Get the latest from TODAY
If you've ever thrown a bunch of ingredients into your slow cooker, fantasized all day about the incredible dish you're making and then open the lid a few hours later only to find mush, it's time to call in a pro. Here to the rescue is Laura Frankel, author of Jewish Slow Cooker Recipes, with her top tips and surprising tricks for mastering your slow cooker.
1. Preheat your slow cooker
"A lot of people will throw in their ingredients and then turn on the slow cooker, but a slow cooker is like a small oven and getting it going for that extra 20 minutes matters a lot," she says. According to Frankel, this is one of the most commonly overlooked steps.
2. Start with room temperature meat
In 10 Tips for Using Your Slow Cooker to Get the Best Results, we already told you that you must brown your meat in order to create the best possible flavor, but starting with cold meat is a slow cooker no-no. "Room temperature meat is more relaxed and flexible, and the natural juices are evenly distributed," says Frankel. "Getting that caramelization is the key to the deep flavor." A saucepan isn't the only way to brown your meat. Frankel also suggests roasting the meat at 400F until it is browned.
3. Wait! Browning the meat isn't enough
Don't forget about those morsels in the pan afterwards. "The browned bits in the bottom of the pan are caramelized pieces of meat and are loaded with flavor," says Frankel. You need them in your dish! Here's how Frankel gets them in: "Deglaze the pan with wine, stock or even water in a pinch, then cook over medium heat, lightly scraping up the browned bits with a wooden spatula or spoon. Most of these tasty little morsels of protein dissolve during the deglazing process, producing a very aromatic foundation for sauces. Just add the deglazed brown bits and liquid to your slow cooker."
4. Gingerbread cookies are a slow cooker game changer
Believe it or not, adding crumbled gingerbread or gingersnap cookies to slow cooker meat dishes like beef stew, pot roast and sauerbraten is a secret of in-the-know slow cooker pros. "They're really cool because the gingersnaps flavor the sauce and give the pan juices this amazing texture." says Frankel.
5. Only use wine that you'd want to drink
Never, ever cook with turned wine. You want each ingredient that you use to be at its best. "A long cooking process is not going to make up for a bad product," says Frankel. "It's like baking a cake and using cheap chocolate–you have to use the good stuff. I also apply this to my guest list: it should always be the people you love, everyone else doesn't get invited!" Frankel especially likes using wines that are fairly dry and have a high alcohol content because it will add more nuance and complex flavors to a slow cooker braised dish than a sugary wine or one with a low alcohol content.
6. Choose your canned tomatoes carefully
Frankel prefers whole peeled plumed tomatoes over crushed tomatoes because "they don't end up too mushy, the way canned crushed tomatoes can be." Drain the tomatoes, then transfer them to a bowl and squeeze them with clean hands to crush them into smaller pieces, or just use kitchen scissors. Skip the canned tomato sauce which Frankel finds has too much salt. When Frankel wants a dish to have a summery flavor, she adds drained oil-packed sundried tomatoes to chicken, veal and fish dishes. The dried variety works well too but first you'll need to revive them in simmering water for about 15 minutes.
7. Only use high-quality vanilla extract in slow cooker baked goods
"Slow-cooked baked foods have a very pronounced vanilla flavor," says Frankel. "The small amount of alcohol in the vanilla does not burn off as quickly [in a slow cooker] and the essence of vanilla seems to be more distinct." Nielsel-Massey's vanilla extract is Frankel's favorite.
8. Don't panic if you have too much liquid
"Simply transfer the liquid to a saucepan and reduce it over medium-high heat," says Frankel. Use the result as a sauce or glaze for your dish.
9. Remove overcooked vegetables from meat dishes
If you've ever opened up your slow cooker and found the perfectly succulent meat of your dreams but the vegetables of your nightmares, this one is for you. Once the dish is complete, strain out the vegetables that are overcooked. Don't serve them as is. You can either throw them out and serve the dish with a side of newly cooked vegetable, or puree them, then add the vegetable puree back into your sauce. If you choose to throw them out, put the remaining liquid in a saucepan and reduce it until it becomes a glaze to coat the meat.
10. Know the limits of your slow cooker
"The 'high' setting is for when you just want to heat things up," says Frankel. If you want your vegetables to stay whole, don't put them in the slow cooker on high for 12 hours unless they're hard-shelled, like squashes. "Delicate vegetables like zucchini or peppers will melt into nothing. That's a bad thing for zucchinis but can be great for peppers. When you're slow cooking vegetables, put the slow cooker on a delayed start for about three to four hours and keep it set to low."
11. Remember that some foods taste better on the second day
"Here's a little known fact: in a restaurant, the "Soup of the Day" is actually the Soup of Yesterday," says Frankel. That's because soups are always better on the second day when the flavors have had more time to develop. Also, any meat dish like chili or a brisket with all that sinewy tissue will be even better the day after you've made it.