Slow cookers are a real life saver when it comes to preparing dinner on busy weeknights. Is there anything better than walking into your house after a long day and being greeted with the enticing smell of a home cooked meal? But contrary to popular belief, even the mighty slow cooker does have it’s limitations — there are some things it just can’t (or shouldn’t) cook. From dried out rice to curdled milk, there are certain foods that just don’t belong in there.
Putting fish in the slow cooker just sounds like a bad idea. Do you really want to come home from work to find your entire house smelling like seafood? Me neither. In addition to the smell concerns, cooking fish in the slow cooker will probably dry it out.
“Slow cookers are excellent at braising or cooking things like tough cuts of meat and vegetables in a small amount of liquid. Problems arise a lot when home cooks put quick-cooking proteins in the slow cooker,” New York Private Chef Clare Langan told me. “Fish and white meat poultry come to mind. Using lean proteins in a slow cooker misses the point. You are much better pan-searing or oven-roasting and cooking until just done.”
Boneless chicken breasts
Like fish, boneless chicken breasts can quickly dry out in the slow cooker. The slow cooker is a good home for tough pieces of meat that have some fat on them. Because lean chicken breasts don’t have that fat to cook in, you will come home to a tough piece of dry chicken.
If you’re a chicken fan, use bone-in chicken in the slow cooker, just remember to remove the skin before you throw it in there.
When I cook, I often find myself tossing as many vegetables as possible into the slow cooker. I know they’ll get tender and take on the flavor of the meat and sauce, so it’s an easy, delicious way to get more nutrients. However, cooking vegetables on low heat all day can really zap their fresh color. This is especially true for the green veggies.
“I would also advise against adding too many green vegetables in the beginning of cooking,” Langan told me. “I am a fan of staggering ingredients. For example, if a recipe calls for peas, green beans or asparagus, add them in the last 10 minutes of cooking to protect their color.”
I love a nice beer cheese soup once the temperatures start to drop. It is the perfect fall comfort meal, but you may be better off cooking it on the stove instead of the slow cooker. You don’t want to cook cheese or other dairy products like heavy cream for too long.
“Cooking cheese for too long at a slow temperature breaks down the whey and causes the cheese to lump. So what you end up with is a big oily mess with cottage cheese-like lumps, without the creamy deliciousness,” food blogger Caroline Caron-Phelps told me. “Stirring the cheese in once the cooking process is done, and leaving in for about 10 minutes to melt properly is the way to go.”
Once your recipe calls for turning your slow cooker’s setting down to warm, go ahead and add the cheese.
Cheap vanilla extract
Dessert is one of my favorite reasons to pull out the slow cooker. Making cinnamon rolls, sweet breads, and even cakes in the slow cooker cuts down on prep time and leaves the house smelling absolutely incredible. When baking with your slow cooker, you’ll follow the same recipes with one exception. You’ll need to splurge on high quality vanilla extract. The cheap stuff will leave your cinnamon rolls tasking a little too alcoholic, and not in a good way.
“Slow-cooked baked foods have a very pronounced vanilla flavor,” author of Jewish Slow Cooker Recipes Laura Frankel told TODAY. “The small amount of alcohol in the vanilla does not burn off as quickly [in a slow cooker] and the essence of vanilla seems to be more distinct.” For that reason, you want to be tasting the good stuff.
While pasta seems like one of the easiest dishes to prepare, it can actually be difficult to get it just right. The perfect pasta needs salted water and just the right amount of boiling time. Cooking pasta in a slow cooker gives you much less control and makes it very likely the pasta will be overcooked.
Pasta also needs to be cooked in boiling water, and that can be difficult to achieve in the slow cooker. Because pasta cooks so quickly and is so starchy, leaving it in the slow cooker all day will cause it to become this gelatinous, congealed heap. Dinner anyone?
Much like fresh green vegetables, fresh herbs don’t fare well in the slow cooker. The vibrant color of gorgeous fresh herbs will not survive the slow cooker. Fresh herbs are perfect for sauteing with your sauce or sprinkling on top of a prepared dish, but are not meant to be heated all day long.
If you had your heart set on using up your garden this weekend, skip the slow cooker. Rather than letting them go to waste, try freezing them. They will keep in the freezer for up to six months.
If you’re splurging on a great steak for your anniversary, don’t use your slow cooker. The slow cooker is perfect for cheaper cuts of meat, because it tenderizes the meat over hours and hours and cooking. A quality steak is already tender, so doesn’t need all that cooking time.
Instead give your steak a nice, crusty sear on the stove top, then cook to your desired level of doneness. Save the slow cooker for weeknight meals, and keep your date night-in special.
The slow cooker is not the best option for cooking rice. When making a big batch of long grain rice, it is difficult to make sure it cooks evenly in the slow cooker. Typically the rice on the edges will become overcooked and taste hard and dry. The rice in the center will be undercooked.
According to Better Homes and Gardens, wild rice works better in the slow cooker, because it is a little heartier and can adapt.
Here’s a tip I never thought of. When you cook wine or any other alcohol in a slow cooker, it has no place to escape. When you’re making a beautiful white wine sauce on the stove, the alcohol can evaporate from the saucepan. Because the slow cooker depends on the lid being shut to properly cook, that means all that delightful booze stays put. While that sounds kind of awesome, it actually just adds an overpowering bitter alcohol taste to your food.
I have a confession. I put frozen food into our slow cooker at least once per week. Now that we’re a family of four, we go through our food quicker, so we now buy the big bags of frozen vegetables. It’s cheaper and allows us to still buy organic. I rarely remember to thaw my dinner ingredients, so end up tossing them in the slow cooker in the morning. There’s just one problem with that plan… bacteria.
Placing frozen foods into the slow cooker keeps the temperature at an unsafe level for too long, encouraging the growth of bacteria. If your freezer is full of frozen meat and vegetables as we speak, don’t panic. You can still cook them in the slow cooker, so long as you completely thaw them first.
This may be the one exception to the rule of bacon making everything better. When it comes to the slow cooker, hold the bacon. Bacon cooks pretty quickly, so overcooking it for hours in the slow cooker will lead to brittle, dried out bacon.
If your slow cooker dish is just screaming for bacon, such as a baked potato soup, fry your bacon on the stove, then sprinkle it over the soup once it’s ready to serve.
Next time you’re whipping up your mom’s famous chili for gameday, ditch the dried beans and go for canned ones instead. According to the University of Minnesota, dried beans like kidney beans contain a natural toxin. This toxin cooks off in boiling water, but if your slow cooker never comes to a boil, you could be serving toxic chili.
If your cabinets are full of dried beans just waiting to be added to your fall soups and stews, you can still use them, but must prep them first. Soak them in water for 12 hours, then place them in boiling water for ten minutes before adding them to the slow cooker. I don’t know about you, but that feels like a lot of extra work. Most of us use a slow cooker to avoid the actual cooking part of our dinner. I plan to use canned beans from now on.