How To Prevent Food Burning In A Slow Cooker

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There is a certain amount of worry that we all feel when we leave machines or gadgets unsupervised to carry out tasks. This concern only increases when both high temperatures and heat are involved.

We’ve all heard the horror stories, and some of us have even experienced them, of buying a new gadget, following the instructions to the letter, and coming back to them to find that it simply hasn’t worked as expected; with slow cookers, this tends to mean your highly anticipated dinner has turned to charcoal.

Yes, food can burn in a slow cooker. Slow cookers are optimised to cook food by heating the wet ingredients and spreading that heat throughout. Food that is either too dry or cooked for too long can burn in a slow cooker, to prevent this add-in liquid to stop the food from sticking and burning.

Read on to discover what it is that causes food to burn in a slow cooker, and how you can prevent it from happening.

Can Food Burn In A Slow Cooker?

No matter what method of cooking you are using, where there is heat involved there is always the possibility that food can be burned. This can be explained using a very simple formula: heat + too much time = burning.

This principle applies no matter what you are cooking, or using to cook; even if you tried to cook soup using submerged hair straighteners you would eventually burn the soup over time. 

Ever heard of the theory that you can cook a chicken by repeatedly slapping it? This hard to believe fact goes some way towards explaining the most common reason for food burning in a slow cooker. 

The main reason this shouldn’t give you cause for worry is that the reasons for food burning in a slow cooker can all be avoided with relative ease. The other reason why you shouldn’t worry too much is that burning food tends to make itself obvious; you will generally be able to smell the problem in time to fix it. 

What Causes Food To Burn In A Slow Cooker?

There are a few main things that cause food to burn in a slow cooker, and a supplementary reason that applies to all of them. Take a look at the reasons why food could burn in a slow cooker. 

Too Much Time

One of the most common reasons for burning any food item with any cooking method is cooking it for too long. Applying heat to food over time causes the food’s cells to change through a reaction; time this well and you end up with beautifully cooked dishes.

Let this reaction go on for too long however and you end up with overheated ingredients. This is in effect what burning is, and it can be caused by any device that applies heat to food. 

The reason this applies so much to a slow cooker is that a slow cooker applies an even amount of heat to the cooking pot that remains constant. Some models do monitor the temperature within, but they aren’t checking whether the contents have burned or not. By keeping the ingredients at a constant temperature for too long you will end up burning your food in a slow cooker. 

There is another consideration you should be aware of regarding the length of time you cook in a slow cooker for. It should not be too much of a surprise to realise that newer models tend to cook more quickly than older models. This means you will notice food takes slightly longer to cook over many uses.

This makes it easier to burn food with a newer slow cooker than an older slow cooker, which may seem counter-intuitive. 

Ingredients Too Dry

Slow cookers rely on liquid to evenly distribute heat through your ingredients. Essentially the liquid is heated and the heat is transferred from the liquid to the solid ingredients, ensuring an even cook throughout. Not having enough liquid in the slow cooker pot can have two undesirable effects.

Your food might not cook evenly, or worse, it might be burned. This happens for two reasons.

The first reason your food may burn due to a lack of liquid is due to dry ingredients touching the edge of the cooking pot, causing the edge of the food to burn. The effect is similar to the results you would get by frying an egg without oil. 

The second reason is a bit technical. As dry ingredients start to overheat their needs to be somewhere for that extra heat to go. If there is not much liquid in the pot then the only place the heat has to go is into other dry, overheating ingredients, or into the air which would remove the heat more slowly.

This causes drier ingredients to overheat and burn more quickly. 

This effect is one to look out for in some liquid heavy dishes as well, such as casserole or meatloaf, as even though there is plenty of liquid it is quite thick. The thicker, or more viscous the liquid the easier it is for food to burn around the edges more quickly. 

Not Enough Care

The third reason, which links to cooking for too long and cooking dishes with low amounts of liquid, is simply not applying enough care. This sounds a little harsh, and it is not a criticism to be aimed at someone when food burns in a slow cooker. But it is the overarching reason, especially when the cook is aware of the first two reasons for food burning. 

Allowing food to cook for too long in a slow cooker is a sure fire way to burn your food. Similarly, knowingly leaving a dish with a small amount of liquid in a slow cooker for long periods of time without checking it is a recipe for disaster. 

A genuine example of not enough care is purely accidental; forgetting the slow cooker is even on. We’ve all done it, left something to cook and become so engrossed in what we are doing that we completely forget we are cooking. Just like with an oven or cooking pot, if you do this with a slow cooker your food will probably burn.

How To Prevent Food From Burning In A Slow Cooker

Pay Attention to Time

Seeing as cooking something for too long in a slow cooker is the main reason food burns in a slow cooker, a simple way to avoid it burning is to pay attention to the time you are cooking for.

If your slow cooker is brand new, make sure you check it more often or sooner than you would with an older model, as the heating elements tend to be more effective and can burn food quicker. 

Add Extra Liquid

If you are cooking  a particularly dry dish it is important to add extra liquid if possible, especially if you are going for a long cook. If you notice during cooking that your ingredients are starting to burn try adding extra liquid at that point.

Similarly, if you are cooking a dish with a low amount of liquid, make sure you check the progress more than you would with a more moisture rich dish. 

Pay Attention

As condescending as it may sound, simply paying attention and remembering to check your progress is the best way to avoid burning food in a slow cooker. If you know your slow cooker is new, check it more often towards the end of the cooking time to make sure it isn’t ready earlier than expected; make sure to do it.

If you know your food is particularly dry then make sure to check it more often than normal, or add extra liquid either at the start or during cooking.

If you feel like you may forget to check, or that you are going to become engaged with other tasks that will compete for your attention, then set an alarm or ask someone else in your house to remind you; both would be ideal. 

In short, treat it like any other method of cooking. If you feel like there is any chance of your food burning in a slow cooker, check it. It’s little different than checking toast under a grill.