I recently took a class on cooking soups in the slow cooker, not because I really needed new recipes, but because I was hoping to glean some slow cooker tips for general use. I got my slow cooker last year, but I don’t think I’m really taking advantage of it. I would love to do more general cooking in the slow cooker, rather than having to rely on recipes written specifically for it.
Cooking in a slow cooker is like cooking food in a steam bath, in which there is very little evaporation of liquid. This is important to remember for choosing which foods to cook, how much liquid to add and what prep needs to be done beforehand.
Just so you know, the low setting on the slow cooker is equal to 180 degrees, and the high setting is equal to 300 degrees. To test this, heat 4 cups of water, covered, for 2 hours, then take the temperature of the water. Less expensive slow cookers apparently run a lot hotter, and it may be advisable to only use the low setting on the low-end cookers.
As a general rule, it takes twice as long to cook something on low as it does on high. If a recipe calls for cooking 1 hour on the stovetop, generally that means 3 hours on high and 6-7 hours on low in the slow cooker. The warm setting will keep food at a safe temperature for up to 2-3 hours. The better slow cookers automatically switch to warm once the cooking is finished.
Lifting the lid during cooking will add 20 minutes to the cooking time. Most people can’t resist lifting the lid, though, so many recipes add in the lid-lifting time to the total time required.
Here are some other tips I got from the class:
- Saute aromatics like onion before adding them to the slow cooker. This may seem like more work compared to the “dump and run” method, but it results in a better balance of flavors (no overwhelming raw onion flavor). You can prep the recipe the night before, but bring the food to room temperature for 30 minutes before adding it to the slow cooker.
- Fill the slow cooker between half (minimum) and three-quarters (maximum) full.
- Never put anything frozen in the slow cooker. That’s because defrosting it adds to the cooking time and also adds more liquid that usually isn’t needed.
- The slow cooker is great for simmering homemade chicken stock. Well, duh! I don’t know why that didn’t occur to me; I should definitely pull it out for making stock whenever my reserves get low.
- The slow cooker can also be used to poach a large amount of chicken or a turkey breast. Just add broth and cook at 2 hours on high. Save the broth to make soup.
- Casserole recipes like lasagna work very well in the slow cooker. If you use a liner, you can lift out the cooked casserole, wrap it up in the liner and transfer it right to the freezer.
- If adding pasta to a soup or stew, cook it first and then add to the slow cooker at the end of the cooking time. Otherwise, the pasta will absorb all the cooking liquid.
- Generally, you should use dried herbs rather than fresh because you are cooking the food longer than 30 minutes. If you want to use fresh herbs, add them during the last hour of cooking.
- You can also cook creme brulee and other recipes that require a water bath in the slow cooker. Set the ramekins on a rack in the water.
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