Slow cookers are indispensible kitchen appliances: You can throw in your ingredients, then disappear for four hours, only to find dinner completely made when you get back. It's an amazingly simple process (just press "start"), but slow cooking can have some hidden setbacks. Get the most out of a meal -- and your time -- with these five helpful tips.
1. Opt for tough, cheap cuts. The slow cooker offers nothing but time, and that's exactly what tough cuts of meat need. Over those long hours, your cooker will trap the moisture and break down tough connective tissue, making the meat tender. Plus, you'll save money buying cuts that other people think are undesirable or too hard to cook. Try chuck steak; it's the filet mignon of the slow-cooker world. And try these recipes: Classic Pot Roast, Carne Guisada, and Beef and Tomato Stew.
2. Brown before you press "start." The whole point of a slow cooker is to minimize work, but browning meats and vegetables adds more flavor to any dish. Of course, if you want to make life easier (and save yourself a pan), you can skip this step.
3. Don't fill it to the brim. For the best results, the slow cooker should be only halfway to two-thirds full when cooking begins. Filling it to the top risks overflow. If it's not full enough, then your ingredients might cook too quickly, which could lead to a serious food faux pas: dry pot roast.
4. Chill before you cook (to buy yourself more time). If you need more time out of the house (or just relaxing) than the actual cooking time allows, put the ingredients in the crock, cover it, and refrigerate overnight. The chilled slow cooker will add one-and-a-half more hours to the cooking process -- just enough time for a nap.
5. Keep the heat in. You may be salivating over the clear glass cover of your slow cooker, but resist lifting the lid; letting out the heat will increase the cooking time by about 15 minutes.
Watch Martha make Classic Pot Roast in the slow cooker: