Tips for the slow cooker

Successful slow cookery is not hard to achieve, but it's helpful to keep a few things in mind.

When it comes to liquids, less is more. Because slow cookers are sealed and evaporation isn't happening in the way it does on the stove or in the oven, they require considerably less liquid. If you want to make your mother's beef stew, make sure you back off on the liquids, or you'll get a watery mess. I'm always surprised at how much less I have to use when I'm converting a recipe from a conventional cooking method to the slow cooker. Depending on the dish, I will sometimes cut the cooking liquid in half. It helps to remember that almost everything you throw into the pot will exude a certain amount of liquid. So it's not just the water, broth, wine or whatever other liquid you add that ends up in the final product. Meats and vegetables also contain a fair amount of liquid that will likely be exuded during the cooking process and because there's no evaporation process, it isn't going anywhere.

Keep your lid on. Every time you open the lid of your slow cooker, you add 20 to 30 minutes to the cooking time. Of course, it's almost impossible not to open the lid, as many recipes call for ingredients to be added at different stages of the cooking process, and you'll want to test for doneness toward the end of the cooking time. But resist the urge every cook has to lean over the pot and lift the lid so you can inhale the heavenly aroma — unless you enjoy eating your dinner at midnight.

Choose the right size for the right recipe (or the other way around). Your ingredients should fill the slow cooker at least halfway, but not more than two-thirds full. If you don't fill the slow cooker enough, you may not get enough contact with the cooking elements which are often located on the sides of the cooker. Or worse yet, you may burn the dish because there was too much heat for too little product. If you fill it too much, you may throw off the recommended cooking times or not have enough room to allow for expansion while cooking.

Browning the food before you begin slow cooking is sometimes necessary. This is always the question when cooking with a slow cooker. If it's supposed to be easy, why do I have to add this extra step? The truth is, sometimes you don't, but if you want the best results for many stews or braises, taking the time to include this important step can make the difference between a dish that is memorable, and one that's just "meh."

I find I almost always brown beef and ground meats before adding them to the slow cooker. When browned, the caramelized surface of the meat will lend a rich flavor to the finished dish that you just can't achieve any other way. I like to brown and drain ground meat to avoid getting big clumps and adding unnecessary grease to the dish. I sometimes brown chicken, but if I'm adding other highly flavored ingredients to the recipe, it's usually fine without it.

Get a head start the night before. Prepping in advance can make a huge difference in your morning routine. Prepare your ingredients, including any necessary browning, the night before and store in the refrigerator. Many slow cookers allow you to load the pot, put the lid on it, store it in the refrigerator overnight and place it right into the metal insert the next morning to start cooking (check your manufacturer's instruction to see if this works for your slow cooker). This takes a lot of the rush out of your morning, and lets you clean up any mess the night before.