Slow Cooker 101: Tips and Tricks for the Simplest Appliance

Slow Cooker 101: Tips and Tricks for the Simplest Appliance

The settings are on or off, high or low. The culinary technique is mostly “set it and forget it.” For a delicious dinner you barely have to cook, follow these easy hacks and enjoy.

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The slow cooker is the secret hero of the kitchen, saving time and effort while delivering delicious roasts, stews, and soups through very little effort. A few minutes of prep, perhaps the browning of some meat, and at the end of the day it smells like grandma’s kitchen before you’ve even unlocked the door.

The Crock-Pot simmered its way onto the scene in 1971, and gave housewives a little more freedom than they’d had before with the time it saved. The device lost favor in the 1980s when busy people discovered take-out, but made a roaring comeback around the turn of the century with the advent of the Slow Food movement. Nearly 50 years after its introduction, this appliance (which is essentially an electric countertop braiser) is so popular that it’s estimated over 100 million Americans have one.

And while its reputation has been a little bit unglamorous, home cooks and gourmands alike have come to embrace "The Little Appliance That Could." If you follow the tips and tricks below, you’ll be braising your way into sumptuous meals, whether you’re chugging over mountains or dozing on the couch. Here’s what to do:

Let The Right One In

The ideal slow cooker has an oval-shaped crock. The elongation of the oval means a greater variety of cuts of meat will fit (many are just too long for a round vessel). Grains and pasta also do better in an oval container because the greater horizontal space allows the ingredients to spread out, which translates to more even cooking. A 6-quart vessel (or something in the 5- to 7-quart range) is the most convenient size for most dishes. One-and-a-half-quart slow cookers look cute but are mainly good for keeping dip warm. And a larger vessel is better because you should …

Give It Some Space

It’s important your slow cooker be at least half-full for proper cooking to occur, but not more than two-thirds full. Fill below the 50 percent mark and there’s a chance of food drying out or burning. If you go beyond two-thirds full, foods like beans, pasta, and rice that expand to fill their space may overflow, or you may not have room left to add more liquid if needed. Finally, steam needs room to swirl — so leave some headroom.

But In A Pinch, Slip A Soufflé Dish Into That Crock

However, if you have a dip recipe (like this Slow Cooker Queso) that makes a smaller amount, no need to run out and buy a smaller slow cooker! It’s OK to put the ingredients in a 1 1/2-quart soufflé dish, set it in the slow cooker, then pour 2 to 3 cups of hot water around (not in) the dish to create a steamy bain-marie, or water bath.

Jump Start It!

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Slow cookers gently (read: slooooowly) bring food up to a moderate temperature and then maintain it for a long braising time. No one is using this appliance for its speed, but you can encourage progress by bringing water or broth to a boil before adding it to the crock.

Likewise, feel free to use the microwave to heat up oil with aromatics or spices so the flavors truly bloom into the oil before being added to the slow cooker, thus ensuring a more flavorful dish.

Finally, if adding more liquid towards the end of cooking, zap it in a glass measuring cup in the microwave first to ensure the temperature of the dish doesn’t drop when you add the liquid. Using simmering or boiling liquid also helps any rice or pasta in the dish cook more evenly, so you won’t end up with mush on the bottom and crunchy noodles dehydrating on top.

With Beans: Skip The Soak

The slow cooker is an amazing vessel for set-it-and-forget-it bean cookery that delivers results way more delicious than the sum of its parts — as long as you follow a few simple guidelines. First, do not pre-soak the beans. It’s unnecessary (they’ll be in that liquid a long time) and actually prevents the beans from becoming tender. Second, they must be cooked on high for a solid 8 or 9 hours. The consistent simmer that the high setting delivers ensures you won’t end up with a sad crock of crunchy beans.

Beef And Pork: Choose The Cut Wisely

The best meats for slow cooking are tougher cuts with a lot of connective tissue and plenty of fat; the long braising then transforms these humbler (and thus more budget-friendly) cuts of meat into gloriously tender masterpieces. What to choose? These cuts all deliver tender texture and deep meaty flavor:

  • Beef brisket, a chuck roast, beef round, and any kind of ribs
  • Pork (or lamb) shoulder and pork butt
  • Lamb (or beef) shanks

Fatty ground meat also fares well in the slow cooker.

Browning meat on the stove before adding it to the slow cooker is usually worth the extra time for the deeper, heartier flavor of both the meat and the final gravy or sauce.

Kitchen Note: Ground meat can be browned the night before to save time; however, all other cuts of meat must be browned just before going into the slow cooker, since browning only sears the exterior.

With Fowl: Quick And Low Is The Way To Go

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When it comes to poultry, a high-temperature, slow braise actually has the opposite effect as it does with beef and pork: chicken and turkey tend to dry out and get tough by the time they’ve cooked through, especially white meat. Dark meat fares much better and becomes delightfully tender when not overcooked. (As always, use a meat thermometer to ensure doneness.) But whatever fowl you choose, it must be cooked on the low heat setting. On high that chicken will be oh-so-dry.

Slow cook…No longer than…
Boneless, skinless chicken breasts2 hours
Bone-in chicken breasts3 hours
Chicken thighs (bones or not)5 hours
Whole Chicken5 hours
Turkey Breast6 hours

Cooking skin-on fowl in a slow-cooker tends to give the skin a weirdly rubbery texture and makes an extra-fatty sauce. It often makes sense to remove the skin first, although some dishes call for spreading seasonings under and on the skin, especially when cooking a whole bird. In those situations, simply remove the skin right before serving and skim the fat from the sauce.

Everything In Its Place

The shape of the roast matters, as does the way it’s positioned in the vessel. A short and wide rectangle (like a pot roast) is preferable over a long, skinny shape (like a tenderloin). If the roast doesn’t naturally make a rectangle that’s ok; you can cut a roast in half if it’s too big, or you can take an uneven shape (like that tapered pork loin), trim off the tapered end and turn the point towards the start of the loin, then lay it atop the cut end to create a more evenly shaped piece of meat.

It’s also helpful to use two or three lengths of kitchen twine to tie a beef roast or pork butt to make an even, cylindrical shape to ensure even cooking. And be sure to generously season the entire surface of the meat for maximum deliciousness.

When working with a big piece of meat, it’s important to add the vegetables to the bottom of the slow cooker first, then lay the meat on top, with the fattiest (or skin) side facing up. That way the fat will baste the meat below as it slowly renders in the heat. To slow cook a whole chicken, be sure to put it in the crock upside down! While it may look funny to set it breast-side down on the vegetables, it has the benefit of becoming a juicier dish as gravity causes the dark meat juices to constantly baste the breast.

Dry Spice To Start, Fresh Herbs To Finish

Because slow cooking is such a lengthy process, it’s important to start with plenty of spices and aromatics to ensure you don’t end up with a dull dish. Most slow cooker recipes call for heftier spicing, or an extra bay leaf — don’t be intimidated by a few more cloves of garlic, or extra oregano!

Kitchen Note: The only exception to this rule is rosemary. This invigorating herb is a frequent favorite in white bean soups and lamb roasts, but after a long cooking time, it imparts an aggressively medicinal flavor, as if an entire pine forest fell into the pot. Instead, stir rosemary in at the end of cooking when there are about 15 minutes left. Once its scent starts wafting through the air, the dish is ready to serve.

A handful of fresh herbs, a splash of fresh citrus juice, or a spoonful of bright vinegar can do wonders to perk up a slow-cooked dish right before serving. Long cooking times can mute flavors, but a fresh element added at the end balances everything out.

Put A Lid On It (And Leave It There)

Slow cookers are purposefully made not to have a tightly sealed lid, so don’t worry if yours wiggles a little, or rests lightly on the base. The steam generated over many hours of slow cooking needs a way out; this isn't a pressure cooker.

It can be tempting to lift the lid to look at your creation, but resist that desire. It takes heat a long time to build up in a slow cooker, yet only a few seconds for the temperature to drop precipitously if the steam is allowed to escape. If you must stir, be quick about it.

Stop! Veggie Time(ing)

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Denser vegetables such as carrots or potatoes take longer to cook than their more delicate counterparts, like zucchini or spinach. These delicate veggies will turn into an unappealing mush if left in too long. Some recipes make it easy to toss everything in at the start, but not always.

One way to simplify things is to cut bigger, denser vegetables into smaller, same-sized pieces to ensure quicker and more even cooking. Less-sturdy veggies like bell peppers or yellow squash are best stirred in for the last 20 minutes to retain their shape and flavor. The most delicate vegetables, like spinach, can be stirred in a moment or two before serving or briefly blanched before adding; for sliced asparagus in a springtime risotto, use the microwave to turn it crisp-tender, then stir it in and serve right away.

Saucy Tips

The braising liquid left after the roast is cooked tastes delicious, so it would be a shame to let it go to waste! While the meat rests, use those five minutes to create a quick sauce: Skim the fat from the surface, then season to taste with salt, pepper, and fresh herbs, citrus, and/or vinegar. Or take the liquid and a ladle or two of the cooked vegetables and puree them in a blender to create a delicious and rich yet healthy sauce.

For stews or soups that contain beans or corn, mash a cup of the beans or pureé some of the corn in a bit of cooking liquid, then add it back into the dish to create a thicker texture without adding starch or changing the flavor.

Ready to get started? Check out Healthy Slow Cooker Recipes: Low And Slow Is The Way To Go for recipe ideas to get (slow) cooking!