* Sautéing or just throwing it in - If you pick up a cookbook on slow cooking, most of the time they will say “sauté the meat” before adding into the slow cooker. That always takes more time and often the use of the slow cooker is to save time so people don't want to do that step. Honestly 98% of the time I don’t feel that sautéing the meat adds anything to the flavor or to the process. But I know that some people might disagree with that. Really it is a preference thing – if you want to sauté the meat before adding to the slow cooker, go for it and if you don't, don't. There are things I do saute because I just like the look of it better such as whole chicken pieces - such as thighs or drumsticks with skin on them. I also always saute and brown ground meats such as ground pork, beef or turkey.
* Flavor – A complaint of the slow cooker is that all the flavors become muddled together so that it really doesn’t taste like anything or have a distinct flavor. I do agree that this can happen with some dishes. One way is kick up the flavor is to add extra flavor in the last 30 minutes of cooking. Add some more seasonings – herbs, a squeeze of citrus fruit, a splash of balsamic, or whatever your recipe used for seasonings.
Using whole herbs and spice - such as grating nutmeg or cinnamon, adding fresh basil leaves will give more flavor to the recipe.
Know that cayenne, chili pepper or other types of hot pepper will intensify during slow cooking and they are really the only spices that do this in slow cooking.
Substitute water in recipes for more flavorful liquids such stock or wine and it gives an extra boost to the flavor.
* Lifting the Lid - Almost every cookbook, website or instruction manual out there will tell you to not lift the lid on slow cookers. I understand the concept is that it loses some heat. But I am sorry there is no way I am not going to stir or baste or move things around in the pot while it cooks. I can't imagine, not lifting the lid once or twice during cooking. So I do lift the lid, I mean how can't I let some of the yummy aroma escape and waft through the house even stronger. It is part of the cooking process that I enjoy - so I lift the lid. Also a tip if you have too much liquid in your slow cooker while cooking a dish - turn the lid and set it off turned so that steam - liquid can escape and evaporate. Only do this if you have too much liquid and only do for a short time - 20 to 30 minutes.
* Safety - For safe slow cooking, make sure your low setting reaches 140 to 165 degrees fahrenheit. The low setting on most slow cookers reach about 200 degrees F and 300 degrees F for high. Often I will put my slow cooker on high for the first hour and then turn it down so that I can get to that safe temperature as quick as possible to ensure the food is safe.
Don't overfill your slow cooker - it should be half to 2/3 full. Use the size of slow cooker recommended in each recipe - if stated. You don't want it overflowing or under-filled as it make the food cook improperly.
If doing any prep the night before, such as cutting meat or chopping vegetables, do not store in the same container over night. Also don't store in the crock in the refrigerator with the raw foods layered in it. The raw meat mixed together with vegetables can create food safety issues and also the cold crock put into a heating element can cause the crock to break.
* General Info - Layer foods into slow cooker - keeping in mind that the food on the bottom will cook faster and be moister because it is simmering in the liquid.
Dairy products break down in the slow cooker. Add any sour cream, yogurt, milk, cream or half-n-half in the last 15 to 30 minutes of slow cooking. Many recipes with cream cheese don't advise this, but sometimes I do end up adding it in the last 30 minutes of cooking because it tends to break down too. Especially the lower fat cream cheese.
One hour on high is the same as two hours on low.
I have never cooked with seafood in the slow cooker, but have read many time that they shouldn't be added until the last hour or they will become overcooked.
I hope these tips help you when using your slow cooker. As I said at the beginning of this series, I use my slow cooker about once a week - sometimes more. I can't imagine my domestic life without.