9 Slow-Cooker Sins You’ve Been Committing (and How to Fix Them)

slow cooker mistakes

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Dear Katherine,

My slow cooker and I are in a committed relationship, but recently, I’ve been feeling a bit let down. I think I’m doing everything right—dumping three jars of salsa on top of raw chicken and pressing a button—and yet everything tastes so wrong. I have a feeling this is an “it’s not you, it’s me” situation. Is there anything I can do to spice up my slow-cooker relationship?


Slow-Cooker Stumped

Dear Slow-Cooker Stumped,

You’ve come to the right place! I’m zero percent a relationship expert, but I happen to know a thing or two about optimizing the perks of a slow cooker. Sure, it’s a dump-and-go appliance on the surface, but there’s so much more you can be doing to make your slow-cooker meals taste like you spent the whole day in the kitchen. Here are nine slow-cooker mistakes most people make, and how to fix them.

Mistake #1: You’re Not Browning the Meat First

Sure, you can plop a raw brisket into the bowl of your slow cooker and press start—it would still be edible at the end of the day. But you’d be missing out on all the flavor that comes with quickly searing the meat beforehand. Browning—through a science-y process called the Maillard reaction—is what gives your food a more appealing color, an irresistible aroma and a savory, rich flavor, so don’t skip it (even if it means washing an extra skillet with the dishes).

Mistake #2: You’re Opening the Lid Too Often

You’re curious and hungry; taking a peek at your culinary masterpiece won’t do any harm, right? Not so fast: Every time you lift the lid, you’re letting out a little heat. It can actually alter the amount of time you’ll need to cook your recipe…and no one wants undercooked or overcooked pulled pork (or chicken meatballs, you get the idea).

Mistake #3: You’re Using Too Much Liquid

If you’re following the directions and not lifting the slow-cooker lid, the liquid in the pot will have nowhere to escape (unlike stovetop cooking with an open Dutch oven). And unlike an Instant Pot, which needs liquid to produce steam, slow cookers don’t really need liquid to do their thing. Adding more liquid than a recipe calls for won’t make the final dish moister. It’ll just be soupy and soggy.

Mistake 4: You’re Not Using Enough Liquid

On the other hand, adding a little liquid can be a good thing if you’re starting out with drier ingredients. Lean meats like chicken breast have a tendency to turn out dry if you slow cook them without some added moisture. In this case, adding water or broth (enough to cover whatever you’re cooking) will benefit your final dish. Cooking dried beans also requires a ton of liquid, or they’ll end up crunchy (blech).

Mistake #5: You’re Not Cooking the Right Cut of Meat

Here’s the thing: Not every ingredient is well-suited to the slow cooker. There’s really no need to cook a chicken breast or filet mignon for eight hours—without enough fat content, they’ll get tough cooking for so long, and you could do the job better and faster on the stove. The best cuts of meat for slow cooking are typically fatty and tough. With all that low, slow cooking, they’ll practically melt in your mouth when they’re done.

Mistake #6: You’re Starting with Frozen Ingredients

It might seem like a convenient, time-saving trick to stick a few frozen chicken thighs into the slow cooker. But it’s actually a huge no-go from a health perspective. There’s this concept in food safety called the “danger zone”—basically, any time a food hangs out at bacteria-friendly temperatures between 40 and 165 degrees Fahrenheit, it has a greater chance of causing foodborne illness. Starting from frozen means the food will be within the danger zone temps for longer. Yikes!

Mistake #7: You’re Adding Dairy at the Wrong Time

Curds are great when it comes to cheese; not so much when you’re whipping up a luscious, creamy sauce in your slow cooker. If you add dairy too early in the cooking process, they’ll curdle and add unwanted lumps. Add ’em at the very end for optimal results.

Mistake #8: You’re Not Layering Ingredients Correctly

Yes, slow cookers are great for tossing everything in a pot and forgetting about it until dinner. But you shouldn’t actually toss everything in at once. By carefully arranging the ingredients based on how long they’ll take to cook, you’ll ensure everything is done at the same time. Put foods that require more time (like root vegetables) at the bottom, and layer up.

Mistake #9: You’re Rushing the Process

The name kind of says it all, but it’s easy to get impatient around dinner time. You might be tempted to crank the heat to high, but don’t do it. Rushing the slow-cooking process won’t get your meal on the table any faster, but it might yield tough meat and crunchy vegetables. Patience is key.

Whew, I think I’ve said enough—is that your slow-cooker timer going off? You should probably get that.


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