I’m late in the slow cooker game. Not for lack of a slow cooker (I’ve had one for years) but because my first experience cooking meat in it didn’t turn out so well. The beef short ribs were tender, for sure, but the meat was dry—so dry that the texture was as though all the moisture had been stripped from it.
A huge part of the problem were the instructions in the manual that came with the slow cooker. It said use as little liquid as possible because meat has enough liquid in it to cook in. It did sound logical at the time—after all, very little moisture escapes from the slow cooker.
But there are no universal truths in cooking. Using minimal liquid worked with dishes like the ginger honey Sriracha meatballs but it didn’t work with meat stews. I persisted in experimenting. By the time I got a second slow cooker (an oval one which has more surface area at the bottom to spread cut meat better), I started getting the hang of it.
Here are some things that I have discovered when cooking meat in the slow cooker.
1. Using a slow cooker doesn’t mean you have to cook the meat to the point that you can flake it with a fork. Cook it just until the meat is tender without going overboard. Otherwise, the meat turns dry even if you pour in a lot of cooking liquid.
2. When cooking chunks of meat in the slow cooker, it is not a good idea to start with room temperature ingredients.
- Brown the meat for better flavor and texture.
- Heat the cooking liquid (whether it’s broth or sauce) before pouring into the slow cooker with the meat.
The idea is that as soon as all the ingredients are in the slow cooker, you switch it on and the cooking begins immediately. If you put room temperature ingredients in, the slow cooker will consume the first two to three hours just building up heat. And that’s the time when the moisture gets stripped from the meat. That would be good if you’re making broth. But when cooking meat, you want the meat juices to stay in the meat. So, heat everything up before slow cooking.
3. The length of cooking time is not the only consideration when deciding whether to cook on LOW or HIGH. The texture of meat varies differently when cooked on LOW, HIGH or a combination of LOW and HIGH (my older slow cooker has a setting that automatically switches the setting from LOW or HIGH and vice versa depending on how much heat has been lost).
- Cook chicken fillets (breast, especially) on HIGH and only long enough to cook the meat through. How long depends on the size of the fillets (if cooked whole) and the size of the pieces (if the fillets had been cut).
- It is okay to cook stewing pork, beef or lamb on LOW if the meat had been browned beforehand.
- Cook vegetables on HIGH (or switch to HIGH if adding vegetables during the last stage of cooking) and, again, only long enough to cook them through.
4. Very lean meat dries out in the slow cooker in the worst possible way. Adding butter or oil helps a little.
5. Always save the cooking liquid—it is the best part about slow cooking. If water or broth was used, strain and serve as a soup. If meat was cooked in a sauce, strain and reduce on the stove top, and serve on the side as a dipping sauce.
6. Don’t cook fish or shrimps in the slow cooker. What’s the point? Fish and shrimps take only minutes to cook on the stovetop anyway.
I am sure that there will more tricks I will learn in the future. For now, this list says the slow cooker has its merits if used correctly.
Some of my favorite slow cooker recipes: