Slow cooking seems simple, and it is to an extent. Throw your ingredients into a Crockpot, turn up the heat, and go to work. Eight hours later, you’ll find an aromatic dinner in your kitchen just waiting to be eaten. That’s damn easy. Especially when the alternative is sweating over a hot stovetop for hours.
While one of the most obvious benefits of this cooking method is how one-and-done it is, there are a few things you should do—or avoid doing—before, during, and after to get the best, tastiest results possible. If you sometimes find yourself staring into your pot looking at something mushy, overly seasoned, completely flavorless, or straight up gross, you may be making one of these five mistakes.
1. You aren’t searing your meat first.
If you’re throwing raw meat straight into the crockpot, you’re doing it wrong. Alexis Davidson Kornblum, creator of the food blog Lexi’s Clean Kitchen, tells SELF that while, yes, you technically can slow-cook with raw meat, you shouldn’t. You’ll have better luck in the flavor department if you sear it first—the browning adds a caramelized depth to the dish.
2. You over-salt at the start.
If you add a bunch of salt to a dish at the very beginning (you know, when all the ingredients are still raw and you can’t actually taste it yet), Christopher M. Wilmoth, corporate chef at Hong Kong-based food company Lee Kum Kee, tells SELF you’re more likely to end up accidentally over-seasoning.
“If too much stock, sauce, or seasonings are added to the slow-cooker before or during the cooking process, a dish that seemed properly seasoned may end up tasting too salty,” he explains. Your better bet? Season with a teeny bit of salt at the beginning, and do the heavy-duty salting at the finish.
3. Or add fresh herbs and dairy at the get-go.
Fresh herbs taste best, well, fresh. If you add a sprig of thyme or rosemary to your Crockpot at the very beginning, it will wilt, brown, and become nearly flavorless by the time your meal is ready. A better option? Add dried herbs in the beginning—so the different ingredients in your dish have time to meld—and finish it off with the fresh ones. That way, they’ll add a nice, bright refreshing punch to your dish.
With dairy there’s more of a possible gross-out factor. If you toss it in with all your other ingredients right away, it’ll likely end up curdling. Ew. If you’re making a creamy stew, Kornblum recommends adding your dairy within the last 15 minutes of cooking.
4. You’re cooking chicken with the skin on.
Unlike chicken meat, no matter how long you cook chicken skin, it will never reach that delicious, fall-off-the-bone, slow-cooker state. Even if you do your due diligence and sear skin-on chicken before you put it in your slow-cooker, odds are it’s going to end up mushy and rubbery. If you really, really want to cook it with the skin on, what Kornblum recommends doing is broiling it for a few minutes after it’s done “to crisp it up.”
5. You remove the lid to stir every once in a while.
Peeking is tempting, but definitely don’t do it. Wilmoth explains that slow-cookers work by trapping heat. “Every time you remove the lid, the slow-cooker loses heat,” he tells SELF. If you absolutely must remove the lid before it’s done (we get it, we’re impatient, too) Kornblum says to get in and out as quickly as possible—30 seconds max. So, seriously, forget about it, let it do its thing, and be ready to dine in eight hours.
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