With winter around the corner (we don't want to think about it either!), it's time to fire up the stove and create some magic with a little help from the experts. Winter means indulging in hearty stews and slow-roasted meats. With that in mind, we consulted the pros for five expert slow-cooking tips that will help you execute your comfort-food creations with finesse.
1. Use your slow cooker for jams and preserves.
At New York bistro Otway, chef Claire Welle uses a slow cooker to help with the practice of fermenting and aging vegetables. "At a very low temperature, vegetables with high sugar and low moisture content, such as parsnips, garlic, or even [Jerusalem artichokes], can be slowly dehydrated," Welle explains. "Eventually [in three to five weeks], their sugars caramelize, and they will actually ferment — nothing else is needed, just a watchful eye to make sure it's progressing slowly."
Chef and author of The Chef and the Slow Cooker, Hugh Acheson is a fan of creating jams in his slow cooker, as it allows for the preserve to mellow out in the process. "The worst thing you can do with a jam is spend an arduous amount of time cleaning fruit, getting it together, getting it into a pot, and then torching and scorching the bottom of it because of an open flame and a little bit too-high heat."
2. Avoid opening your lid.
Christopher M. Wilmoth, the corporate chef at Hong-Kong food company Lee Kum Kee, says that opening the lid of your dish to occasionally stir can minimize flavor. "Every time you remove the lid, the slow cooker loses heat," Wilmoth says.
3. Use chicken stock to slow-braise lamb.
Australian chef Matt Sinclair, who authored The Cook's Pantry, says a good slow-braise is inevitable given you're using the right amount of liquid. "The key to braising: You've got to have enough liquid. It needs to be submerged in its own little bath doing its thing, ticking along," he says. "If you've got enough liquid, the right cut of meat, the right temperature, and you give it enough time, you really cannot go wrong."
His other tip? Always use chicken stock. "Lamb has its own distinctive flavor. If you use a beef stock, it will overwrite it. The stock is just there to bring all the flavors together, so lamb and chicken stock are a perfect combination."
4. Sauté your aromatics first.
In her book Adventures in Slow Cooking, food writer Sarah DiGregorio recommends sautéeing your onions, carrots, and garlic in oil before proceeding with your dish.
"Many slow-cooker recipes instruct you to just throw the onion and other aromatics into the cooker with the other ingredients before turning it on," she explains. "But often that means you'll end up with bits of onion that never get soft. Raw onion can swamp a dish with moisture."
Instead, DiGregorio recommends taking an extra ten minutes to sauté your aromatics before the slow cooking begins. When cooking longer recipes, Acheson recommends chopping vegetables into larger pieces to avoid overcooking them which can lead to mushy texture and dull flavor.
5. Caramelize your meat for extra flavor.
Slow cooking works with moist, low heat which can be difficult when trying for crispy-skinned chicken. Martha Stewart believes in first searing meat or charring vegetables before slow cooking. "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," she says.
Doing this in the same pan that you plan to slow cook with will ensure you have lovely caramelized pockets of flavor. De-glazing with a bit of liquid and then scraping the base off will add another complexity to the dish.
This article originally appeared on our sister site, Gourmet Traveller.