The slow cooker is pure magic, but it plays by a different set of rules. When I started working on recipes for our new slow-cooker column, I learned by trial and error. The result: our new Southern Living rule book that'll help you cook like a pro.
1. The slow cooker does most of the work, but take time to brown the meat. This extra little step makes a huge difference. If you're looking to add another layer of flavor, brown before you cook. If it's appearance and texture you're after, broil afterward.
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2. Pick the right cuts. Short ribs, pork shoulder, chuck roast, and other inexpensive, tough cuts become succulent and tender with the low, moist heat. Leaner, small cuts like boneless chicken breast and pork tenderloin become tough and dry when cooked for long periods of time.
3. Trim visible fat from meats before they go into the cooker. This keeps grease to a minimum in the cooking liquid and yields silky gravies and sauces.
4. Since there's no evaporation in the slow cooker, start with less liquid than you might think—less than you would add to a stew or braise—to yield the desired balance of flavors.
5. When including wine or alcohol in a recipe, add only a little. Too much taints the dish with an alcohol burn and a sharp acidic note.
6. Powerful flavors, such as fresh rosemary, become dominant, so add them judiciously before cooking or simply to garnish.
7. Use fresh herbs and spices whenever possible. Dried and ground versions often don't blend well in a long cooking process.
8. Low and slow isn't the only option. Kick the cooker up to high to cook dried beans.
9. Add dairy products like cream, milk, and yogurt during the last 10 minutes of cooking (to avoid curdling).
10. Although cooking with the lid sealed tight is ideal for slow-cooking, sometimes you want to remove the lid for the last 30 minutes or so to allow for some evaporation.
See our best slow-cooker recipes: southernliving.com/slowcooker