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Why Does Slow Cooker Food Taste Bland? (and what you can do)

I love our Crock-Pot. My wife, on the other hand, kind of hates it because she said the food lacks flavor.  So I wondered why does slow cooker food taste bland and what can I do about it?

Slow cooker meals often suffer from being under-seasoned since it can be hard to gauge the right amount of salt for 1 big pot. But using water instead of broth and not  Sautéing ingredients first also makes the food bland as does using too much cooking liquid or meats that are too lean.

But that’s just the beginning. I’m not ready to give up on our crock pot because of how convenient it is. And there are several things you can do to make your slow cooker meals MUCH tastier.

So let’s dig in!

If you’re looking to buy any small kitchen appliance, don’t forget to check out my Recommended Products Page (click to see my page) which breaks down all my best picks by category.

I always hand-select items that I either own, have used, or have researched well to ensure they are great items. I also give not only top of the line as well as inexpensive alternatives so my choices work for any budget.

What causes slow cooker food to lack flavor?

A Crock-Pot or other brand of slow cooker is designed for convenience.

We put a bunch of stuff in, turn it on and either go to work or go to sleep and let it work it’s magic. We wake up or come home from work and the food is hot, fully cooked, and ready to eat.

AND it’s all in one pot, so just one thing to wash (and the bowl and lid are dishwasher safe).

It’s incredibly convenient for our busy world. But my wife really doesn’t like it because she says the food lacks flavor and is bland.

So do we have to trade convenience for flavor or can we have both? I say yes, we can have it all. But first, we have to examine WHY a slow cooker sometimes makes bland.

There are 3 big reasons why slow cooker can taste bland:

  • It can be hard to gauge how much salt to add when dumping everything into 1 big pot
  • To get it done as quickly as possible, we often just put all ingredients into the Crock-Pot raw
  • We use water as our liquid instead of broth

If you were making a meal from scratch in a more traditional way, you’d be seasoning (salt and pepper) as you go.

Sauté some veggies? A pinch of salt and pepper. Brown some beef? Yup. Salt and pepper. Make a sauce? Yes, you’d salt and pepper that too.

You would season each item as you go along the way, AND of course, you’d be tasting along the way too.

When you just dump it all in and hope for the best, we have a tendency to under-season out of fear of being heavy-handed with the salt.

After all, in each of those individual steps, you would likely do 1-2 teaspoons of salt. But adding all that at once somehow seems like a lot.

The other thing we miss out on when we dump raw veggies and meat into a slow cooker and just turn it on is the caramelization and melding of flavors that happens when we sauté those things in a skillet with oil or butter.

For something so simple, there’s a lot of confusion about salt.

In a recent article though, my wife, who does most of the cooking in our house these days, gave us the ultimate resource on salt. She breaks down all the different kinds, health benefits, differences, and more.

So if you’ve ever wondered if pink Himilayan sea salt was a miracle product or a scam, you won’t want to miss this article. Just click the link to read it on my site.

Lastly, we have a tendency to use water as our cooking liquid instead of broth.

Broth will ALWAYS be more flavorful than water and professional chefs almost never cook food in just plain water for that very reason.  Broth, even low-sodium broth, also provides some additional salt to help balance the seasoning too.

The other thing people sometimes do that makes slow cooker food bland is to add too much cooking liquid. Boiling is the least flavorful way to prepare food.

Contrary to popular belief, all the food in a slow cooker does NOT need to be submerged to be fully cooked.

Does slow cooked food taste better?

Yes. Slow-cooked food usually tastes better since it allows the ingredients to blend together and become better balanced. But it’s crucial that the individual ingredients be well-seasoned to start with and it’s always more flavorful to replace water in recipes with broth.

Obviously, some people think so, despite my wife and others thinking just the opposite.

Ultimately it comes down to what’s being cooked, the quality of ingredients being used, the amount of seasoning, and whether it’s being cooked with water or broth.

The plusses of slow-cooked food are that the ingredients have a lot of time to sit and blend together.

I promise you that an Italian grandmother who simmers her gravy all day understands the concept of slow cooking. She knows that flavors take time to build and when cooked over a long time at a relatively low temperature, the flavors really come together in a way that’s just not possible in a 30-minute meal.

BUT, some of what makes slow cooker food taste better is:

  • Proper seasoning
  • Using fattier meats (lean meats get tough when slow-cooked)
  • Sautéing your veggies and meats before placing into the slow cooker
  • Not drowning your food by covering it completely with liquid

Should food be covered with liquid in a slow cooker?

No. food does not need to be covered to be fully cooked with a slow cooker. It does usually need some liquid to create steam and to keep the food from drying out.

The way a slow cooker works is by heating the entire vessel and trapping that heat and moisture inside since the Crock-Pot is covered with a lid.

So food cooks in or out of the cooking liquid.

What you DON’T want to do, however, is put in so little cooking liquid that it evaporates and the food sticks to the bottom of the slow cooker and scorches.

Scorching is when food dries out too much and essentially burns to the bottom of a pot or in this case, slow cooker. When food scorches it tastes burned; almost a smokey flavor but not a good one.

So through trial and error, you’ll want to experiment with how much liquid to add to your Crock-Pot.

Too little, and as I said, you risk burning the food. Too much and you’re essentially boiling the food which is pretty much the blandest way you can cook food.

Personally, I like to have about 1/3 of the food covered with liquid and I only use broth or a sauce as my cooking liquid and not water.

Can you overcook food in a slow cooker?

Yes. Cooking vegetables too long can result in mushy, water-logged vegetables. Leaner meats also can become dry and tough with too long of a cooking time.

While no one is going to complain about a brisket being too tender or your pulled pork being too fall-apart, mushy veggies aren’t much fun to eat.

Beyond veggies, mushy beans aren’t great either unless you’re making refried beans. If you’re cooking leaner meats those too don’t benefit from being cooked a super long time since meat gets its flavor and tenderness from the fat rendering.

Lean meats have less fat and thus tend to get tough and stringy when cooked for a long time.

So that is why slow cookers usually have a high and low temp setting and settings for 4, 6, 8, and sometimes even 10 hour cook times.

The fancier ones will automatically switch to a “keep warm” setting after the allotted cook time.

So do think about what you’re cooking and how much time it really needs to build favor and cook thoroughly. Don’t just set it on for however long you’ll be out of the house and don’t just set it on high unless what you’re cooking really warrants that.

When in doubt follow great recipes with 4.5 stars or better and make sure and scan the comments for any tips or complaints.

Worried about your slow cooker cracking?

I’ve heard those rumors and urban myths too, so I decided to check it out and see exactly Why Slow Cookers Cracked (click to read my article). You’ll be pretty surprised by what I found out!

How to get more flavor from a slow cooker

Here are the best tips to get more flavor from a slow cooker:

  • Start with high-quality fresh ingredients
  • Sauté each component of the dish individually in a skillet first (you aren’t trying to fully cook it, just carmelize it to build flavor
  • Deglaze your Sauté pan with some wine or broth, scraping all the stuck-on bits and add it to the slow cooker (deglazing simply means to remove and dissolve the browned food bits that get stuck to the bottom of a cooking pan by using up to about 1/2 cup of wine or broth)
  • Make sure to use broth and not water as your cooking liquid
  • Don’t cover the dry ingredients more than halfway with the liquid (too much liquid and the liquid won’t be able to cook down. Cooking down concentrates and improves the flavors)
  • Make sure to set the right time and temp on your Crock-Pot so you don’t overcook things

Ultimately you CAN get great tasting food from your slow cooker.

It starts with great ingredients. As noted chef James Beard once said

“There is absolutely no substitute for the best. Good food cannot be made of inferior ingredients masked with high flavor. It is true thrift to use the best ingredients available and to waste nothing.”

In other words, all the seasoning or condiments in the world can’t cover up a poor choice of ingredients or less than fresh meat or vegetables.

For meats, as I’ve mentioned, make sure to get fattier cuts of meat as leaner cuts get dry and stringy when cooked a long time.

Your Crock-Pot is one way of building convenience into your meal routines, but Instant Pots and other brands of pressure cookers are another way.

So if you don’t have an Instant Pot or pressure cooker yet, take a moment and review my in-depth guide to the Advantages and Disadvantages of Pressure Cooking.

Some of the advantages are almost too good to believe!

Can I add dry spices to a slow cooker?

Yes, you can use dried spices in a slow cooker, but, you should keep these to a minimum. Great chefs rarely use dried spices beyond salt and pepper. They use fresh herbs and build great flavors.

The best slow-cooker meals will start with a mirepoix.

Mirepoix, obviously a French term, is simply a combination of onions, carrots, and celery that get sautéd together to form a base for dozens of dishes to be built on.

So while you can use dried spices in a Crock-Pot, use them sparingly.

Dried spices always have a more concentrated (and altered) flavor compared to their fresh counterparts and slow cooking only brings out that concentrated and altered flavor even more.

This is ESPECIALLY true if you are using chili powder or anything spicy.

The heat can really grow as your slow cooker churns all day and what you thought was a mild amount of chile flake can make the ending dish really hot.

When should you add fresh herbs to a slow cooker?

Fresh herbs should be added in the last 45-60 minutes of cooking in a slow cooker to ensure they impart the most flavor. If you add them at the start of cooking, their flavor will be almost completely gone by the time you eat it.

Fresh herbs are a fantastic way to impart flavor and freshness to a dish in a way that’s just not possible with dried spices.

There’s a reason that some of the tastiest cuisines in the world, from France, Italy, or Thailand and Vietnam use fresh herbs extensively.

You wouldn’t (hopefully) think of making pesto with dried basil, but fresh basil pesto is amazing. Fresh Vietnamese spring rolls with fresh cilantro, mint, and/or basil, are also amazingly delicious.

But in a slow cooker, if you just throw those fresh herbs in and then leave for work for 10 hours, all that delicate flavor will be lost.

So do yourself a favor and throw those in right when you get home a short amount of time before you sit down to eat. You can even prep them and leave them in the fridge to make that easier if you like.

But the freshness of adding them right at the end just can’t be beaten and is yet another way to make bland slow cooker food taste better!

Of course, it goes without saying that a great kitchen needs some great small kitchen appliances like a slow cooker.

But a Crock-Pot is just 1 of the Essential Small Kitchen Appliances (click to read my article) every kitchen should have, so if your kitchen is new or minimal, I highly recommend you take a moment and check out the other 10 things that made my list!

Final Thoughts

Slow cooker food doesn’t have to be bland and you CAN have a balance between the ultra-convenience of having your meal cook while you sleep or are at work and being full-flavored.

So in this post, we explored why slow cookers and their foods get a bad rap.

We looked at some of the most common mistakes people make in using them that can result in bland, flavorless foods. Then we looked at some great solutions that really can take your flavor to the next level without impacting too much into the convenience factor.

So if you’ve ever wondered “why does slow cooker food taste bland?” now you know that it doesn’t have to!

What’s your favorite slow cooker meal?

If you’re looking to buy any small kitchen appliance, don’t forget to check out my Recommended Products Page (click to see my page) which breaks down all my best picks by category.

I always hand select items that I either own, have used, or have researched well to ensure they are great items. I also give not only top of the line as well as inexpensive alternatives so my choices work for any budget.

Jeff Campbell