The Complete Slow Cooker Guide
A complete guide to preparing foods for slow cooking and using your slow cooker. With these slow cooker tips, you will be cooking the best tasty slow cooker meals.
As a busy mom of four, cooking dinner at dinnertime is not easy. With my slow cooker, I can get dinner started earlier in the day rather than in the evening when everyone is tired and cranky.
Most slow cooker recipes can be prepped in 30 minutes or less, and many take just 10 to 15 minutes of active prep time. When dinner time comes, the only thing left to do is serve a delicious home cooked meal.
Whether you’ll be out of the house all day or just appreciate the convenience of making your dinner ahead of time, slow cooker recipes are a convenient way to cook. From soups and stews to roasts and even pasta dishes and casseroles, crock pot recipes are an easy way to feed your family. The best part is that you’ll have a hot meal ready to serve at the end of a long day.
Below are all of the slow cooker basics, plus tips and tricks that I have learned after using my slow cooker hundreds of times. These tips for how to use a slow cooker will help you to make the best, make ahead meals.
Slow Cooker Basics
What is a Slow Cooker?
- A slow cooker is an electric appliance that can cook food slowly over a period of time, usually 2 to 12 hours. To use a slow cooker, food is placed in a stoneware insert inside the slow cooker base. Heat is distributed from both the bottom and sides of the cooking vessel. You should always cook with the slow cooker lid on, so that the heat remains trapped inside the slow cooker to cook your meal.
- If you are cooking for a family, I recommend a 5 or 6 quart slow cooker. Most of the slow cooker recipes that you find are tested in a 5 or 6 quart cooker. This inexpensive slow cooker is similar to the one I use.
- If you are cooking for one or two, a small slow cooker, such as 3 quart or 4 quart, may be ideal for you. You can halve recipes and cook them in a smaller slow cooker, but you may need to decrease the cook time a little.
- Always cook with the slow cooker lid on. This will ensure that the heat stays in and the cooking temperature is maintained. My slow cooker lid has clips on each side to seal it on tight, which is also convenient for travel to potlucks and family dinners.
- Do not open your slow cooker during the cook time unless directed by the recipe. Each time you open your slow cooker, heat escapes and the cook time will be extended by about 30 minutes. You may remove the lid to check if your meal is done during the last hour or so of cooking.
- Avoid overfilling your slow cooker. A general rule is that it should not be more than 3/4 full. Try to fill your slow cooker at least 1/2 full to help food cook evenly.
- The less full your slow cooker is, the faster it will cook. For example, if you are making crockpot shredded chicken, two chicken breasts will cook faster than six chicken breasts.
- If you are cooking for one or two, you can halve most slow cooker recipes. You may need to reduce the cook time a little. You can double slow cooker recipes as long as they will fit in your slow cooker without filling it more than 3/4 full. If your slow cooker is very full you may have to increase the cook time.
- This might seem obvious, but always make sure to plug in and turn on your slow cooker after adding your ingredients. I’ve made the mistake of forgetting to start mine and it’s a real bummer to have to throw away food because of food safety concerns.
- Put tougher cuts of meat and heartier vegetables, such as beef and root vegetables, in your slow cooker first. This way, they will be on the bottom and closer to the heat source. More delicate foods, such as broccoli, should go on top.
- Some recipes call for adding ingredients with quick cooking times, such as pasta, near the end of the cook time. Others call for thickening a sauce on the high setting after the rest of the cooking is done. If a recipe says to cook on high for 10 minutes to cook pasta or thicken a sauce, the actual cook time will depend on your particular slow cooker. It will also depend on whether your slow cooker was already cooking on the high setting or was on the low setting. If you switch from low to high, it will take additional time to reach high heat.
Low vs High Cook Settings
- Most slow cooker recipes will take about twice as long to cook on the low setting as the high setting. In general, low is about 200° F and high is about 300° F. The crock pot temperature may vary a bit between different slow cookers.
- For many foods, the low setting will give you better texture and flavor. That’s the beauty of a slow cooker – cooking low and slow really develops the flavors of your meal. With that being said, I recommend choosing whether to use the low or high setting based on your schedule and what time of day you are able to start your slow cooker. Many recipes will include the cook times for both low and high.
- Many slow cooker recipe cook times are flexible so you can cook them longer on the low setting if you are out of the house for the day. This is true for most soups and stews, for example. However, for other recipes that include boneless chicken breasts, rice, pasta, or vegetables that fall apart (for example broccoli or zucchini), extra cook time may make them mushy or the meat tough.
Slow Cooker Food Safety
- USDA Food Safety Guidelines for slow cookers state to always thaw meat or poultry before putting it in your slow cooker. Since a slow cooker heats up slowly, frozen meats may stay in a temperature range (40-140 degrees F) that allows bacteria to grow for too long.
- For food safety, you never want to do a delayed start with a programmable slow cooker. After cooking, it is okay to set your slow cooker to switch to
keep warm. The keep warm setting is designed to keep food at a safe temperature until you eat it. Depending on your slow cooker, keep warm may continue to cook your food. I err on the side of caution and don’t use keep warm for more than 2 hours, but many say you can safely leave it on warm for up to 4 hours (some dishes may be overcooked).
- A general rule of thumb is that foods should be refrigerated within 2 hours after they finish cooking.
- You can do a simple test to see if your slow cooker is working properly. Fill your slow cooker halfway full with cool water. Turn the slow cooker on the low setting and “cook” the water for 8 hours on low (do not remove the lid during this time). After 8 hours, take off the lid and immediately check the water temperature using an instant read thermometer. The water should be 185° F. If the water temperature is lower, your slow cooker may not be heating properly. If the water is hotter than 185° F your slow cooker may cook hotter than average, so you may need to reduce the cook time a bit when you follow a recipe.
Prepping Meals Ahead for Slow Cooking
- You can do some of the prep work the evening before you plan to cook a slow cooker recipe. You can chop vegetables, cut up meat, and make sauces.
- Whenever you prep ingredients ahead of time for slow cooking, store them in a bowl, covered, in your refrigerator. Transfer the food to your slow cooker insert when you are ready to start cooking.
- It is not recommended that you refrigerate the ingredients that you have prepped in your slow cooker insert. Cooking in a cold insert is a food safety issue because it may take too long to heat up. Some inserts may also crack if exposed to abrupt temperature changes. With that being said, many people do store prepped ingredients in their insert in the refrigerator so it’s up to you to decide what you are comfortable with.
- Freezer to slow cooker meals are a great make ahead option. Try these delicious freezer to crockpot recipes: Slow Cooker Meatballs, Slow Cooker White Chicken Chili, Crockpot Taco Soup.
- Many slow cooker meals freeze well after cooking. Soups, stews, and pasta dishes are examples of dishes that freeze well. I recommend freezing in individual portions, or in amounts that your family will consume in one meal.
- Cool foods completely before freezing.
- To avoid freezer burn, freeze in airtight containers and fill the container almost to the top to minimize exposure to air.
- Consume foods within three months of freezing.
How to Get the Best Flavor from Slow Cooker Recipes
- Brown ground meat on the stove before adding it to your slow cooker. This gives the best flavor and prevents an oily end result.
- For other meats, browning adds flavor but can often be skipped in the interest of time. Sautéing vegetables on the stove will also add flavor. Some foods, especially onions and fresh garlic, have better flavor after a quick sauté on the stove.
- When cooking meat, trim excess fat before cooking to keep the fat from ending up in your sauce. After cooking, you can let the food rest for 5 to 10 minutes and then skim off excess fat.
- Be careful to not overcook meats that tend to dry out easily, such as boneless chicken breasts. Use an instant read thermometer to check the internal temperature of the chicken. As soon as it reaches 165° F at the thickest part, chicken is done.
- Fresh citrus (zest or juice) and fresh herbs brighten up the flavor of slow cooked food. Add them after cooking to preserve their flavor.
- While most fresh herbs should be added after cooking, there are a few heartier herbs, such as rosemary and thyme, that you may add before cooking.
Taking Care of Your Slow Cooker
- Metal utensils can scratch the ceramic or stoneware insert of your slow cooker. Instead, use a wood or nylon serving spoon.
- When you finish eating your meal, transfer the leftovers to a storage container. Immediately give your slow cooker insert a quick rinse with hot water and then fill it with hot soapy water. Let it sit for a few minutes and it will wash easily.
- Slow cooker liners are a convenient option for those who find washing their slow cooker difficult.
- Stoneware inserts can crack if exposed to abrupt temperature changes. Do not refrigerate your insert before use or fill it with cold water right after cooking.
Can I Cook Slow Cooker Recipes in the Instant Pot?
- It is possible to cook many slow cooker recipes in an Instant Pot but not without testing the steps and cook times first. Here are my best Instant Pot recipes.
- Instant Pot recipes must have at least 1 cup of liquid to allow the pot to reach pressure. Not all slow cooker recipes have this much liquid.
- You can use the slow cooker function on an Instant Pot to cook slow cooker meals, but in my experience this does not work as well as a regular slow cooker.
Slow Cooker Recipes
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