dish prepared in a slow cooker

Slow cooker-users are a devoted bunch, and if you count yourself among them, you’re in good company! They’re a perfect and easy way to create a warm and comforting meal as you escape the frigid temperatures outside.

You may have a set of recipes that you rely on, but many cooks are unsure of how to just wing it. Shouldn’t you be able to make whatever you want with whatever ingredients you have on hand? The answer is yes! So here are a few tips on how to use your slow cooker—without a recipe.

Keys to Success

Slow cookers work exactly how they sound—slowly! That makes them ideal for dishes that you would otherwise spend lots of time tending to, like stews and braises. These foods are high in moisture, which is perfect for a slow cooker, since liquids help keep the ingredients from drying out or burning.
Moisture can come in the form of almost anything, usually a few ingredients combined: broth, wine, beer, tomato purée, milk, vinegar, or even just water.

Some ingredients, like larger roasts, naturally contain enough water that they can be placed in the slow cooker without additional liquids. The moisture will be drawn out and mix with that of other ingredients to make a braising liquid or sauce. If you experiment without additional liquid, you may want to stay near your slow cooker the first time you try your this, just to be sure it doesn’t burn.

Flavor Development
As much as we would like all slow-cooker recipes to be as easy as “add ingredients; leave for work,” a few extra minutes is key to making a meal that’s simple and delicious. If you’re cooking with meat, take the time to brown it on all sides on the stove before adding it to the slow cooker. Deglaze the pan with wine, broth, or water (scrape up all of those brown bits, aka fond!) and add that flavorful liquid to the slow cooker. In just a few minutes, you’ll add depth of flavor that will transform the dish.

A Thick Sauce Seasoned Just Right
The last 20 or 30 minutes can also be crucial to perfecting your slow cooker “un-recipe.” When you wing it…things happen! Maybe you added a little bit too much liquid and your sauce isn’t as thick or flavorful as you would like. We’ve got an easy fix. Remove the main ingredients from the slow cooker, and then continue to cook on high heat with the lid off until the sauce reduces a bit. You can also do this on the stove if you’re in a hurry. And if you’re using ingredients that may turn mushy, like apples, add them while the liquid is reducing, or you can even sauté them on the stove for a different texture!

Be a little bit conservative in your seasoning, since while you’re off living life, the flavors of your ingredients will concentrate as they cook. While you want to add some seasoning to help flavor whatever you’re cooking, you can always add more at the end. It’s easier to “add” than “take away.” Consider this when adding strong flavors like chiles, dried herbs, and garlic. Remember to add any fresh herbs right before serving to brighten the dish.

Whatever you decide to make, remember that experimentation is the key to becoming a confident cook. You won’t know unless you try!