Crock Pot Cooking Tips
Last week I told you how to check your crock pot to make sure it's working properly and cooking at the right temperature. This week I'd like to share a few tips on how to make slow cooker meals come out best.
When preparing things in advance, cut, chop and trim everything, but store it all in separate containers in the fridge. Do not refrigerate food in the crock pot liner; it will take too long to heat up and affects cooking time and food safety.
Buy a crock pot that can switch to warm once it's finished. If you leave and can't make it back at the proper time, the food won't continue cooking and burn.
Never overload the pot when you're cooking. Crock pots work best if they're no more than half to two-thirds full. Fill it to the top, and foods may not cook all the way through. If it's less than half full, the food can cook too fast and burn. (The exception is when you're using it as a warming dish for a party.)
When cooking chicken, remove the skin. Long cooking times tend to melt fat, which skin has a lot of. That can change the texture of the dish. Fat also cooks quicker, so trim any excess fat off meats, so they don't burn.
Ground meat should always be cooked in a frying pan first. Once it's browned, you can add it to the crock pot. Large cuts of meat tend to be better if they're browned as well; it adds flavor.
Fish cooks quickly, so unless specified in the recipe, always add it near the end of the cooking time. Often fish will cook in as little as 30-45 minutes. Overcooked fish can turn tough and rubbery.
Liquids don't evaporate from a slow cooker. If you have too much liquid, some recipes will have you thicken everything by taking the lid off and cooking things on high for the last 30-60 minutes. When converting recipes that aren't originally designed for the crock pot, you can reduce liquids by 1/3 to 1/2. The exceptions are for rice or soup recipes.
Anytime a recipe has specific instructions for layering the food, follow them carefully. Food on the bottom tends to cook faster, so many recipes put vegetables (which cook slower) on the bottom and quicker cooking meat on top. Unless the recipe states differently, put the most tender vegetables on the top and toward the end of the cooking cycle.
Dairy products like milk and creams, as well as spices, can overcook. Unless the instructions are different, add dairy and spices during the last 30-45 minutes of cooking time for maximum flavor and consistency.
When trying a new recipe, if you're unsure about how spicy something should be, start by putting in only half the spices that the recipe recommends. Around the last hour of the cooking cycle, give things a little taste test. Add more spices at that point if you think they're needed.
In a crock pot, everything is supposed to be done at the same time, so be careful to cut things up the same size. Thicker food takes longer to cook.
Remember that a crock pot can be used for more than just cooking. If you've got a large family dinner or party, slow cookers can be used to keep rolls, appetizers or dips warm. They're also an excellent way to keep cider or hot chocolate hot.
Cleaning up a crock pot is easy in just a couple of steps. First, make sure it's cooled down. Then fill it with hot soapy water and let it soak for about 15 minutes. Finally, scrub with a nylon net pad, a plastic sponge or cloth. Don't use SOS, Brillo, metal pads or abrasive cleaners. They can scratch or damage the liner.
Follow these simple suggestions, and in no time, you'll be making healthy meals without too much work. Every healthy meal you cook for yourself means one less high-calorie "convenience" meal.
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