Even the lowest-maintenance cooking tools can offer room for improvement.
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When it comes to fuss-free cooking, few appliances can outdo the slow cooker. Toss in ingredients, set it, and forget it until mealtime. As soon as the timer dings—go ahead and take your time getting back to the kitchen; a few extra minutes won’t hurt your chili or chicken curry—you’ll have a delicious one-pot dinner to feed your entire family. And if you’re hoping to utilize your crop of canned goods and other shelf-stable items (pasta, jarred sauces, grains, frozen veggies), this is the way to go.

That being said, there are a number of steps you can take to upgrade your results (and safety). Here are our top five tips for making slow cooker meals even more flavorful and foolproof.

1 Don’t cook frozen meats. Ever.

Frozen meats take significantly longer to cook. Because of the way slow cookers apply heat—slowly, and over a long period of time—cooking frozen meat this way can leave you at risk of foodborne illness. The meat will likely remain in the temperature danger zone (40°F to 140°F) for a period of time that is long enough for potentially harmful bacteria to grow. To stay on the safe side, always thaw meat first.

2 Always brown meat first.

This will give your stew or braise a richer, more robust flavor and your meat a more tender, less chewy texture. Some slow cookers allow you to sear right in the cooking insert on your stovetop—check your product’s manual before you try this, or just use a skillet.

3 Adjust the time and temperature settings accordingly.

As easy as it is to just guestimate your cook time and temperature (especially when the only options are high, low, and a timer that only offers one-hour increments), always follow the recipe instructions exactly. And if need be, remember to adjust accordingly next time. Slow cooker models vary tremendously, so if you notice that your beef stew meat tastes tough or your chicken enchiladas are soggy, cut back on heat and/or time the next time you make them. As a rule of thumb, remember that an hour of cooking on high is about equivalent to two hours on low. Though slow cookers are low-tech, the settings you select do matter.

4 Resist the urge to open the lid.

We know how difficult it is to keep yourself from peeking inside to check on the progress of your pulled pork, especially once the entire house smells like it. But this is the ultimate offense: one lid lift releases so much heat that your slow cooker will require up to 30 minutes or longer to come back up to your set temperature. (They don’t call them slow for nothing). Avoid all temptation to stir, poke, or prod your ingredients while they cook or you’ll likely be faced with undercooked food.

RELATED: The 5 Biggest Mistakes You’re Making With Your Instant Pot

5 Submerge your meat.

Say you’re slow cooking a full chicken. Say the breasts are above the broth but the thighs and about half of your drumsticks are submerged in it. The result = mushy chicken thighs, half-cooked drumsticks, and raw chicken breasts. Don’t let this happen to you! Cooking times for meats that are in liquid are shorter than those that aren’t. Make sure everything is uniform so all parts of your meat finish at the same time.