Now that families are spending more time at home together, more meals are being cooked by busy parents who may be juggling childcare duties and outside jobs. This is a perfect time to use slow cookers for meals–they make cooking easy and tasty! And they work for parties, too. You can prepare main courses, side dishes, appetizers and desserts.
A slow cooker is an electric appliance that simmers food at a low temperature over a long period of time. Because of this low-and-slow method, slow cookers are great for breaking down and tenderizing large pieces of meat like pot roasts or beef stews. But that’s not all they can do. Slow cookers are also a home cook’s go-to choice for soups and ribs, plus dips, drinks and bread.
In addition to its versatility, there are many other benefits to using a slow cooker, like its ability to evenly cook foods hands-free. This frees home cooks to do other things around the house, run errands or go to work for the day. Plus, slow cookers are straightforward to use and usually require no more set up than plugging it in.
Not to mention, there’s a sneaky way you can put a slow cooker to work around the house.
Using a slow cooker is fairly simple. Just plug in your slow cooker, add your chosen recipe’s ingredients, set the cooker to low or high, depending on the recipe’s instructions, add the lid and let it cook. Once your dish is done cooking, you can either switch the slow cooker off to turn off the heating element,
As easy as using a slow cooker is, here are some tips for getting the best results possible. Here are some of our top pieces of advice:
- Always fill your slow cooker to about ¾ capacity to prevent overcooking and overflow.
- Don’t open the lid! Opening the lid and checking on your food releases heat and can extend your cooking time.
- Yes, you can turn almost any recipe into a slow cooker meal! Find a similar recipe that’s written as a slow cooker recipe and use those instructions.
- Slow cookers are a meal prepper’s best friend. Freezer-friendly slow-cooker meals mean you can always have dinner on hand and one-pot slow-cooker recipes make sure you’re not stuck with a ton of dirty dishes.
- You can certainly just pile food into the slow cooker, turn it on and get tasty results. But when you take a couple of minutes to brown your meat and saute your vegetables before adding them to the crock, you’re rewarded with an additional layer of deep, caramelized flavor. (This is doubly true with ground meat.) If you want a thicker sauce, dredge the meat in flour before browning.
- While you can cook just about any meat in a slow-cooker, we recommend avoiding dry meat by choosing cuts that are tougher or have a higher fat content, as these cuts hold up better to long-term cooking. This means chicken thighs over chicken breasts, pork shoulder over tenderloin or beef chuck roast over strip steak. If you do choose to cook a lean meat, you may need to decrease the cooking time. A thermometer will accurately determine when the meat is done.
- Don’t use frozen food: Loading a slow cooker with icy ingredients will keep food in the danger zone where bacteria can flourish (40 to 140 degrees F). So make sure your meat and vegetables are fully thawed before turning the cooker on. The exception: Prepackaged slow-cooker meals sold in the freezer case are fine to use as long as you follow the package’s directions.
- Avoid overcrowding: For the best results, fill a slow cooker between one-half and two-thirds full. Go ahead and cook big roasts and whole chickens; just make sure you use a large crock and that the lid fits snugly on top.
- Trim fat: For silky sauces and gravies, take a minute or two and cut the excess fat from the meat. Skip this step and you risk ending up with oily, greasy cooking liquid. When possible, remove chicken skin too.
- Be careful of how you cut your potatoes and vegetables. They should be prepped uniformly, as directed in the recipe. Larger pieces may end up undercooked while small pieces can end up overcooked. Also, try to add softer vegetables like peas, spinach or zucchini later in the cooking process. This will keep them from getting overly mushy or disintegrating altogether.
- Layer wisely: For even cooking, cut food into uniform-size pieces. Place firm, slow-cooking root vegetables like potatoes and carrots at the bottom of the crock and pile the meat on top.
- Set the heat level: A general rule of thumb is that cooking on the low setting (170 degrees F for most models) takes about twice as long as cooking on high (280 degrees F on most models). Keep in mind that some cuts of meat and recipes are better suited to one setting over the other. (See tips on choosing the right cut, above.)
- Add dairy last: Sour cream, milk and yogurt tend to break down in the slow cooker, so stir them in during the last 15 minutes of cooking.
- Watch the wine: Because the cooker is sealed, the alcohol in wine doesn’t evaporate out as it would in a regular pot or skillet. Just a splash goes a long way.
- End on a fresh note: A sprinkle of fresh herbs or squeeze of lemon juice at the end of simmering can brighten flavors and cut through the richness of long-cooked recipes. Other excellent finishing touches: hot sauce, citrus zest, grated Parmesan, good-quality olive oil or even sauteed garlic.
- Adjust for high altitude: For high-altitude cooking, add an additional 30 minutes for each hour of time specified in the recipe. Legumes take about twice as long as they would at sea level.
- Unplugged means unusable: Forgot to turn on your cooker (or accidentally tried to “cook” your meal on warm)? Any food that sits between the temperatures of 40 and 140 degrees F can harbor bacteria. Toss the contents and start again.
- You can put a slow cooker on before you go to bed or when you go to work as it cooks very gently and evenly.
- Thanks to removable crocks, cleaning and maintaining a slow cooker is painless. Take a look at these ways to clean a slow cooker.
- Every time you use it: After it has cooled, remove the crock and lid from the cooking element and wash them with dish soap and water. Wipe down the outside of the cooking element with a damp paper towel if there are any spills or spots on it.
- When there are some tough spots: If your crock has some spots that won’t lift with soap and water, turn to baking soda. Create a paste with baking soda and water and use a soft-bristle scrubbing brush to buff out food bits.
- When there are a lot of tough spots: When your crock is covered in cooked-on food bits, it’s time to soak. Fill your slow cooker about ¾ full with water and add ¼ cup of white vinegar and ¼ cup of baking soda. Let the mixture sit for about an hour. After that, food debris should wipe right off. Or, you can skip the cleaning altogether and use a slow-cooker liner.
- Care for your crock. The ceramic insert in a slow cooker can crack if exposed to abrupt temperature shifts. In other words, don’t place a hot ceramic insert directly on a cold counter; put down a dishtowel first. The same goes for using a filled insert you’ve stowed overnight in the refrigerator: Let it come to room temperature before putting it in a preheated base.