Welcome to Slow Cooker Week! We’re sharing all our favorite Crock Pot recipes, tips, tricks, and advice this week—and including the Instant Pot, of course, since it slow cooks too. Here, learn everything you need to know about using your slow cooker to the best of its abilities (and what you should never do when cooking in a Crock Pot).
A Crock-Pot takes up a lot of counter and cupboard space, but it’s convenient and doesn’t take a lot of headspace. This no-brainer is one of our favorite cooking methods when it gets chilly outside because it’s ideal for comforting soups and stews, beans, and heavy, cheap cuts of meat that turn tender after receiving the low-and-slow cooking treatment. It even does cozy cold weather cocktails.
However, it’s also great for warm weather because you don’t have to be near the hot cooking device while it’s doing its miraculous work. That means you can do your summer hot dogs in the slow cooker, and your fall football season grub. You can also poach salmon, make party mix, and “bake” a hands-off chocolate cake, as well as craft your own condiments like blueberry butter and bacon compote. And that’s still just for starters.
In the market for one of these semi-magical devices? Check out our round-up of The 10 Best Slow Cookers to Buy in 2020.
While using a slow cooker may not be rocket science, you can mess it up. So remember these tips and get simmering.
How to Use a Slow Cooker
1. Preheat your Crock-Pot. This is something many people overlook, and in some cases it isn’t necessary, but if you have a recipe that calls for browning meat or aromatics on the stovetop first (common in braises and stews), let your slow cooker heat up while you do that; then you’re adding hot food to a hot crock, and not losing any energy. (We don’t recommend browning in the Crock-Pot itself because the heat is harder to control—though some newer models have specific saute settings.) One caveat: If you fill your crock the night before and leave it in the fridge, which is a totally valid option, do not preheat the slow cooker base, as it could cause the cold crock to crack. Know that the food will also take a bit longer to cook in this case.
2. Spritz some nonstick spray or rub some butter inside the crock before you add ingredients. This helps prevent the foods in those areas from burning (and applies whether you preheat it or not).
3. Layer sturdy ingredients—like onions and other root vegetables—on the bottom and sides, where the hotter zones are. Place more delicate ingredients—like meat—on top and in the middle.
4. Don’t pack your slow cooker more than 2/3 full. It could overflow or not cook everything evenly if you stuff too much in there. Try to keep the liquid level at least halfway up the crock though, to prevent drying or burning.
5. Brown your meat in a skillet first to get maximum, robust flavor. (Some people prefer to brown at the end to keep that crusty outer texture, but the meat is often so fall-apart soft by then, it can be tricky.) Then deglaze the skillet and add the deglazing juices to the crock. Drain off most of the fat of fattier meats like pork shoulder first, before deglazing. Don’t forget to refer back to #1 and preheat your slow cooker while you’re doing this!
6. If you want to make sure the liquid at the end is thicker, dredge your meat in flour before browning. Or add a little blend of one part cornstarch and two parts water an hour before the dish is ready.
7. Softer, more delicate ingredients, such as tomatoes and spinach, should go in during the last hour of cooking. Similarly, add dairy items, like cream, at the last half hour or less to prevent curdling.
8. When your soup or stew recipe calls for adding broth or water, add it after you put the solid ingredients in the crock. Then pour the liquid over that, to prevent overfilling. You can add more liquid just before serving if you want the broth to be thinner.
9. Season a bit more aggressively with this method because with slow cooking, the potency can fade after several hours. That’s especially true with fresh herbs, which should go in during the last 15 minutes.
10. Don’t use the warm setting to cook. The typical slow cooker keeps food between 180°F and about 210°F, with at least three options: high (cook for eight to 10 hours), low (four to five hours), and warm, to maintain the dish’s temperature after it’s done cooking until you’re ready to serve it. Don’t leave it at warm for more than four hours.
11. Don’t open the lid during cooking. That will lower the temperature, adding to the time you need to cook your food. Try to lift it only near the end of cooking time, to check doneness or add the delicate ingredients mentioned above.
12. After you unplug the Crock-Pot, let it cool before removing the crock. With silicone oven mitts and a trivet or hot pad handy, you can transfer it to a counter or table for serving, but don’t put a hot crock in the sink or dishwasher—or the fridge.
13. Don’t reheat food in the Crock-Pot. If you refrigerate leftovers inside the crock itself, you can reheat it in the oven at 350-400°F (most stoneware crocks are oven safe up to that temperature, but always check your manufacturer’s instructions to be sure).
Crock Pot Recipes
Need more slow cooker ideas? Check out some of our favorite crock pot recipes below to get you started.
Use your Crock-Pot in a way you never considered before: For an amazingly full-flavored dip. The trick is all in the caramelized onions. Get our Slow-Cooker French Onion Dip recipe.
Spicy, smoky, tender wings are just the thing to keep your tailgating crew happy, regardless how the game is going. They’re crisped up in the oven just before serving for the best of both textural worlds. Get our Slow Cooker Hot Wings recipe.
This is a little reminiscent of 1950s-style cooking, when homecooks nationwide celebrated the convenience of prepackaged foods. Before we learned that fresh is better for us (and tastes better), even though it’s more work. But come on, this taco soup is so flavorful and meaty. How can you say no? Grab that can opener and get cracking. Get our Crock Pot Taco Soup recipe.
Related Reading: 12 Easy Slowcooker Recipes Perfect for a Weeknight Dinner
Cheese. Sausage. Breakfast. Yes. Yes. Yes. Brown the meat, whisk the eggs, mix everything, and dump it in. Cook. Eat. Groan with pleasure. The end. Get our Slow Cooker Cheesy Sausage Breakfast Casserole recipe.
If you want a healthier breakfast, the Crock-Pot’s got you covered there too. Set it, forget it, and wake up to creamy, comforting oatmeal to top however your heart desires. Get our Slow Cooker Steel-Cut Oatmeal recipe.
Pick up a 3-pound chuck roast at the grocery store (or butcher or farmers’ market…or maybe one of those grocery delivery services, like Fresh Direct). Now is the time to make the most classic wintertime Crock-Pot dish. Ever. Get our Slow Cooker Beef Stew recipe.
See, not every recipe has to be laden with meat. (And yes, you can cook rice in the Crock-Pot!) This one has two eggs in it, that’s it, as far as animal products. Oh, and a little butter. But then there are peas, carrots, shallots, and corn. And some edamame gives you more protein. Did we mention it tastes great? There’s that. Get our Slow Cooker Fried Rice recipe.
Related Video: Spicy Slow Cooker Pulled Pork
Visit our Slow Cooker Week headquarters for everything else you need to know (and cook).
Header image by Chowhound