How To Get The Most Out of Your Slow Cooker

how to get the most out of your slow cookerYou probably already know that slow cooking is a hugely convenient way to cook, especially when life gets busy. It's hard to mess up a meal in the slow cooker, as this cooking method is inherently forgiving, but it's still worth learning a few tips and tricks to help you maximally harness that awesome appliance in your kitchen. Believe it or not, there are a few pitfalls to avoid and tricks to try in order to take your slow cooking to the heights it's capable of.

How Do I Make The Most of My Slow Cooker?

While slow cooking is generally a very forgiving method of cooking, there are still plenty of simple mistakes people tend to make that can sometimes turn this insanely easy, hands off cooking method into a sad disaster. Here are a few tips from us to help you avoid common slip-ups and get the most out of your slow cooker.

  • Fill your cooker up...but not too much. In order to cook evenly and thoroughly without overheating or drying things out, your cooker needs to be at least halfway full, but not more than 3/4 full. This means cooks with particularly small or large cookers as well as anyone looking to halve or double a recipe needs to be careful to ensure that the recipe they're using will fall within this zone. It's worth noting that most slow cooker recipes are written with a 6-quart cooker in mind, so owners of smaller or larger cookers may need to adjust ingredient amounts as well as cook times.
  • Know about hot zones. Your slow cooker's heating element is located at the bottom underneath the inner vessel, and it uses conduction to heat the food inside the cooker. This means your cooker does have hot spots—namely the bottom and sides of the pot. Whenever possible, place hardier ingredients that need more heat to cook (such as potatoes and carrots) near these hotspots and keep more delicate ingredients (like mushrooms and tender fruits) nearer the top and center while cooking.
  • Lacey's Tip: Sear meats before slow cooking. Lacey Baier, author of A Sweet Pea Chef, told us, "Especially for large cuts of meat, I like to brown the meat beforehand so it adds more flavor into the final dish. It makes such a difference." And she's right! Much of the flavor of a good meat dish comes from the maillard reaction, in which high heat helps sugars react with amino acids to produce a variety of flavor and aroma compounds. So while it may take extra effort, if you want that nice sear flavor, and especially if you want a bit of a crust to the outside of a roast, you're going to need to brown meat in a pan before adding it to the slow cooker.

  • Thaw meats before slow cooking. You should also avoid adding frozen meats to the slow cooker as this can add hours to the necessary cooktime as well as excess moisture. It also makes it harder for your slow cooker to heat things evenly.
  • Cut large roasts into chunks before cooking. If you're having trouble getting a roast to cook all the way through in a reasonable time, or roasts aren't cooking evenly, try cutting your meats into evenly-sized chunks to make things easier on your slow cooker.
  • Get familiar with timing. Every slow cooker is slightly different, and what takes one 4.5 hours on Low may take another up to 6 hours on Low. Luckily, because slow cookers are so forgiving with respect to precise timing, the trial and error process probably won't yield any complete failures. You'll also want to get a sense of when during the cooking process to add various ingredients. While many recipes allow cooks to throw in all ingredients at once, recipes with particularly tender or delicate vegetables, fruits, pastas, or dairy can sometimes become a mushy or spoiled mess unless these ingredients are added nearer the end of the recipe's cook time. Even seafood can sometimes become mushy if cooked for the full cooktime.
  • Season generously and at the right time. Slow cooked dishes often benefit from a heavy seasoning hand and from seasoning at multiple points. Try seasoning dishes both at the beginning and at the end of your cooking process. This allows flavors to soak in and marry, but also ensures that flavors don't fade during the cooking process. Besides, the best way to ensure that any dish is delicious is to adjust seasonings to taste immediately before serving.

  • DON'T remove the lid. Once your dish is cooking, it don't remove the lid any more than necessary. Every time you remove the lid, you allow heat and moisture to escape, increasing the necessary cook time and potentially drying out your food.

  • Adjust your liquids. That said, slow cooking is typically very good at retaining moisture, to the extent that you may need to use less liquid than usual when adapting a conventional recipe to the slow cooker or add thickening agents in order to achieve thicker stews and sauces, since the liquid will not cook off and reduce as it would in a pot on the stove.
  • Know the difference between old and new slow cookers. Slow cookers from the last decade or so follow stricter food safety guidelines than older slow cookers did. This means that modern cookers get hotter faster so that foods like meat and eggs spend less time in the "danger zone" (temperatures that allow bacteria to thrive). If you know a slow cooker recipe is older, you may want to reduce the cooking time to make sure you don't end up overcooking it.
  • Have the right cleaners and accessories. You should never use abrasive cleaners to clean either the inner pot or the housing of your slow cooker. If you're having trouble with stuck-on foods or just want to make cleanup as painless as possible, consider using slow cooker liners. They're disposable and make cleaning the inner pot completely unnecessary.

Best Dishes to Make in the Slow Cooker

So now that you know all the tips, tricks, and best practices, what should you slow cook next? We asked a few of our favorite recipe bloggers what they most love to make in the slow cooker.

Stephanie's Picks:

"I would recommend 'thinking outside of the crock' and try to use your slow cooker to make many of your family favorite dinners in it. A lot of people think of the slow cooker only as a glorified pot roast machine (and it DOES make a yummy roast!) but you can do so much more. I bake, braise, and steam in my slow cooker often and have tried my hardest to come up with a ton of recipes that use all kinds of food.

"My favorite foods [to make in the slow cooker] are the dinners that ALL of us eat—my husband, my three kids, and me! In our house our own family favorite recipes are Taco Soup, Brown Sugar Chicken, Lasagna, and Sausage and Potato Medley."

Stephanie has more slow cooking insights at A Year of Slow Cooking.

Carolyn's Picks:

"Remember, your slow cooker isn't just for dinner recipes. It's great for everything from breakfast to dessert!

"[My favorite dish to make in the slow cooker is] CAKE! No really, it's so tender and delicious, you'll be tempted never to use your oven again."

Carolyn has more cooking insights at All Day I Dream About Food.

Lacey's Picks:

"I like to use my slow cooker most for stews and soups because it makes the best flavors and you don't have to worry at all about them—just toss everything in, and then enjoy them when they're ready to eat."

Lacy has more cooking insights at A Sweet Pea Chef.

Featured Recipes

Now that you've been primed with all the tips you need to succeed, let's take a look at 8 delicious recipes that represent the broad range of slow cooking possibilities.

Crock Pot Pumpkin Spice Latte

slow cooker pumpkin spice latteThis slow cooked pumpkin spice latte recipe from Arlene at Flour on my Face is perfect for fall, especially for a brunch with friends or on a busy morning with family. It yeilds enough for 6 delicious servings and it's better than any drink you'll find at Starbucks!

While you're over on Arlene's blog, you should also check out her slow cooker Caramel Apple Cake, for more autumn deliciousness.

Slow Cooker Cornbread Dressing

slow cooker cornbread dressingBetcha didn't know you could make stuffing in the slow cooker! This is a particularly great option for Thanksgiving, when it can be hard to ensure all the food is ready at the same time. It cooks on its own for about 2 and a half hours and comes out soft, moist, and flavorful.

Slow Cooker Pepper Jack Cauliflower

pepper jack cauliflowerThis pepper jack cauliflower from Carolyn at All Day I Dream About Food is one of her most popular recipes, and it's easy to see why! With cream, bacon, and of course pepperjack cheese, this is such a flavorful and satisfying way to eat your veggies. What a tasty reminder that slow cooking isn't just for main dishes.

Speaking of which, have you ever tried baking in the crock pot? Carolyn's Zucchini Bread recipe is a must-try either way!

Slow Cooker Chicken Lo Mein

slow cooker chicken lo meinSome people think noodle dishes are impossible in the slow cooker, but we beg to differ. All you need to do to make this savory chicken lo mein is brown the chicken, then toss everything but the noodles into the slow cooker to simmer beautifully for 6 to 8 hours. When you're ready, prepare the noodles separately and combine everything together—easy peasy!

Slow Cooker Cashew Chicken

slow cooker cashew chickenBut that's not the only Asian-inspired dish that works perfectly in the slow cooker! This cashew chicken recipe from Lacey at A Sweet Pea Chef should not be skipped. Tender and moist chicken with a crispy skin is combined with crunchy cashews and tons of other seasonings for a dinner everyone will love.

Looking for something a little lighter? Slow cookers are perfect for soups, and this Split Pea Soup of Lacey's is just the ticket.

Slow Cooker Greek Chicken Pita

slow cooker greek chicken pitaCan you tell we love slow cooked chicken? This slow cooker greek chicken pita recipe is perfect when you need to prepare an easy lunch or light dinner. It's fresh and satisfying no matter what time of year it is.

Crock Pot Cheesecake

slow cooker sausage and vegetable medleyHere to prove that you can make just about everything in the slow cooker, Stephanie of A Year of Slow Cooking presents this crock pot cheesecake recipe. This cheesecake is just as moist and creamy as one made in a traditional springform pan, and because slow cookers do such a good job of retaining moisture, you're not at much risk of cracking the top in the process. Enjoy this with fresh fruit—you won't regret it!

Slow Cooker Italian Beef

slow cooker italian beef sandwichesLet's round this out with something a little more traditional for slow cooking. This shredded italian beef from Sarah and Tim at Curious Cuisiniere cooks low and slow for hours so that by the time you need it, it's tender, moist, and ready to be packed into a sandwich with giardiniera (AKA Italian pickled veggies).

Ans last but not least, Sarah and Tim's Slow Cooker Ramen Soup is also perfect for a comforting and hearty dinner.

Featured Bloggers

sarah and tim curious cuisiniereSarah and her husband, Tim, run the cultural food blog, Curious Cuisiniere, where they share easy to follow recipes and food history from around the world, inspiring food lovers and home cooks to learn about and experience global cultures from the comfort of their own kitchen.

stephanie a year of slow cookingStephanie O'Dea, author of A Year of Slow Cooking, is passionate about saving time and effort by slow cooking. In 2008, she spent an entire year using her slow cooker every day, so she's a pro at making her slow cooker work for her—and she loves teaching her readers to do the same.

lacey a sweet pea chefLacey Baier authors A Sweet Pea Chef while also caring for her three kids and developing her photography, fitness, and of course cooking skills. She is particularly enthusiastic about designing No-Fail meals that are quick, healthy, easy, cost-effective, and sure to please the whole family.

carolyn all day i dream about foodCarolyn Ketchumm authors All Day I Dream About Food a food blog that focuses mostly on low carb and gluten free recipes. She loves finding ways to bake and cook the recipes she always loved before developing her gluten-free health needs and wants to pass what she's learned on to her readers.

arlene flour on my faceArlene Mobley, author of Flour on My Face, loves cooking and blogging for the chance to express her creative personality. She is also a stay at home mom of 3 with empty nest syndrome on the horizon and is an excellent resource for those who need to cook for the whole family.

 

In the market for your first slow cooker, or looking for an upgrade? Check out our Ultimate Guide to Slow Cookers for a helpful buyer's guide—it'll tell you all you need to know before clicking Add To Cart.

Keyingredient.com uses 'cookies' to give you the best, most relevant experience. Using this website means you're ok with this. You can change which cookies are set at any time and find out more about them by following this link.

Please describe your issue: