Slow cookers are one of the most popular cooking gadgets around. In the past decade, they've experienced a major comeback after years spent gathering dust in the back of closets all over the country.
The newest slow cookers on the market have a lot more bells and whistles than those ancient models from the 1970s.
But there are a lot of misconceptions about the slow cooker and what it can and can't do. Here are seven myths about slow cookers you should know before you make your next Crock-Pot meal.
Myth 1: Slow cookers are only good for soups and stews
It's true, slow cookers can make amazing soups, chilis and stews. You might also already know that the slow cooker makes delicious pulled pork, too — really anything that benefits from a low and slow heat will generally do well in the slow cooker. But you can actually use your slow cooker to prepare many dishes you might make on a stove top, including hot dips, meatballs, lasagna, desserts and even warm cocktail punches. Macaroni and cheese? Sure! Chocolate cake? Of course! Mulled wine? Definitely. The possibilities are almost endless … but not quite, which leads us to the next point.
Myth 2: Slow cookers are good for everything
Sadly, this is a myth. There are some things that just aren't going to turn out well in the slow cooker, no matter how hard you try. I've tried to make one-pot dishes using regular long-grain rice and I've found that only instant rice cooks consistently in the slow cooker. Bacon, or anything else that needs to be crispy, will not turn out well in the slow cooker. Some hardier seafood, like shrimp, will work, but only if you add it during the last few minutes of cook time. Since most types of fish and shellfish cook very quickly, the slow cooker is not advisable for most seafood dishes.
Myth 3: Slow-cooked food turns out watered down
If you're used to cooking sauces and stews on the stovetop, the slow cooker can present a bit of a challenge. Because the appliance cooks at a fairly low temperature and traps all the moisture, the liquid never gets a chance to reduce the way it would over direct heat. This may lead to watered-down sauces if you don't know what you're doing. But it's easy to achieve that thicker consistency; you can stir in a bit of cornstarch before serving for a quick fix or you can remove the lid and let the dish sit for about 20 to 30 minutes after cooking to let some of that moisture evaporate. Make sure to thoroughly stir your finished dish to incorporate all of the liquid, too.
Myth 4: Slow cookers are hard to clean
Many slow cookers these days have lids and inserts that are dishwasher-safe, so it's simple enough to toss them in with the rest of your dirty dishes. For anything that might get sticky — if you're making cake or mac and cheese, for example — it's a good idea to spray the insert with nonstick cooking spray for easy cleanup afterwards. Or you could use disposable slow cooker liners, which protect your appliance from any baked-on messes.
Myth 5: You can dump in all ingredients, set the slow cooker and go
I wish this were true — and it is for some recipes — but for many, it isn't. If you want to achieve truly delicious meals in your slow cooker, it does take a little more finesse. You may have to brown some ingredients beforehand (like cubes of beef, if you're making a stew). Or, you may have to add more delicate ingredients 30 or 15 minutes before the cook time is up in order to ensure that things like greens or rice don't overcook. So it's not quite as simple as it seems. It may take a little extra work, but the end results — more flavorful, tender meals, for one — are definitely worth it.
Myth 6: You can't cook pasta in the slow cooker
You'll find a lot of slow-cooker pasta recipes that call for the pasta to be made on the side, while the sauce itself is cooked in the slow cooker. Many recipes claim that pasta turns into a mushy mess when cooked in the appliance. Nope! You can absolutely cook pasta in a slow cooker. There's no special secret to getting it perfect every time as this will vary by recipe but here are some tips:
- Don't use no-boil noodles, as they'll just turn gummy
- Cooking pasta on the highest setting is usually the key to avoiding mushiness
Remember, pasta absorbs a lot of moisture as it cooks, so you'll need to add more sauce, broth or other liquid to the dish than you'd normally use.
Myth 7: You can leave your slow cooker on all day
Don't get me wrong, you can absolutely leave your slow cooker on for a long time — as long as it has a timer that automatically switches to warming mode when the cook time is done. This might seem like a no-brainer, but if you're a slow-cooker newbie and are investing in a new model, it's absolutely crucial to make sure your appliance has that built-in timer as some of the cheaper or older slow cookers don't have this functionality. Many recipes don't need to cook for a full seven or eight hours, so if you set it in the morning and head off to work, your food will be really well done before you make it back home. If you're springing for a new slow cooker and want to be able to walk away from your meal for a long time, get one that can shut off automatically, otherwise, what's the point?