Five Fabulous Crock Pot Tips
If you think about it, a crock pot is a marvelous piece of modern technology masterfully suited to American culture. A machine that allows preparation of a whole meal over several hours' time without the radiant heat and energy expenditure of an oven is definitely a boon to those of us multi-tasking and pressed for time. That's why we at MomItForward love to share crock pot recipes, like these and these.
But great crock pot cooking requires a little more than the dumping of ingredients into a pot and the flip of a switch. Following a few simple tips can make the difference between a meal that is mushy and one that is AWESOME.
Cut meats into smaller chunks. Don't try cooking a whole roast or chicken (i.e., 5+ pounds). I know there are plenty of recipes designed for those amounts, and plenty of people that think one should not have a crock pot unless they're cooking for large groups of people. And if you're really good at crock pot cooking, really familiar with how your crock pot works, and have a big crock pot, you may get away with it. But the larger the piece of meat, the less likely it'll cook all the way through in the allotted time to the recommended temperatures (160° for medium beef and pork, 170° for chicken; see Wikipedia for more information.) and then you run into food-safety issues. Besides, smaller chunks absorb more flavor.
Right amount of liquid. I've been surprised at how many crock pot recipes I've followed, only to find that the recommended amount of liquid is not enough. Many times, recipe liquid amounts are given for cooking on the "slow" setting. If you cook on the "high" setting, you'll need more liquid. You want enough to ensure your meat doesn't dry out, if that's what you're cooking, but not so much that it turns everything to mush. This article has some useful information on proper amounts.
Don't keep taking the lid off to check on your food. I am definitely guilty of this, because I can't see past the water condensation to visually check on the progress of my dish. But I recently found out that taking the lid off to check you food can increase cooking time by as much as 15 minutes per check, plus it can increase the risk that your meat will be too dry. I recommend letting yourself take the lid off once within the last 45 minutes or so of cooking, to taste and adjust as necessary.
Cook meats first. To enhance flavor, sear meats first, add a little bit of liquid to the pan it was seared in, scrape to get all the drippings, and put all liquid and drippings in the crock pot. Some may avoid this step, saying that it defeats the purpose of having a crock pot in the first place, which is to make life easier. It is definitely an optional step, but it doesn't take that long to just brown the outside of the meat.
Prep overnight. If you work during the day, and want to have a crock pot meal ready for you when you get home, consider prepping it the night before, lining the crock with tin foil or a small turkey bag, refrigerating everything in the crock overnight, then taking it out of the fridge of the morning, giving it a little bit of time to get to room temperature while you're showering, and then putting it in the base and turning it on before you leave. Some sources recommend refrigerating the ingredients in separate containers, and not in the crock itself, because taking the crock from the refrigerator to the heating base may crack it. Some people contend that that will not actually happen. You decide.
Good luck crock pot cooking!