Slow cookers, or “crockpots” if you’re using the trademarked lingo, are one of the most unappreciated yet effective tools to have in your cooking arsenal. They may seem liken an antiquated appliance, like the automatic can opener, but slow cookers are just as amazing today at making a great meal as they were 40 years ago – maybe more.
The fundamentals are simple: plug it in, add your ingredients, turn the temperature to “low” or high”, and viola – a few hours later you have a luscious meal with minimal prep. Even my dad, who made us primarily pre-cooked chicken and boxed macaroni and cheese when tasked to cook, was able to utilize the slow cooker to its fullest potential.
Cooking food slowly, whether on the stove or in the oven or in a proper slow cooker appliance, allows you to make tough cuts of meat tender, build soups and stews with complex flavors, and braise to absolute perfection. With a $30 electric slow cooker (yes, they’re that cheap), you can make truly spectacular meals while wasting fewer dollars. It’s perfect for people like me on a spending freeze!
At this point, I humbly say I am almost certainly a slow cooking expert. Here are my go-to tips:
1. Slow cooking can be super, super easy… or it can be mostly easy while super, super tasty
Let’s get one thing out of the way: some people think that you should just be able to throw a bunch of meat and canned foods in a slow cooker, walk away for eight hours, and have an amazing meal ready to go. While you can do that, I think the slow cooker really thrives when you use fresh ingredients and do just a little bit of chopping and sauteing before you plug in and go . So accept that you may still need to do 30 minutes of cooking before you set the slow cooker cooking… but your taste buds will thank you for that at dinner time.
2. Don’t overfill the slow cooker and always size up
Slow cookers really need to be half to two-thirds full to work well (or even less). With the exception of some slow cooked baked goods or casseroles, most slow cookers will let you size up with relative ease. That means you can make a small batch of soup in a huge slow cooker and it will turn out just fine. I inherited a circular 4-quart slow cooker from my family, which works great for smaller batches but not at all for big ones, so I recently picked up a oval 7-quart one too. It’s all the slow cooker I’ll ever need.
3. Select a slow cooker with an automatic cook-to-warm feature
More modern slow cookers have a great feature where they can automatically switch from cooking at your set temperature to just keeping your food warm. If you’re planning to slow cook your dinner while you’re at work all day or even slow cook at night while you sleep, I definitely recommend purchasing a slow cooker with this feature. Not all recipes are conducive to sitting on “warm” for two hours while you drive home but many are. This feature could be the difference between a hot meal ready to eat and… overcooked meat.
4. Lift the lid as little as possible
While it’s very tempting to constantly check your brewing dinner and inhale those succulent smells, every time you lift the lid the temperature inside drops and sets back your cooking time. Unless the recipe specifically calls for it, avoid stirring or mixing as little as possible!
5. Meat is king when slow cooking
The truth is, vegetables don’t really need to cook for hours and hours to be delicious! I must prefer to roast my veggies in the oven with some olive oil (getting some crispy caramelization) than braise the bajesus out of them in the slow cooker. So forget that. Instead, put your slow cooker to the test with cheap cuts of meat like chuck roasts and pork shoulders. Or go a little fancy with st. louis ribs or chunks of lamb in stew. It’ll be even better than anything you can achieve on the stove.
6. Brown your meat before you put it in the slow cooker
This is the trick that absolutely can eat up the most amount of time but inevitably pays off in the end. Whether or not your recipe calls for it, I highly recommend browning your meat on the stove before putting it in your slow cooker. It’s not truly necessary if you’re doing pulled meat, like bbq pork for sandwiches, but if you’re cooking chunks of meat like pork belly, quickly brown all the sides on high on your stove to seal in the juices and build a more complex flavor when it’s braising for eight hours.
7. Don’t put frozen ingredients directly in the slow cooker
You’ve likely seen those intriguing little ziplock bags of ready-to-go slow cooker meals on Pinterest. I think they’re a great idea, with one catch – you absolutely must defrost any frozen ingredients in the fridge (or under running water) before you put them in the slow cooker. Frozen or even partially frozen ingredients will prevent your slow cooker from adequately heating up, which means your food won’t cook properly and can even allow bacteria to grow.
While there are tons of great slow cooker recipes online, I highly recommend picking up a cookbook if you’re just getting started. My favorite is the Great American Slow Cooker Book, which is a funny name because it actually has tons of Asian-inspired recipes like Korean short ribs and Chinese pork belly. Plus, it offers three different recipe sizes depending on how big of a batch you want to make AND lets you know how long you can leave the dish on “warm” before it goes bad. It’s a game changer!
Have you ever used a slow cooker before? What’s been your experience?