Learn How to Use a Slow Cooker Like a Pro
No matter how busy your afternoons or evenings, slow cookers allow you to cook more frequently at home and get family dinner on the table according to your schedule. If you want to up your dinner game, use this complete list of slow cooker tips to learn how to elevate your slow cooker dinners from good to great.
Use Real Ingredients For flavor & Texture
We avoided slow cookers for years (our story) because the recipes seemed to be about canned soups and dry packaged salad dressings. But when needed, a slow cooker can be used to braise fresh ingredients into a delicious and satisfying dinner. When you use fresh, real foods your family will love the results.
Using convenience products is also fine, as long as they approximate what you’d make from scratch. Read labels, picking items that contain ingredients you can pronounce and that have a low sodium content. Think canned tomatoes, chutneys, and preserves.
Fresh vegetables are preferred, but if you do use canned or frozen vegetables, add them toward the end, just long enough to heat them through. Learn more about slow cooker vegetables.
Sear, Saute, and Deglaze
Browning boosts flavor. To maximize flavor, you will want to sear your meat, sauté your vegetables, and deglaze the pan just as you normally do when cooking a meal. Most slow cooking websites suggest these steps are “putting in a little extra effort”, but caramelizing ingredients is the basics of cooking. Don't be tempted to skip these steps.
If you want flavorful food, there’s just no getting around essential cooking steps. Plus, browning meats increases the temperature of your food faster and kills surface bacteria. Learn more about slow cooker safety risks to ensure you keep your family safe.
Watch the Wine
A splash of wine or alcohol goes a long way. Deglazing works well, but if you add wine/liquor to a slow cooker without allowing it to reduce first, that alcohol won't boil down and reduce. That means you could end up with a pronounced alcohol flavor. To avoid this, cut back on the liquor called for in a standard recipe. Or, try adjusting the recipe to use any alcohol for deglazing the pan after browning.
Add dairy last
Dairy products like sour cream, cheese, milk and yogurt tend to break down or curdle in the slow cooker, so stir them in during the last 15 minutes of cooking.
Cook pasta Separately
Yes, there are slow cooker pasta recipes, but don’t believe the hype. Some small pastas, like orzo can turn out okay when added during the last hour of cooking. But in general, it is best to cook pasta according to package directions and serve on the side or stir it into the slow cooker just before serving. Learn how to precook pasta and have it ready at dinnertime.
Purchase a rice cooker
While you do not need special accessories to go along with your slow cooker, owning some basic kitchen tools will make things easier. And if you want family dinner ready-to-go right when you get home, then a rice cooker will be a necessity for many recipes.
Use dried beans
If you add canned beans to a slow cooker, you will likely get mush. But dried beans will cook perfectly. Make sure to read up on how to cook dried beans as kidney beans can be toxic.
Add Seafood and Fish at the end
Fish and shellfish don’t do well in a slow cooker over long periods. But you can use the crockpot to prepare a sauce, then turn the heat to high, and add fish or shellfish in for just the time it requires to cook. This is an easy way to accomplish dinner on days when you are gone all day, but don’t want pork or beef again.
Because slow cookers cook your food longer than other conventional methods, the flavor of many herbs and spices can diminish. Strong spices — chili powder, paprika, cinnamon, cumin, cardamom and coriander — tend to become sublime when cooked over time. So to keep your food flavorful, it’s okay to add more seasoning than usual.
Use Fresh Herbs in the Slow Cooker
Fresh leafy herbs — basil, cilantro, tarragon, parsley — are best added at the end because longer cooking times diminish their flavor.
However fresh herbs with woody stems — thyme, sage, rosemary — can hold their flavors for longer times.
Dried herbs and spices can lose their flavor when simmered too long, so experiment with adding them later in the cooking process. If adding dried herbs at the beginning, then try a pinch or two more than you think is necessary.
End on a fresh note
When you start with a good recipe and use quality ingredients, you will be happiest with your slow cooker results. For the freshest flavor, add additional chopped herbs and vegetables right before the meal is ready.
Adding tender, quick cooking vegetables — peas, zucchini, tomatoes, baby spinach, peas, corn, or mushrooms — towards the end of the cooking time is a great way to get a boost of fresh flavor and texture.
Fresh leafy herbs or a squeeze of lemon juice at the end of simmering will brighten flavors and cut through the richness of long-cooked recipes. Chopped parsley and cilantro should be staples of your kitchen.
Other excellent finishing touches: hot sauce, citrus zest, grated Parmesan, good-quality olive oil, vinegars, or even sauteed garlic.
Thicken up Your Sauce
The moisture in a slow cooker pot won’t cook off like it does with traditional cooking methods. And added liquids won’t thicken up much on their own. Learn how to thicken a sauce in the slow cooker so that your meals are more satisfying.
Choose the right cut & save money
If you want to use your slow cooker for longer cooking times, then it is best to stay away from lean cuts (i.e. more expensive). Lean meats like chicken breasts or pork tenderloin can dry out and get tough when cooked for a long time. So if you want to cook lean meats, you will need to opt for shorter cooking windows.
Cheaper, less tender cuts like chicken thighs, chuck roasts, short ribs, pork shoulders, or lamb shoulder are ideal when cooked low and slow. When cooking large, fatty cuts you will want to cook on low for 6 to 8 hours — this will make the meat much more tender than cooking on high for half the time. The longer cook time produces tender, juicy meat.
Trim the Fat
For the best results, take a minute to trim excess fat from the meat. If you don’t, you risk ending up with oily, greasy sauces and gravies. Removing chicken skin is also often recommended. If you brown your meat in the slow cooker insert, pour off any excess fat before adding other ingredients.
Crisp things up
Some foods, like chicken wings or pork ribs, will be best if you slide them under a broiler after the slow cooker. Cook them until the meat is almost falling-off-the-bone tender, then use the broiler to make them brown, crisp, and irresistible.
Other Good Ingredients for the Slow Cooker
Garlic deepens and mellows in the slow cooker rather than fading. Cutting garlic into slices (versus mincing) helps it hold up under long cooking times.
You will often add tomatoes at the end for a fresh flavor boost. If using canned tomatoes, make sure to buy a high-quality brand.
Like with any dish, anchovies are an amazing flavor booster. They add complexity and depth to slow cooker dishes.
Mustard is an easy way to add zing to stews and other long cooking dishes.
Opt for low sodium broths, especially if adding ham or other salted products, as slow cookers can amplify the taste of salt. And if possible use organic.
Choose the correct shape and size
For families, a 6-quart-capacity oval insert is most versatile. This size is able to accommodate roasts, whole chickens, and main course recipes that serve four or more.
Smaller slow cookers take up less space and store more easily. They're great for soups, side dishes and dinner for two. For some families, owning both a smaller and larger size slow cooker might be a good idea to accommodate different recipes.
Also choose cuts of meat that easily fit inside your crockpot. If a cut is too big, then it will need a longer cooking time which will affect the rest of your ingredients.
Fill the Pot Properly
Avoid overfilling or under filling. For the best results, fill a slow cooker between one-half and two-thirds full (check your owner’s manual). This ensures foods cook evenly. If cooking large roasts or whole chickens, make sure the lid fits snugly on top.
Cut & Layer Your Ingredients
For even cooking, cut veggies into uniform-size pieces. If you’re cutting up meats, follow the same guideline.
Not every recipe suggests an order for ingredients to be placed into a slow cooker. Foods that take a longer time to cook should go in first and sit on the bottom because these will be cooked faster than those on top. So place firm, slow-cooking root vegetables like potatoes and carrots at the bottom of the crock, then add any meat and liquid.
Adjust for high altitude
At an altitude over 4,000 feet your cooking time increases. You will want to add an additional 30 minutes for each hour of time specified in the recipe. Legumes can take about twice as long as they would at sea level.
Keep the Lid Closed
Keep the lid on. No peeking! We know it might be tempting, but every time you take off the lid you add an additional 15 to 30 minutes of cooking time.
Crockpots are designed to cook without interference — no stirring needed — so only open it near the end of the cooking to check for doneness or if a recipe tells you to cook off excess moisture or to add an ingredient. Most slow cookers have a glass top to allow you to see what’s going on.
That said, if you’ve previously cooked a recipe and the results were too soupy, then learn how to thicken sauces in your crockpot.
Go Light on Liquids
Because slow cookers work at low temperatures with lids on, liquids don’t evaporate — they just collect inside the lid and baste the food.
If you’re adapting your favorite recipes from the stovetop or oven to the slow cooker, decrease the amount of liquid you use by as much as a half, then make adjustments as needed. It helps to remember that almost all the ingredients in the pot will produce a certain amount of liquid. So even if the dish looks dry in the beginning it will accumulate more juices during cooking. Read about reducing liquid in a slow cooker.
Make clean up Easy
If your slow cooker insert does not have a nonstick surface, then apply a bit of cooking spray before adding food to help prevent food sticking.
Consider an Upgrade
And last, but not least, if you are using an older crockpot, consider purchasing a new slow cooker. If you want your new device to be your right-hand in the kitchen, then consider a machine with the latest slow cooker features, such as an insert that you can use for searing. And a keep warm feature allows you to stay relaxed when the 13-year-old takes forever to pack up his gear after practice.
Depending on the brand, some new models might be referred to as multi-cookers. But remember, no matter how "smart" and independent the appliance, it won't replace your intuition and common sense. Each brand cooks a little differently, and knowing your particular machine and how ingredients cook will help you tweak measurements, ingredients, and cook time to make the perfect dish.
Read up on slow cookers and safety risks.
Want more info on how to use your slow cooker?
Follow the suggestions above to become a PRO at using the slow cooker. Get even more tips, tricks, recipes, and how-to’s over on our slow cooker blog.
Need slow cooker inspiration? See the collection of 6-8+ hour longer-cooking slow cooker dinner recipes.