Slow Cook

How to Make the Most of Your Slow Cooker

October  7, 2014

Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: Your weeknights just got infinitely better. Stay tuned for our collection all about slow cooking on Provisions this Thursday! 

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Weeknights weren’t made for slow braises and roasts; they're often too harried and hectic for anything other than what's quick and easy. After a long day, you're likely to turn to a simple pasta or a hearty salad -- even a sandwich qualifies as dinner when you're exhausted. But in the chilly days ahead, you may find yourself craving the comfort of a lazy slow cooked meal -- the kind that's reserved for weekends -- in the middle of the week.

More: You don't need a recipe to make an outstanding weeknight meal.

Enter the slow cooker -- the saving grace of weeknight dinners. Throw all of your ingredients into a pot in the morning, and dinner will be waiting for you when you get home. You'll soon wonder how your kitchen ever survived without this essential kitchen tool

No matter what size or shape your slow cooker is, here are a few basic guidelines for using it:

  • The slow cooker should be about 1/2 to 2/3 full of ingredients, otherwise the food won’t cook properly. Be mindful when halving a recipe or using a different size slow cooker than the recipe calls for -- you don’t want to under- or overfill it. 

  • All ingredients need to be fully defrosted when added to the slow cooker. Using frozen ingredients, especially meat, can cause the food in the slow cooker to stay at an unsafe temperature for too long, which can lead to foodborne illness.

  • Trim any fat on your meat before adding it to the slow cooker. This will prevent the final dish from tasting overly greasy. If you have time, brown your meat or sauté your vegetables before adding them to the slow cooker for added flavor.

  • Fit the lid tightly on the slow cooker and try not to open it while it's cooking -- allowing heat to escape will only extend the cooking time.

  • Layer carefully. Ingredients at the bottom of the slow cooker tend to cook faster. To prevent your meat from overcooking, it's best to place vegetables at the bottom of the pot, below the meat. 

There are a number of standard dishes that come to mind when we think of slow cooker fare -- stews, soups, pulled pork, curries -- but a slow cooker can churn out so much more. Use it to prepare a handful of pantry staples:

  • Cooking beans in a slow cooker eliminates the need for an overnight soak.

  • Over at Smitten Kitchen, Deb Perelman simplifies the process of making chicken stock by dumping all of her ingredients into the slow cooker, walking away, and letting it cook on low heat for 8 to 10 hours.

  • Cooking steel cut oats overnight will make you forget your early morning cold cereal routine.

More: Sweeten your morning oats with a healthy drizzle of maple syrup

While there are countless slow cooker-tailored recipes out there, the possibilities are limitless for adapting other recipes for the slow cooker -- particularly those that involve braising, slow-roasting, or finishing in the oven. Here are a few things to consider before adapting a recipe for a slow cooker:

  • Don't overfill your slow cooker. Be sure to take note of the size of the pot that your recipe asks for, and make a smaller batch if it's too big for your slow cooker.

  • Chop all of your ingredients evenly to ensure uniform cooking.

  • Halve the amount of liquid asked for in the recipe, since less liquid evaporates from a slow cooker than from a pot. If the recipe doesn’t call for any liquid, add about a 1/2 cup of liquid or broth to your adapted recipe.

  • Hold any fresh herbs, dairy, quick cooking vegetables, pasta, rice, or seafood on the side and add them to the pot in the last 30 minutes of cooking.

More: Learn more about the ins and outs of adapting a recipe to a slow cooker here.

How do you use your slow cooker? Tell us in the comments!

29 Comments

Jane M. November 17, 2015
One of things we (my business partner/co-creator of the zen of slow cooking) love to make in our slow cooker are tea breads! They have a 10 minute prep time, never burn are moist and delicious! We'll feature our Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Bread recipe at http://www.blog.thezenofslowcooking.com/slow-cooking-101-pumpkin-choc-chip-bread/
 
meg B. October 14, 2014
One of things we (my business partner/co-creator of the zen of slow cooking) love to make in our slow cooker are tea breads! They have a 10 minute prep time, never burn are moist and delicious! We'll be featuring our Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Bread recipe this week at www.thezenofslowcooking.com!
 
ustabahippie October 14, 2014
I have made yogurt in my slow cooker. Just filled sterile jars with my heated milk and yogurt starter, put them in the cooker, heated it up to low, turned it off and wrapped it in a towel all night. Best yogurt ever!
 
FoodIsLove October 13, 2014
Thanks for the great article. I make chicken stock from leftover bones (per Barbara Kafka) and decided to try it in the slow cooker. Great Success! and no watching. Next time I'll try the beans.
 
Susan R. October 13, 2014
HalfPint , do you place the fat cap down or on the top when cooking the brisket?
 
HalfPint November 6, 2014
Sorry just saw this, I place the fat cap up when I cook the brisket.
 
Arglebargle October 12, 2014
What do I use my slow cooker for? EVERYTHING. White beans and ham hocks (BEST breakfast ever); boneless, skinless chicken thighs spiced for quesadillas; I cook whole chickens in there with onions and carrots and celery, take the meat off, throw the bones back in and add water and then make stock; for Thanksgiving I make my stuffing in there and then make my potatoes and keep them warm until serving time (I think I got that technique from Food52!); good roast need from cheap cuts--absolutely EVERYTHING. I have two: a 7qt one with a timer that I got at Costco for $40, and a smaller 4qt one without a timer once I realized how awesome slow cookers are.
 
Pamela H. October 12, 2014
Hands down my favorite recipe for the slow cooker is my pot of pinto beans. I still pre-soak my beans, but right before I go to bed, I toss diced onions and peppers to about a pound of beans along with a small beef roast or other cut of meat I have on hand. Cover it generously with homemade chicken broth (that I make in the slow cooker with leftover rotisserie chicken) and set it to low. I wake up to the most delightful aroma and the beans are ready to eat whenever we choose to. No fail! Did this last night as a matter of fact and can't wait to dig in to them around lunch!
 
Ksmith October 10, 2014
Can anyone advise on when my crockpot is kaput? The low setting has seemed abnormally high lately, food cooking a lot sooner than I expect it to. It's 11 years old and I'm wondering if it's time to retire it.<br />
 
I_Fortuna October 12, 2014
I m recommending the Instant Pot Duo. It pressure cooks, slow cooks, cooks rice, and makes yogurt. It is a bit pricey but now I can get rid of or donate 4 other appliances. <br />My slow cooker I have now, I have had for over 10 years. I bought it on sale at a department store in California for $60. It has been great but now I want just one appliance instead of a slower cooker, rice maker, yogurt maker and stove top pressure cooker.
 
AntoniaJames October 7, 2014
To answer the question, how do I use my slow cooker? Blueberry butter (blueberries, sugar, lid on, tip it open slightly after an hour, wait 4-5 hours, done!)<br />Bacon "carnitas" - slow cooked squares of bacon that get chewy and seem more deeply flavored.<br />Brisket.<br />Mulled drinks when having people over in the winter, and I need all my burners on the stove.<br /><br />When the boys were little, I used to make something I called "Cheaters Chili" (first recipe I ever published -- in The Lake School Cookbook): can of kidney or pinto beans, can of diced tomatoes, big container of fresh salsa from Trader Joe's (i.e., ready-chopped raw vegetables / aromatics), heaping spoonfuls of adobo seasoning and chili powder, 2 T. tomato paste to thicken the cooking liquid from the vegetables. Cook all day. Serve to boys with cheddar cheese on top and baked tortilla chips for scooping it up, instead of a fork or spoon. They loved it!! ;o) <br />
 
Adriana A. October 7, 2014
There are so many sizes of slow cookers!! I want to buy one but have no idea which one would be best, I'll be cooking for a family of 4. Help please!
 
Adriana A. October 7, 2014
Sorry, also which one would you recommend since I have never used one, probably a very basic one?
 
Susan W. October 7, 2014
Adriana, I like the simple crock pot brand with the glass lid. You can get it with bells and whistles like digital timers (useful if you need it to turn to warm because you aren't home) or the simple dial version with low, high and warm. It's oval, so much easier to fit large roasts, whole chickens or ribs in it. It's either 6 or 6.5 qt. I forget which. I've had mine forever and use it at least once a week and more often in the cold seasons.
 
Michele S. October 7, 2014
I just got a new slow cooker that is programmable. It goes for however long you ask it to on high or low, and then automatically switches to warm after that. It also has a probe so you can cook a cut of meat to a certain doneness. I am using it for the first time today but think it will be fab! Today, I put in potatoes, onions, carrots, chicken breasts, red peppers, zucchini, and salad turnips and then added a 28 oz can of peeled Marzano tomatoes and some chicken broth, turned it to high and let it rip for 8 hours. Will let you know how it turns out!
 
AntoniaJames October 7, 2014
Making oatmeal in a slow cooker is tricky. I don't think I'd follow the rule of using 1/2 the liquid. And I'd only do it in a very small slow cooker, as I don't think the steam would be reabsorbed in the oats otherwise. Of course, I'd never use a slow cooker anyway for steel cut oats because with an additional thirty seconds of active time in the evening, and another 10 seconds of active time in the morning, it can easily be done on the stove: Put water and oats in a small heavy saucepan with a good lid. (Add raisins, dried cranberries, etc., if using.) Bring to a boil; let simmer for two minutes. Immediately put the lid on, turn off the heat and let sit overnight. In the morning, give the oats a good stir, add cinnamon + allspice, if using, turn on the stove for about a minute, stirring occasionally, until heated. Serve! In my kitchen, this is easier (as my slow cooker is in a cabinet, and not on the counter); plus this is foolproof. ;o)
 
Julie W. October 7, 2014
thats a good refinement on how I do oatmeal and I never thought of putting the dried fruit in then which is such a great idea
 
AntoniaJames October 7, 2014
The dried fruit sweetens the oatmeal that way. Also, it's one fewer thing to do in the morning. ;o)
 
Rachel M. October 7, 2014
I'd love to prep meals in my slow cooker before work, but most recipes I see involve cooking 4-6 or 6-8 hours, and I'm gone for 10. Anyone have recommendations for recipes that can withstand 10 hours of cooking time?
 
AntoniaJames October 7, 2014
I've never tried this, so this is just an idea (not a tried and true method): Go to a good hardware store to get a timer device that goes into the wall into which your plug your slow cooker. Set for an hour less than prescribed, as the cooker will retain heat once turned off. Anyone else ever tried this? It might take some experimenting, as results will no doubt vary due to differences in ingredients, heating / retention properties of your slow cooker. ;o)
 
HalfPint October 7, 2014
@Rachel, my smaller crockpot does not have a timer, so I bought a programable timer from a hardware store (~$10) and set it to turn on the crockpot for a specified time and then shut off before the food gets overcooked. This has worked very well for years. Newer slow cookers has timers on them now and it's a great feature to have. While my larger and newer slowcooker has the timer, it doesn't shut it off, but goes into a Warm mode which can still cook the food. So I just set the timer for half the cook time and it switches over to Warm mode and remains there until we get home in the evening. This has worked out well since my days are usually 12+ hours before I come home.
 
bulldawgmama October 7, 2014
I'm with you @rachel! So if I follow @halfpint's suggestion, for recipes that will finish before I get home, use half the time and just let the crockpot switch to warm and not worry about it? If that's what you're saying, you may have just changed my life.<br />
 
HalfPint October 7, 2014
@bulldawgmama, just to clarify: <br />the newer slow cookers have a built-in timer that will switch to Warm mode after the time is complete. Haven't seen a model where you can input exact start & stop times. For my slow cooker, even the Warm setting can get quite hot and continue cooking the food, so through trial and error, I learned to program for half the cooking time, then Warm mode until I get home at around 6pm in the evening. Your slow cooker may be different (they all seem to have different personalities if you ask me), so you might have to experiment.<br /><br />If you buy a timer (like the ones used for lighting), after the time is up, the entire cooker is shut off. Which may just mean that you would have to reheat when you have dinner, but it sure beats overcooking food.
 
bulldawgmama October 7, 2014
Thanks, @halfpint. I have a slowcooker with a timer and it switches to warm when the timer ends so I will give this a try. Thanks for the clarification.
 
fearlessem October 7, 2014
If you're worried about meat overcooking on the bottom of the slow cooker, why on earth would you put vegetables there, which are much more likely to overcook and turn to mush?
 
AntoniaJames October 7, 2014
I could see putting onions in first, as I don't care whether they turn mushy or not in anything I'm cooking in the slow cooker. I've never tried this, but I suspect that carrots, if not sliced too thinly, would hold up just fine. But your point is well taken! ;o)
 
Windischgirl October 12, 2014
Actually, because most vegetables are denser than meat, they will take longer to cook, and do better if they are sitting in the liquid in the crockpot as well. I'm thinking carrots, potatoes, squash, celery, etc. Softer veggies like broccoli, mushrooms, zucchini, and the like should go on top--you're right--and could also be added in the last hour or two so as to avoid overcooking. Depending on the cut of meat, putting it at the bottom of the crockpot could result in an overcooked rubbery or dried out texture...also not pleasant.
 
HalfPint October 7, 2014
I make a brown sugar-mustard glazed corned brisket in the slow cooker. It's dead simple: together brown sugar with spicy brown mustard, slather on brisket, throw into slow cooker, and cook for 4-6 hours on low or until brisket is tender, but not falling apart. I leave the fat cap on and add no liquid. Final product is a moist, tender brisket that can be sliced without falling apart. It's not greasy and there's very little if any liquid or fat. My husband usually hates boiled corned beef brisket, but he LOVES corned beef cooked this way.
 
AntoniaJames October 7, 2014
Sounds delicious, HP!! ;o)