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10 Tips to Maximize Your Slow Cooker

10 Tips to Maximize Your Slow Cooker

A slow cooker may take up a lot of space, but the time that it can save when you're in a pinch is totally worth it. The fact that you can make large portions and use fresh ingredients and have a fresh meal for the rest of the week or freeze it in portions for a later date is a life saver when sports practice and play dates start taking over what used to be free time. Slow cookers are generally pretty easy to use even if you aren't at personal chef status just yet.

Pretty much all slow cookers have the same general rules. They all reach around the same temperature (210°) but have different levels. These levels determine how quickly the slow cooker heats your food to that temperature. For example, medium may cook your food to the desired temperature in 8-10 hours, while a high level may only take 6-8 hours.

We've put together a list of some basic tips for getting the most out of your slow cooker this fall and winter. Some are slow cooker basics, while others are tips we have learned from trial and error.

1. Clear Some Space

Slow cookers normally take up a decent amount of space and can get very hot on the outside. For these reasons, we like to keep our slow cooker out of direct contact with anything that could get burnt or cause a safety hazard. Typically, we like to keep 6 inches between the sides of the slow cooker and walls or other appliances.

2. Prepare Before You Cook

Browning meat and cutting vegetables before adding them to the slow cooker will give you better results and take less time. Also, make sure your foods are at room temperature (not frozen) before adding them to your cooker; spending more time than necessary in the temperatures between frozen and fully cooked (unsafe temperatures)can cause the growth of unwanted bacteria.

3. Don't Get Too Crowded

I know you want to fill the slow cooker to the top to make the most of your meal, but don't let it get too crowded. We recommend filling your slow cooker until it is about 2/3 full. This will give your ingredients more surface area exposed to your broth and therefore absorb more flavors and cook more evenly.

4. Keep the Lid Closed

We know it's hard to sit back and let your slow cooker do all the work, but you must resist taking the lid off every 10 minutes to stir your ingredients and take a big whiff of the delicious aroma that you are creating. Because the slow cooker takes hours to reach its desired temperature, taking the lid off too many times will be a timing setback because it lets the heat out each time, adding on precious minutes before you can enjoy your dish.

5. Save Dairy ‘til the End

Dairy products warm up very quickly, therefore it is best to add them later in the cooking process to keep them from burning.

6. A Little Goes a Long Way

Because your slow cooker will have the lid on for a majority of the time, any type of alcohol that you add to your recipe will go a long way, because the alcohol does not evaporate as it normally would. Keep this is mind, especially if your recipe is written to be made on the stove where the alcohol can burn off.

7. Choose the Right Meat

Tougher meats should be used in a slow cooker - beef, pork and chicken are all good choices. Fish and seafood are more delicate and do not need as much time to cook, so these foods should be prepared in a different cooking style.

8. Make Sure It's Plugged In

 We know it sounds silly, but this is an all too common mistake, people just don't go around telling you about it. You've done all the work of cutting your meat and vegetables and making a broth, so do yourself a favor and do a double check, even if you thought you plugged your slow cooker in and turned it on. If you come back hours later and realize that your slow cooker was never turned on DO NOT eat what's inside. Throw it away and start over.

9. Layer It Up

When it comes to creating a dish that will cook evenly, there are a few guidelines. Vegetables, especially root vegetables, that take longer to cook should be placed on the bottom. Meat and other ingredients that don't take as long to cook, like rice or beans, should be placed in the top half of your ingredients. When adding spices, put whole spices toward the bottom of the slow cooker (between your vegetables and meat for most flavor). If you are using ground spices, they should be placed in the top half of your ingredients (between the meat and rice or beans). Because the spices are ground, they will mix with your broth and make their way to the bottom of the slow cooker, but not burn.

10. Check cooking time

You may not have known this, but higher altitudes take longer for food to cook. If you are at a high altitude, be prepared to add an extra 30 minutes of cooking for every hour of cooking called for in your recipe.

If you keep these tips in mind while using your slow cooker this fall and winter, we can almost guarantee that your meal will come out just as delicious as you had been imagining it.

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