The beauty of using a slow cooker or crock pot is that it’s pretty darn simple. Prep your ingredients, add them to the slow cooker and press Start. But there is a difference between a good slow-cooker meal and a great slow-cooker meal. Here are some tips to keep in mind when you’re using your slow cooker or crock pot.
—Hilary Meyer, Associate Food Editor
Slow cookers are available in a range of sizes, from 1 quart to 8 1/2 quarts. Use the size cooker recommended in each recipe. This helps ensure that the slow cooker isn’t overflowing or underfilled, so that your meal can cook properly. Our slow-cooker recipes work best in a 5- to 6-quart slow cooker.
To make sure your meal is finished in the time listed on your recipe, and to avoid potential food-safety hazards, don’t overfill your slow cooker. Most manufacturers recommend filling them no more than two-thirds full, but it differs among brands, so check your owner’s manual.
Resist the urge to take off the lid and peek at your meal. Opening the slow cooker lets heat escape and slows cooking. Only open it 30 to 45 minutes before the low end of the cooking range to check doneness.
If you want to turn your slow cooker on first thing in the morning, a little planning goes a long way.
• The night before: Cut and trim any meat, chop any vegetables, measure out dry ingredients and prepare any sauce; refrigerate the components in separate containers. (Do not refrigerate components in the slow-cooker insert; a cold insert takes too long to heat up and affects cooking time and food safety.)
• In the morning: Add ingredients to the cooker according to the recipe; reheat any sauce to a simmer before adding. If you won’t be home close to the end of the cooking time, make sure you have a slow cooker that can switch to the Warm setting when cooking is done.
If you’re in a hurry or really prefer to just dump your ingredients in the cooker and go, then you can skip this tip—it’s by no means necessary. But when I have a little extra time, I like to brown my meat and/or vegetables in a skillet before I add it to the cooker. Then I “deglaze” the pan with my liquid to get all the brown, caramelized bits from the sauté pan into the cooker. You’ll end up with a richer flavor that can’t be achieved by slow-cooking alone.
A slow cooker is certainly convenient, but if not used correctly there is the potential for food-safety hazards. Temperatures between 40° and 140°F fall into the so-called “Danger Zone,” since bacteria thrive in these temperatures. When using a slow cooker be sure to take precautions that keep food from being in the Danger Zone for too long. To avoid the Danger Zone, never add frozen ingredients to your cooker, refrigerate any ingredients you’ve prepped ahead in separate storage containers and bring liquids to a simmer if you’re cooking on Low before adding them to your cooker to give the heating process a jump-start. Never attempt to cook a whole chicken or roast in your slow cooker: large hunks of meat won’t cook thoroughly enough in the slow cooker. So when cooking with meat, make sure it’s cut into smaller pieces that will cook throughout.
You may have a 20-year-old slow cooker that still works great, but it’s probably a basic cooker for which you need to time your cooking manually and then be there to turn it off. A programmable slow cooker cooks your meal for a predetermined time and then switches to a setting that keeps the food at a safe temperature until you’re ready to eat. Our favorite is the crock pot 5.5 Quart Smart-Pot (you can get one for around $50). Its digital touchpad allows the user to control the heat settings and time the cooking in increments of 30 minutes up to 20 hours. Find one at crockpot.com.