It’s big, bulky, and a little bit scary (after all, isn’t leaving a hot appliance on all day a fire hazard?), but trust us, your slow cooker can and will be your new best friend this winter. These miraculous machines have come a long way since your grandma’s crock-pot days, and are an easy, fail-proof way to make thousands of amazing and healthy recipes, from classic pulled pork to perfect, fluffy banana bread.
Your slow cooker is designed to do pretty much all of the work for you, so don’t overthink things. It knows how hot to get, how to keep things safe, and, these days, how long to cook and how to turn itself off. Just be sure to keep these basic tips and how-to’s in mind before you get started:
- Give your slow cooker enough counter space to do its job of getting hot correctly—a few inches on all sides should do.
- Your slow cooker should be between half and two-thirds full for best results.
- Know your temperatures. You need to reach 165 degrees F for safe slow cooking. As a rule, “low” setting for most slow cookers is 200 degrees F, and “high” is around 300 degrees F. Most meats need to reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees to be safely done. (For more information see the USDA’s safe slow cooker tips.) Some recommend always starting with your slow cooker on “high” for the first hour and then turning it back to “low” to ensure safe temperatures, but this isn’t required. Use your judgment for where you feel comfortable.
- Don’t peek! The lid is an essential part, and should be kept on as much as possible. Trust us: Everything’s working exactly as it should be in there. Most recipes don’t need to be stirred, poked, or prodded. Just let it be.
Easy and virtually fail-proof, recipes for slow cookers are usually pretty minimal. Prep work is the main part of your job—chop some veggies here, measure some spices there, dump it in, set it, and you’re done. Again, not overthinking things is important, but if you’re just too anxious to play around with some of your favorite recipes or are looking to try something new, here are a few tips and tricks to keep in mind:
- Browning meats and sauteing veggies before adding them to your slow cooker can help bring out flavors and deepen the dish. Be careful not to overcook them; just a quick turn of the pan is enough. You can also dredge ingredients in flour to give your sauce or stew a bit more thickness and texture.
- Because fat retains heat, fattier foods (like meat) will cook faster than less fatty foods (like veggies). You’ll want to trim any excess fats from meats, and place any veggies that the recipe calls for on the bottom and sides of the dish before placing meat on top. This will help everything cook evenly.
- Making a favorite recipe slow cooker-friendly requires a few adaptations. Remember that dairy products will break down, so add them at the end of the cooking process. Liquids won’t evaporate, so you should reduce the amount you add by about 20 percent. And cut back on fresh herbs: Half the amount should yield the same, rich flavor.
While slow cookers are famous for creating hearty dishes like pulled pork and stews, they’re also surprisingly versatile and can make almost anything taste great, from homemade stocks to desserts. Give these easy recipes a whirl and you’ll soon learn why your slow cooker can be a lifesaver:
—Apple Cinnamon Slow Cooker Steel-Cut Oatmeal (Sweet Anna’s)
—Slow-Cooked Turkey Chili (Global Dish)
—Amazing Slow Cooker Chicken Stock (The Kitchn)
—Slow Cooker Vegetarian Lasagna (Fit Sugar)
—Slow Cooker Nutella Bread Pudding (The Perfect Pantry)