Maintain the correct temperature. While this might sound straightforward, it’s one of the more important ones, and the one people are most likely to forget.
Health and dietary guidelines recommend reaching 140 degrees as quickly as possible to reduce the opportunity for bacteria to grow. For the first hour or so of cooking, turn the crock-pot up on high, and then turn it to low at the end of the hour. If you are unable to do this because you are out of the house, perhaps it might be easier to purchase a programmable slow cooker for this reason alone. A crock-pot will reach a temperature of about 300 degrees Fahrenheit on high and about 200 degrees on low. Unless you or someone in your family is in a “risk group” for suffering ill effects from possible bacteria, there really isn’t much to worry about.
Don’t over or under fill your crock-pot. Again, this should be an easy one but some users forget and the circumstances, while not usually dire, can either create a big mess or cause you to abandon your crock-pot entirely. A crock-pot should be filled at least 1/3 full and no more than ½ full. Most advertisements will show a crock-pot filled to the brim with some of the most delicious meals you’ve seen outside of the Bon Appétit magazine. This is not the way to do this, however. To over fill is inviting a spill from bubbling liquid seeping out of the edges of the lid. To under fill might mean the liquid drying up, causing your food to burn, though in a crock-pot liquid loss to steam is greatly reduced to almost nothing but why risk it? Either way, you are not allowing your crock-pot to meet its full potential as a cooker.
Adding the spices too soon. When baking in a conventional oven, adding the spices in the beginning is the norm. With a slow cooker, your food is cooking for several hours. By adding the spices too soon, they lose their flavor, thereby denying you the richness of their taste and blends. Add most spices in the last hour to hour and a half and enjoy the full flavor of each one. One exception to this rule might be salt. A piece of meat soaking, cooking and marinating in a slightly brine solution is never a bad thing. (One side note: Though the jury is still out on this, but some studies are beginning to show sea salt as having slightly less sodium than does your average table salt. More and more cooks and chefs are using sea salt rather than table salt in their recipes.)
Don’t use too much liquid. When modifying a recipe for the crock-pot that calls for the addition of liquid, cut the amount you are using by about a half cup. Crock-pots don’t lose liquid during the cooking process like normal cooking will. With a slow cooker, you are removing the lid less often allowing the cooking steam to remain with the food, where it belongs. Also, each time you remove the lid you add an additional 30 minutes of cooking time so resist the urge to open it up and stir every time you walk past it.
These are some of the more important tips to provide for new or first time crock-pot users. While none of them is critical, they certainly bear remembering when you use your slow cooker. By following these few, simple tips, you are assuring your crock-pot will remain a welcome and delightful member of your kitchen appliance repertoire for many years to come!
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