Cooking School

Slow cooker tips for perfect comfort food

Author: Canadian Living

Cooking School

Slow cooker tips for perfect comfort food

Q. What are the best cuts to use in the slow cooker?
A. With a slow cooker, you’re in luck because the best cuts are often less expensive. Some roasts, such as cross rib and blade pot roasts, slice well, but fattier cuts, such as pork shoulder blade roasts, are fall-apart tender and best served shredded or pulled. No matter what the cut, The Canadian Living Test Kitchen recommends trimming off excess and visible fat.

Beef:
Stewing or braising cuts shine in the slow cooker. Look for the words “simmering” or “pot roast” on the label. They include most cuts from the shoulder or chuck: cross rib pot roast, top or bottom blade pot roast. Also slow cook brisket, brisket pot roast, simmering short ribs, stewing beef and lean ground beef.

Pork: Choose shoulder cuts: pork shoulder blade roasts or steaks. Pork rib roast is tasty as are pork rib chops, pork side ribs and lean ground pork.

Lamb: The shoulder and shanks are best.

Chicken and turkey: Legs and thighs remain moist and appetizing in the slow cooker. We recommend leaving the skin on during cooking to prevent the meat from drying out, but removing the skin before eating to cut back on fat. Lean ground chicken and turkey fare well in the slow cooker.

Q. Can you tell me why there is such a big difference in cooking times? Recipes often say “cook for 6 to 8 hours.” That’s a pretty wide range.
A. Cooking times vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and slow cooker to slow cooker, even for ones that have the same capacity and shape. Check for doneness at the least amount of time, because you can overcook food in a slow cooker. You will soon be comfortable with how your slow cooker matches our recipes.

Q. What’s the most common error slow cooker beginners make?
A. There’s a myth that all you need to do is fill the cooker, turn on the dial and leave the cooker to work its magic. While this may do for some dishes, in The Canadian Living Test Kitchen we find that you will enjoy more flavour when the meat or poultry or flavouring ingredients, such as onions, garlic and mushrooms, are browned first.

Page 1 of 3 -- Discover the best reason to own a slow cooker on page 2
Q. Why brown the meat and chicken before putting them in the slow cooker?
A. It’s all about the pleasure of flavour. When savoury items, such as meat, poultry or vegetables, hit hot dry heat, a meeting of protein and carbohydrate called “Maillard reaction” takes place. This is the source of the flavourful brown bits in the bottom of the pan that you definitely want to include in your dishes. Browning also helps render out some of the fat.

Q. What’s the best reason for having a slow cooker?

A. Saving time and effort is our favourite reason for using a slow cooker. But we also see a slow cooker as a backup stove, handy when the burners and oven are already crowded. The slow- cooker also makes fine clear beef and chicken stock, and cooks dry legumes, such as beans, chickpeas and lentils, to perfection. And for a potluck supper nothing is easier than slipping the stoneware insert into an insulated carrier and surprising your hosts with hot chili or scalloped potatoes.

Q. What features should I look for when slow cooker shopping?
A. The most efficient slow cookers have heating coils housed in the side of the unit. Check also for tight-fitting lids, although a little jiggle is acceptable. Choose slow cooker features that suit your needs. The appliance now comes with programmable and automatic timers. Most slow cookers have a warm setting, either manual or automatic, which is a lifesaver for those days when you’re delayed.

Make sure the insert’s handles are easy to grip when you're wearing oven mitts. This is especially important because the stoneware insert is already heavy and when full of a great stew, even heavier.

When it comes to shape, it’s not just a case of preferring oval over round. Oval allows you more flexibility, especially with large cuts of meat. Size is another consideration. We find slow cookers with a 20- to 24-cup (5 to 6 L) capacity suitable for four to eight servings, providing family-size meals or meals with leftovers. We tested all our recipes in slow cookers with this capacity.

Page 2 of 3 -- Find 6 easy tips to slow cooker perfection on page 3
Q. I’ve got some favourite recipes for pot roasts and stews. How do I convert them to the slow cooker?
A. Browning: The first step is still browning the meat or poultry, usually followed by cooking the onion, garlic and other flavouring elements. This usually happens in a Dutch oven or large skillet.

Position: Placing ingredients in the slow cooker may be slightly different. Because root vegetables take longer to cook through in a slow cooker, cut them into pieces no larger that 1 inch (2.5 cm) and place them in the slow cooker first, under meat or poultry.

Setting: Choose low setting for most recipes. High heat tends to toughen meat and poultry and make them stringy.

Liquid: Unlike cooking on top of the stove or in the oven, there’s no place for the liquid to evaporate. Most recipes will require about 50 per cent less liquid in a slow cooker. However, if after adjusting the recipe you find you do have too much liquid at the end of the cooking time, skim fat off surface and strain liquid into a large shallow saucepan. Boil hard until the liquid reaches the desired consistency and flavour. Thickening agents, such as flour and cornstarch, are always added near the end of cooking.

Ingredients: Flavours of herbs and spices fade in a slow cooker. Add an extra little sprinkle to spark up the dish just before serving. This is especially important with fresh herbs. As well, add green pepper near the end of cooking because it becomes bitter. To prevent dairy products from separating, add them only near the end of cooking.

6 slow cooker tips you won't want to skip
1. No peeking. Lifting the lid to peek or stir adds 15 to 20 minutes cooking time. Peeking is allowed when checking for doneness or adding thickening at end of cooking.

2. Watch the amount of liquids: When you assemble ingredients in a slow cooker, the liquid may not cover the solids, but it will increase during cooking as foods release their juices and accumulated steam, which has no way to escape, remains in the slow- cooker. There should always be at least 2 inches (5 cm) between the top of the food and the top rim so the food can come to a simmer.

3. As a general rule, the slow cooker should be no more than two-thirds to three-quarters full and no less than half full.

4. Always defrost meat and poultry thoroughly before placing in slow- cooker. Frozen vegetables can be added near the end of cooking time.

5. When lifting the lid, avoid tipping it and letting all the condensation on the underside spill into the food.

6. If you make a dish in the slow cooker a day ahead, let it cool for 30 minutes, then cool completely in the refrigerator. The fat is much easier to lift off once it is cold and solid out of the refrigerator.

Ready to make your best comfort food ever? Try one of these 25 slow cooker recipes by The Canadian Living Test Kitchen.

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Slow cooker tips for perfect comfort food

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