Slow Cooker Tips for Healthy & Hearty Cold-Weather Meals

by | Updated: December 4th, 2016 | Read time: 4 minutes

Nothing provides cold weather comfort quite like a hearty stew or steaming-hot bowl of soup. But who has the time or inclination to stand at the stove all day following a complicated and/or confusing recipe?

12 Tips for Prepping Slow Cooker Recipes Perfectly

Enter the slow cooker. This oft-overlooked electric pot may very well be the answer to your dinnertime dilemma. Choose your recipe. Gather and chop your ingredients. Toss them into the cooker. Set it and forget it. It doesn’t get any simpler—or more convenient.

Following are tips for rich, flavorful and, above all else, safe slow cooker meals that will taste like you spent days in the kitchen.

Size it right. Slow cookers are available in many sizes. Be sure to choose the right one for the bulk of your recipes. Keep in mind that experts recommend leaving at least a third of the cooker’s cavity empty to help ensure food is finished in the allotted time and doesn’t pose any safety hazards. If the lid doesn’t fit snugly on top, you’re likely guilty of overcrowding.

Clean your cooking area. This tip may be pretty obvious, but we think it warrants mentioning. Before you begin, make sure your slow cooker, utensils and work area are clean. Rinse off ingredients like produce before tossing them into the cooker, and always remember to wash your hands!

Choose meat wisely. Leaner cuts of meat, like pork tenderloin and chicken breast, tend to dry out when exposed to the slow, steady heat of a slow cooker. Instead, opt for fattier choices, like chuck roasts, pork shoulders, shorts ribs and chicken thighs. To keep your meal healthy, prepare these melt-in-your-mouth meats in a light broth or with flavorful seasoning and shrink the serving size, concentrating instead on loading up your plate with vitamin-packed veggies.

Trim the fat. Another great way to ensure your slow cooked meal is good for you? Trim any excess fat from meat before cooking. Failure to do so may result in a cooker full of oily, unappetizing cooking liquid. It’s also a good idea to remove skin from chicken when possible.

Cut consistently. To ensure an even cook, chop all of your ingredients into uniform-size pieces. Place the ones that take longer to cook, such as carrots and potatoes, on the bottom of your cooker and quicker-cooking items, like meat, at the top. It’s all about the layering!

Chill out. Keep all of your cold ingredients refrigerated until they’re ready to hit the cooker. Otherwise, you’re basically begging for bacteria, which breed at room temperature. However, be sure not to chill components overnight in the slow cooker insert because it will take longer to heat up, affecting both cooking time and food safety.

Take time to thaw. Bacteria can also rear their ugly heads when food is transferred straight from the freezer to your slow cooker. So be sure to allow icy ingredients proper time to defrost before you turn it on. The one exception to this rule: pre-packaged frozen slow cooker meals.

Begin with browning. Although it’s not a requirement, browning your meat before tossing it into your slow cooker helps ensure that it’s fully cooked and provides a rich, caramelized flavor. For a thicker sauce, dredge your meat in flour beforehand.

Heat things up. It’s important to choose the proper heat setting for your recipes. Keep in mind that different cuts of meat should be cooked at different temps, and foods cooked on “high” typically take half as long to prepare as those cooked on the lower, slower setting. It’s a good idea to keep a meat thermometer on hand to make sure your dish is cooked to the proper temperature.

Keep a lid on it. Resist the urge to sneak a peek—and stifle your desire to stir! Doing so allows heat to escape, adding 15 to 20 additional minutes of cooking time for each infraction. Open your cooker once to check doneness at approximately 30 to 45 minutes before your recipe is supposed to be ready.

Make an altitude adjustment. If you live in a high altitude, tack on 30 minutes to each hour of cooking time detailed in the recipe. That’s right. The same slow cooked meal will take longer to prepare in Denver than it will in Miami.

Don’t let leftovers linger. Stash any extras in the refrigerator within two hours of serving. Left longer in a cool cooker, that dish your dinner guests raved about might cause future food poisoning!