add tons of flavor to your finished meal.
  • Draining meats after browning and before transferring them to the slow cooker. Leaving the fat in the pan will leave you with an overly greasy dish.
  • Thawing frozen ingredients before cooking. This comes down to food safety. It’s crucial that food not sit too long at temperatures that are ideal for bacterial growth. Thawing is best, easiest and most safely done overnight in the fridge. An alternative is to thaw the frozen item in a bowl of cold water and change out the water every 30 minutes.

A Word on Slow Cookers and Food Safety

We’ve mentioned food safety several times. Here’s what you need to know about slow cookers and food safety: Generally, slow cookers don’t heat up fast enough to get food out of the danger zone where bacteria thrive (40° to 140°F). This is why we’ve recommended thawing frozen foods ahead of time. Taking actions like we’ve described above prepares your ingredients and sets up the slow cooker to finish the job right!

3: Thou Shalt Not Drown Thy Food

pouring sauce in slow cooker stew

It’s likely that you’re adding too much extra liquid. But you’re not alone—this is one of the most common mistakes we see. Remember this: Moisture has no way to escape during slow cooking. And on top of that, most foods release moisture while cooking, so you don’t really need as much liquid as you might think. A little liquid at the bottom of the insert helps prevent a big roast from burning, but too much will dilute the flavors you want to intensify during cooking, and can counterintuitively result in dry, flavorless meat. Whether you’re following a recipe or just riffing, resist the urge to turn your slow cooker into a swimming pool for your pot roast.

4: Thou Shalt Learn This Sauce-Thickening Pro Tip

adding a cornstarch slurry at the end of cooking can thicken your sauce or soup

Introducing the cornstarch slurry, your fail-safe way to thicken any sauce. Use it when the liquid creating during the cooking process has left you with watery cooking juices, instead of the luscious, thick sauce you were aiming for. Here’s how to make the perfect slurry:

  • A slurry, or combination of cold liquid and cornstarch, will emulsify fats and can even add flavor. For example, if you’re going for a rich sauce, add heavy cream to your cornstarch instead of water.
  • A slurry can be made with all sorts of liquids; in addition to water and cream, a slurry can be made with broth, lemon juice and vinegar. The important things are that the liquid used is cold and you mix it up just before adding.
  • You’ll only need enough liquid to hydrate the cornstarch and create a smooth texture. Once the slurry has been added to the slow cooker, turn up the heat to high, until the sauce has thickened.
  • Another delicious thickening trick that is especially useful when making a creamy soup, is to stir in softened cream cheese at the end.

5: Thou Shalt Add Finishing Touches

a few of our favorite finishing touches to slow-cooker meals

The food that comes out of a slow cooker tends to be soft and tender, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But … the right finishing touch adds a contrast that makes your meal infinitely better. Whether creamy, fresh, salty, crunchy, hot or tart—a finishing touch can take your slow-cooked meal from mediocre to masterful. Here are a few of our favorite plus-ups to try:

  • Cheeses: Melty cheddar or Jack add gooey goodness when stirred in at the end. Garnish cheeses, like feta, goat cheese, queso fresco or Parmesan, are great sprinkled on top.
  • Fresh veggies: Sliced green onions, shredded carrots and diced avocado are just a few ideas for adding fresh pops of flavor and color.
  • Tender greens: Baby spinach and arugula are great stir-ins since they add color and wilt quickly, so there’s no added cooking time.
  • Proteins: Eggs, whether fried, poached or boiled, are great in soups or over braises. And you can’t go wrong with crispy, crumbled bacon!
  • Herbs: A fresh herb sprinkled over a dish makes it both pretty and complete. Cilantro, parsley and basil are our most commonly used fresh herb garnishes.
  • Crunchy toppings: Garlic toasts, croutons, crushed tortilla chips—all add some texture to food that’s been simmered to silky perfection.
  • Acid and heat: These are the flavor additions you need when “something’s missing.” A little vinegar or lemon juice can turn the volume up on flavor, as can spicy heat—think a splash of your favorite hot sauce or a sprinkling of sliced jalapenos or serranos.

When adding a garnish that needs to melt or wilt, like cheese or baby spinach, do it quickly. You want to retain some heat, so these ingredients can quickly incorporate with the rest of the dish!

Now that you know the rules of the game, it’s time to play! We recommend starting with The Recipes Your Slow Cooker Was Made to Make.