Welcome to the age of the crock pot.
Browse the kitchen appliance aisle at Target or any other bustling general outfitter, and there they are: A line of slow cookers from basic to tricked out, as if every modern kitchen needed to have one, the way we all need microwaves and coffee makers.
In fact, over the past five years, as the machines themselves have gotten better and most of us have made the odd beef stew or overnight oatmeal, the slow cooker has become an essential cooking appliance. And while the slow cooker is among the simplest appliances to use (basically, you turn it on and you’re cooking), not all crock-pot dishes are created equal. What you cook, how you assemble it in the cooker, and how long you let it simmer—these are all crucial points in winning at slow cooking.
The 30-Second History of a Suddenly Inevitable Appliance
There were prototypes of the modern slow cooker in the 1950s (the Radiant Heat Corporation of New Jersey introduced something called the Simmer Crock), but the kind of slow cooker we all have simmering away on our counters is less than 50 years old. In the late 1960s, a manufacturing company in Chicago—the Naxon Utilities Corporation—was working on a passive electric cooking appliance. Company head Irving Naxon was inspired by the Sabbath-day dishes in the Jewish tradition, one-pot stews like cholent, that could be popped into the gradually cooling embers of a wood-fired oven overnight, to cook without active labor.
In 1970 The Rival Company acquired Naxon, and in 1971 launched the perfected slow cooker, called the Crock-Pot. Timing was everything. The Crock-Pot was the perfect aide for women who, in the 1970s, began working outside the home in bigger and bigger numbers—they could load their slow cookers up in the morning, plug them in, and dinner would cook itself.
In 1974, Rival innovated what would become an essential feature: the removable stoneware insert, which conducted heat evenly, was easy to clean, and just seemed comfortingly old-timey. Since then, slow cookers have been sold, explicitly or not, with an understanding that they’re the ultimate cooking appliances for convenience, ease, and saving time.
About that last point: Actually, slow cookers don’t save significant amounts of kitchen time, but they do force you to become more efficient, doing your dinner prep first thing in the morning, before work (even the night before, if you prep and pop the crock in the fridge).
Have no illusions about slow cooking: They do not eliminate the need for prep or preliminary steps such as browning meats and soaking beans (though you can certainly just dump a bunch of raw stuff in a crock pot, it doesn’t yield optimal results). That said, slow cookers can be amazing tools to help you cook better and—perhaps most important of all—improve your kitchen management skills. Which one to buy, though?
One Crucial Note About Buying a Slow Cooker
At this point, as a beginner, you probably don’t need an exhaustive buying guide. As with anything new, go (wait for it) slow. You shouldn’t invest in a higher-end slow cooker to start, until you see whether one has a permanent place in your kitchen, worthy of the counter and cupboard space it’ll hog. To begin, consider buying a relatively basic low-end slow cooker: one with a simple dial with three options, warm, low, and high, and that you turn on by plugging in. Once you determine that the crock pot is for you, you can upgrade to one that’s programmable, allowing you to cycle through different temperature’s in the cooking process, and that can shut off once the central protein reaches a predetermined internal temp.
To give you some sense of the options and features out there (and how to start thinking about seeking them out), we did a side-by-side comparison of three popular models: the Cuisinart Programmable Slow Cooker, the Crock-Pot Countdown Touchscreen Digital Slow Cooker, and the Hamilton Beach Set & Forget 6-Quart Programmable Slow Cooker. Check it out to see which one we liked best, and why.
A capacity of 6 quarts is pretty standard for modern slow cookers. If you have a small family or aren’t cooking for a party, that can be a daunting size. On the plus side, it’s a comfortable volume for holding a whole chicken, a 4-pound cut of pork butt, or a good-sized pot roast that’ll yield the dividend of freezer-appropriate leftovers. Small crock pots are ideal for small households, but you’ll probably have to adapt some recipes (reduce the ingredients, of course, shave an hour off the cook time) since most are written for large slow cookers.
The Temp Issue
The crock pot works via the two main factors that regulate cooking generally: time and temperature. At its range of settings, the typical slow cooker keeps food between 180°F and about 210°F (on the threshold of boiling, in other words). This range is critical for producing tender meat and dried beans, while keeping things well above the danger zone for bacterial growth (140°F). The basic options are limited: cook at low temp for 8 to 10 hours, or—if you want to speed things up—at high for 4 to 5.
In reality, what happens at the lower setting is that slow cooker takes a lot longer to get to the 210°F temperature, which is the all-important simmering zone. It’s a gentler, longer ride, in other words, to get to the destination. Starting your slow cooker on high means it’ll just get there faster, but both dishes will inevitably cook at the same temp. Higher-end slow cookers will shut off when they reach a pre-programmed temp, and hold the food for hours at a safe, bacteria-denying temperature.
The upshot: If you’ll be out of the house all day, cook on low. This is a kind of hedge against cooking your dinner to mush.
Also critical to reaching and maintaining desired temps: Make sure the lid is securely in place, with no cracks through which steam could escape. Maintaining a stable temperature is everything with slow cooking. If you’re working with an older slow cooker lid that’s been through the dishwasher a few too many times and no longer keeps a tight seal, crimp a sheet of foil over the lid to keep things tight.
And don’t keep peeking to see how that pot roast is progressing! Every time you tip the lid, crucial heat escapes. If enough of it vanishes, you’ll need to increase the cook time.
In the end, if, despite all the care you’ve taken, you come home to find that your red beans have semi-dissolved and turned way too soft, you can always hack some texture by garnishing with something firm and crunchy, such as toasted breadcrumbs or croutons. It’ll still be delicious.
The Fear Factor
Really, there’s nothing to stress about with a slow cooker. If you do no other preliminary preparations, all you need is half a dozen sturdy ingredients, including a protein that takes well to long cooking (beans, carrots, onion, celery, winter squash, pork shoulder, beef chuck, turkey legs, and so on), dump them all in the crock pot, turn it to low for several hours, and what emerges is almost guaranteed to be hit the spot.
Take a little more care, though—spend a bit more time—and what emerges is going to be fantastic.
If it’s hard for you to mister the time to set up a slow cooker in the morning before you have to dash out, do it the night before, cover the crock, and stick it in the fridge. Next morning, all you have to do is insert the crock and start cooking, even if you don’t have time to bring everything up again to room temperature.
Another tip: Spray the inside of your crock with nonstick cooking spray before you begin to layer in the ingredients—this will help with potential sticking, and make cleaning up almost as easy as setting up the dish in the first place.
Although you can just mingle everything in the crock willy-nilly, slow cookers do have hot zones—namely, the bottom and sides. That means that layering sturdy ingredients in the hot zone, and placing more delicate ones on top, should yield optimal results.
Onions in particular are great insulators for the bottom and sides of your slow cooker, though really, any bed of vegetables is ideal for protecting the proteins in the middle. Even if the veggies get some slight caramelization from these hot spots, so much the better for the cooking liquid.
Also: Don’t pack food more than 2/3rds up the sides of the crock. There’s a risk of overflowing, and anyway things will be unlikely to receive the benefits of even cooking.
In the perfect world, meats would emerge from the slow cooker browned and flavorful, but that isn’t the world we live in. To achieve the proper richness for that beef bourguignon or coq au vin, you’re going to have to brown the meats first—in a skillet on the stovetop—before layering them in your crock (and please don’t try to brown the meats in the slow cooker crock itself—it won’t work, for one, and you’ll risk damaging it).
Make sure, after browning, that you deglaze the skillet as you would for a regular braise, and add the deglazing juices to the crock. If you’re browning meat with a good layer of fat, like pork shoulder, make sure you drain off most of the fat first, before deglazing.
Heartier, denser ingredients can go into the crock together, Anything softer and more delicate (tomatoes, spinach, chard, fresh herbs, and so on) should go in during the last hour of cooking. That’s true with dairy, too (cream or crème fraîche, for instance): Add them at the last hour to prevent curdling.
You should season the ingredients in your slow cooker a bit more aggressively than for analog versions of the same dish. Since slow cookers cook over a much lover period of time, things like herbs and spices (including black pepper) tend to fade. You might consider salting a little more heavily, depending on the recipe, but be conservative, and above all use your best judgment.
Meats that require long cooking to be tender were made for the slow cooker (vice versa, actually but you know what we mean). Note that if you decide not to brown the meat before you add it to the slow cooker crock, you’ll need to trim more fat than usual. Browning involves rendering out some of the fat, so you’ll need to compensate by trimming first.
Make sure you soak them in water overnight before piling them into your slow cooker. This way, they’ll be beautifully tender after several hours in the crock pot.
Though you can certainly make vegetarian dishes in the slow cooker—something like black bean chili is your best bet—slow cooked vegetables often wind up sacrificing their own taste and texture to the greater good of the dish. That means they can really lack flavor by the time the timer dings. If you’re using vegetables like carrots and celery for seasoning, as so many stews do in the form of mirepoix, skip the chopping all together. Use large chunks, like these carrots and celery, and then consider removing them before serving if you want your meal to look more refined.
You should use less liquid in a slow cooker than you would doing things the old fashioned way. That’s because liquid doesn’t really evaporate from the slow cooker. And since a lot of things you’ll be cooking (vegetables and meats, primarily) contain a lot of liquid of their own, slowly releasing as they cook, you need to account for this. The standard rules of regular braising, that the meat should be covered at least halfway with liquid when you start, definitely do not apply to crock pots. If your liquid comes about 1/8 inch up the sides of the meat, you’re probably okay.
Since the steady heat of slow cookers releases the liquid from meats and vegetables and very little evaporates, there’s no reduction either. That means that the liquid you end up with in the slow cooker, even after 10 hours, won’t have much body. To account for this, you can lightly dredge your meats with flour before browning, in the time-honored way that adds body to stews. Likewise, adding a small amount of cornstarch slurry (1 part cornstarch dissolved in 2 parts water) an hour before the dish is ready should do the trick.
10 ESSENTIAL SLOW COOKER RECIPES
Low and slow is the best way to cook beef stew, which makes a crock pot the perfect vessel to create a stew that is rich and tender. Our favorite way is to serve it over a bowl of steamed potatoes or egg noodles. Get our recipe for Slow Cooker Beef Stew recipe.
Our slow cooker pulled pork is the definition of easy. Just rub down the pork butt with a mixture of dark brown sugar, chili powder, cumin and cinnamon and stick it in the slow cooker with some garlic, onions and chicken broth. Six to ten hours later, the pork is ready to be shredded and slathered with BBQ sauce. Get our Easy Slow Cooker Pulled Pork recipe.
3. Coq au Vin
Coq au Vin, translated as rooster/cock in red wine, is a traditional french dish that involves slowly braising chicken with wine, mushrooms, vegetables and herbs. And while you can cook it the traditional way, using a slow cooker is easier and will lead to a richer, more layered dish. Get our Coq au Vin recipe.
While this won’t make you forget about that late night bowl of ramen you slurped on the streets of Shinjuku, our slow cooker version is about as good as you’ll get for a homemade version. Get our Slow Cooker Pork Ramen recipe.
While what exactly goes into a traditional Filipino chicken adobo is up to debate, our version still hits all the right notes. Chicken, onions, soy sauce and vinegar stew away in the slow cooker all day for a mild, sweet and a bit tangy. Get our Slow Cooker Chicken Adobo recipe.
Think of this as your veg and your grain-based salad all in one. The slow cooker helps the peppers get soft and sweet while the bean-studded quinoa turns each package into something hearty and substantial. Get our Slow Cooker Quinoa-Stuffed Peppers recipe.
Bet you didn’t know you could cook hot wings in a slow cooker. The perfect recipe for a weeknight game night, our slow cooker wings are unbelievably tender. Just throw them in the oven for a quick crisp when you get home and it's game time. Get our Slow Cooker Hot Wings recipe.
As the weather starts to get a little cooler, nothing hits the spot more than a bowl of chilli. After spending all day simmering in the slow cooker, our spicy beef chili will definitely warm you up (thanks in part to a healthy serving of pickled jalapenos). Get our Spicy Slow Cooker Beef Chili recipe.
The best greens are full of smoky flavor with a hint of sweetness and tang. This slow cooker recipe ensures that they are completely infused, turning them into a powerhouse on the plate. Get our Slow Cooker Collard Greens recipe.
The peach might just be the king of summer fruits. By incorporating them into this slow cooker crumble, all their sweetest, most succulent flavors and juices really shine. Get our Slow Cooker Peach Crumble recipe.