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, stews, beans, and heavy, cheap cuts of meat that turn tender after receiving the low-and-slow cooking treatment. It's also great for warm weather because you don't have to be near the hot cooking device while it's doing its magic. Need some good options? Check out Guide's Best Slow Cookers of 2017. While using a slow cooker may not be rocket science, you can mess it up. So remember these tips and get simmering.
- Spritz some nonstick spray or rub some butter up the insides of your Crock-Pot before layering in the ingredients to prevent the foods in those areas from burning.
- Layer sturdy ingredients — like onions and other root vegetables — on the bottom and sides, where the hotter zones are, and place more delicate ingredients — like meat — on top, in the middle.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Softer, more delicate ingredients, such as tomatoes and spinach, should go in during the last hour of cooking. Add dairy items, like cream, at the last half hour or less to prevent curdling.
- When your soup or stew recipe calls for adding broth or water, add it after you put the solid ingredients in the crock, and 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Don't open the lid during cooking because that can lower the temperature, adding to the time you need to cook your food.
- After you unplug the Crock-Pot, let it cool, and remove the leftovers, take out the stoneware from the heating element and put it in the dishwasher, along with the lid.
These five slow-cooker recipes can get you started.
1. Slow-Cooker French Onion Dip
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.
2. Crock Pot Taco Soup
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.
3. Slow Cooker Cheesy Sausage Breakfast Casserole
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.
4. Slow Cooker Beef Stew
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.
5. Slow Cooker Fried Rice
See, not every recipe has to be laden with meat. 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.
— Head Photo: Chowhound.
Amy Sowder is the assistant editor at Chowhound in New York City. She loves cheesy things, especially toasties and puns. She's trying to like mushrooms. Her running habit is the excuse for her gelato passion. Or is it the other way around? Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and her blog, What Do I Eat Now. Learn more at AmySowder.com.