For anyone who has ever thrown a bunch of ingredients into a slow cooker, fantasized all day about the incredible dish inside and then opened the lid a few hours later only to find sloppy mush, don't despair.
Laura Frankel, author of "Jewish Slow Cooker Recipes," discussed her must-know tips and surprising tricks for mastering this popular cooking device. From making the right ingredient choices to understanding your machine better, here are Frankel's top words of wisdom for any fan of slow cookers.
1. Dont skip preheating
"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," Frankel told TODAY Food.
This is the most commonly overlooked step, according to Frankel, who said home cooks should always start preheating their devices while assembling other ingredients.
2. Start with room temperature meat
Many people who regularly use a slow cooker know that meat should usually be browned before it is added to the device. Like most other cooking methods, 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," Frankel said. "Getting that caramelization is the key to the deep flavor."
Placing the meat in a saucepan isn't the only way to brown it. Frankel also suggested roasting the meat at 400 degrees until it is browned.
3. Add the tiny browned bits to the slow cooker
Don't forget about those morsels in the pan afterwards because "the browned bits in the bottom of the pan are caramelized pieces of meat and are loaded with flavor," according to the cookbook author.
Frankel has a trick for loosening up those lovely little bits that are sometimes really stuck to the pan.
"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," she told TODAY. "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."
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4. Add gingerbread cookies to meat dishes
Believe it or not, adding crumbled gingerbread or gingersnap cookies to meat dishes like beef stew, pot roast and sauerbraten is a well-kept secret of in-the-know slow cooker pros.
"It's really cool because the gingersnaps flavor the sauce and give the pan juices this amazing texture," Frankel said.
5. Only use wine that you'd want to drink
Never cook with turned wine. Each ingredient that's used should be at its best.
"A long cooking process is not going to make up for a bad product," said 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 they 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 canned tomatoes carefully
Frankel prefers whole peeled plum 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 has found contains too much salt.
When Frankel wants a dish to have a summery flavor, she adds oil-packed, sun-dried tomatoes (that have been drained) to chicken, veal and fish dishes. The dried variety works well too, but they'll need to be revived first in simmering water for about 15 minutes.
7. Use good vanilla extract in baked goods
When Ina Garten talks about using the "good vanilla," she means it. This is especially true when making desserts in a slow cooker.
"Slow-cooked baked foods have a very pronounced vanilla flavor," Frankel said. "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. Too much liquid? Don't panic
"Simply transfer the liquid to a saucepan and reduce it over medium-high heat," Frankel said. Use the result as a sauce or glaze for the dish.
9. Remove overcooked vegetables from meat dishes
Sometimes, when a dish is finished cooking, you might be left with the perfectly succulent meat of your dreams ... but the mushy vegetables are a real nightmare.
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 the 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 slow cooker's limits
"The high setting is for when you just want to heat things up," said Frankel.
If you want 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," Frankel explained. "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. 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," said Frankel.
Many soups are better on the second day because the flavors have had more time to develop. Also, meat dishes like chili, or a brisket with all that sinewy tissue, will be even better the day after it's been made.
Now, it's time to get cooking! Here are 10 slow cooker breakfasts you'll dream about all night and 31 slow cooker chicken recipes that are sure to win the dinner game.
Plus, check out the 5 unexpected things you can make in a slow cooker.