The Essential Beginner's Guide to Cooking with Your Slow Cooker

By: Hilary Meyer, EatingWell Recipe Contributor

Simplify your dinner routine with this family-friendly, easy-to-use appliance.

Pictured Recipe: Slow-Cooker Baby Back Ribs

For busy parents, the slow cooker is a real lifesaver. It's simple to use, not terribly expensive, and with very little effort up front, you can have a warm, inviting meal ready for you and your family when everyone comes home. We think that alone is worth the counter space. So if you're new to slow cookers or just need some inspiration to dust off the one you already have, read on to get familiar with the basics and learn some new tips for slow-cooker success.

Related: All the Healthy Slow-Cooker Recipes You Need

What to Look for in a Slow Cooker

Pictured Recipe: Slow-Cooker Vegetable Soup

Slow cookers come in a range of sizes from just a couple of quarts to 8 quarts and beyond. We think a slow cooker within the 5- to 7-quart range is perfect for most recipes. On average, you can expect to serve about 8 people with a 6-quart slow cooker. As with size, prices vary too, from $30 for a basic model to $160 for a programmable model with all the bells and whistles.

The most basic functions you'll need are a High setting, Low setting and a Warm setting to hold the temperature of the food once the cooking is complete. If you plan on having your slow cooker on while you're away from the house, then consider a programmable model that automatically switches to Warm when the cooking is done. This will give you some wiggle room in terms of timing in case you can't get to your slow cooker right away when it's done cooking.

When to Prep Your Slow-Cooker Meals

Pictured Recipe: Slow-Cooker Stout & Chicken Stew

1. Load-&-Go Slow-Cooker Recipes

There are two basic types of slow-cooker recipes: ones you prep and dump right in your slow cooker and walk away, and ones that require a little more work, like browning meat or vegetables on the stove first. You can find great recipes for both, but if you imagine doing your prep work in the morning before work, then keeping it simple with recipes that require only chopping and dumping into your slow cooker may be easier.

Related: Our Best Load-&-Go Slow-Cooker Recipes

2. Slow-Cooker Recipes That Require Additional Prep Steps

If you have time, doing some additional cooking steps before you put your ingredients in the slow cooker can make for a better result. For example, browning your food on the stove first develops a richer flavor. Experiment with recipes that require additional steps on the weekend, or on weekdays you can complete some of the steps the night before so in the morning all you have to do is put your ingredients in the slow cooker. Just be sure to store your food in a storage container and not in the ceramic slow-cooker liner in the fridge. A cold liner is slow to warm up and may pose a food-safety hazard.

How a Slow Cooker Can Save You Time & Money

Pictured Recipe: Slow-Cooked Ranch Chicken and Vegetables

It seems unnatural that something that cooks food slowly could actually save you time, but a slow cooker can be an efficient investment. It's a fix-it-and-forget-it appliance. Once the food is in the slow cooker, you're free to do other things until it's ready, as opposed to the constant stirring that's often needed when you're cooking on the stove.

It can even save you money too. Since slow cookers cook food in larger batches, you can make more than one meal with one round of cooking. Think eating leftovers for lunch instead of eating out, or freezing an uneaten portion of your meal for another night. And if you're a meat eater, tougher less-expensive cuts of meat like pork shoulder or chicken thighs break down and become tender with slow, low cooking.

How to Convert a Recipe for a Slow Cooker

Pictured Recipe: Southwestern Three-Bean and Barley Soup

If your favorite stew or chili recipe is done on the stovetop, chances are you can make it in your slow cooker. It may be a bit trial-and-error at first, but here are a few tips that will help:

Reduce the liquid in your recipe by about half if it's made on the stovetop and you want to make it in your slow cooker. With tight-fitting lids, slow cookers don't allow for much evaporation.

If you're cooking with dried beans, hold off adding acidic ingredients like vinegar and lemon juice until the end. The acid slows down the cooking.

Lastly, pick recipes with tougher cuts of meat like pork shoulder or chicken thighs, as opposed to tenderer cuts like pork loin or chicken breast. Leaner, tenderer cuts become dry and tough with longer cooking times, while the tougher cuts become tender and juicy.

Best Recipes for Slow-Cooking

Pictured Recipe: Slow-Cooker Honey-Orange Chicken Drumsticks

Chilis, soups and stews are the crown jewels of slow cooking, but you can get way more creative. Try lasagna, yes, lasagna in your slow cooker. Got company? You can make overnight oatmeal in your slow cooker to feed a crowd. And you don't need a barbecue or an oven to make tender baby back ribs or BBQ chicken drumsticks. You can season and cook them in your slow cooker too.

Slow-Cooker Tips for Working Parents

Owning a slow cooker can take the stress out of mealtime. What's better than coming home to find your meal ready and waiting? If your primary goal is to have a meal ready when you get home from work, pick a recipe with an appropriate cooking time (around 8 hours) and make sure your slow cooker will automatically switch to warm when the cooking is complete.

If you are planning on leaving your slow cooker for most of the day, you will most likely be cooking on the Low setting to extend the cooking time. The High setting will achieve the same results, but in half the time. Stick with recipes that give you both settings as an option, and choose the setting that fits your needs.

Slow-Cooker Safety

Slow cookers are basically foolproof but there are a few food-safety points to keep in mind. Temperatures between 40° and 140°F fall into the so-called "Danger Zone"—an environment where bacteria thrive. Because of this, you want to heat your food efficiently. So, never cook frozen meat in your slow cooker. It takes too long for the meat to thaw and heat up safely.

Cut up your meat into pieces rather than cooking large pieces. Chicken thighs and drumsticks are fine, but avoid cooking a whole chicken.

And lastly, don't overfill your slow cooker. Aim for about two-thirds full. Any more than that, and the contents may hover too long in the danger zone.

How to Make It a Meal

Soups and stews loaded with veggies can be a complete meal that you pull together right in your slow cooker. But you can also make sauces and sides to feed a crowd too or to freeze and have on hand for another time. Cook meatballs in your slow cooker and serve them over whole-wheat pasta, or make home-made baked beans for a backyard barbecue.

Watch: How to Make Slow-Cooker Moroccan Lentil Soup

More Easy Slow-Cooker Ideas: