12 Test Kitchen Tips for Slow Cooker Success
Your slow cooker can be the ultimate tool to conveniently get meals on the table with minimal hassle. Learn how to use a slow cooker to its full potential and get amazing results from any of your slow cooker recipes with these tricks and tips learned in our Test Kitchen.
A slow cooker lets you create no-fuss meals all year long. Tasty soups and stews, tender meat dishes, decadent desserts, and even crazy-sounding slow cooker recipes for pizza and breads—the slow cooker does it all. Using our best tips and tricks for the slow cooker, it will become your go-to kitchen tool.
Just the Right Amount
1. Add the Right Amount of Food
One of our most important slow cooker cooking tips: Put the correct amount of food in the slow cooker before turning it on. The Test Kitchen usually recommends making sure the cooker is at least half full but no more than two-thirds full. Not quite at the right level? You can always add an extra potato, carrot, or onion to fill the cooker to the halfway point without altering the flavor.
Test Kitchen Tip: This was a hard-and-fast rule of the past, but that's when we only used our slow cookers for soups and roasts. Now we make things like these Slow Cooker Cinnamon Rolls and other baked goods, which may not fill the cooker halfway. We found with these new recipes (assuming they were created correctly) that even shallow foods work well in the slow cooker. Continue to stick to the rule for classic slow cooker recipes like stews and roasts, though.
Related: Slow cooker soups and stews
2. Layer It Right
From the bottom up: veggies (the slower-cooking ones), meat, then liquid. Cut potatoes, carrots, parsnips, and other dense vegetables into bite-size pieces before adding to your slow cooker. These heavier fresh veggies make a great base at the bottom of your cooker. Next comes the meat, and finally the liquid. Tender vegetables—like zucchini, broccoli, green beans, or peas—are better added toward of the end of your cook time. This Slow Cooker Pot Roast Stew shows you the correct layering method.
3. Brown Meat for More Flavor
Everyone knows slow cooking is a great way to transform tough, budget-friendly cuts of meat into moist, juicy morsels. Cuts such as beef chuck, beef brisket, pork shoulder, and stew meat often sell for less, and they make excellent slow cooker protein options. While it's not necessary, our Test Kitchen recommends browning meat before adding it to the slow cooker. The caramelized meat adds more flavor and prettier color to your slow cooker recipe. Try it and see with this Burgundy Beef Stew recipe.
Slow Cooker Meat Tip: Trim fat from your meat and halve roasts that are larger than 2½ pounds..
4. Don't Use Frozen Uncooked Meat
Never start with frozen uncooked meat because bacteria grows fastest in the 40°F to 140°F danger zone. Frozen meat won't reach a safe temperature fast enough, hovering in the danger zone too long to be safe to eat. Thaw meat in the refrigerator overnight or as long as needed to avoid frozen spots.
5. Use The Amount of Liquid Called For
Some slow cooker recipes call for a small amount of liquid. It may seem like not enough to you, but if you have a good and tested recipe, don't be tempted to add more. Meat and vegetables release juices as they cook. You will have more liquid in your slow cooker at the end of the cook time.
Test Kitchen Tip: Occasionally veggies like onions release too much liquid in slow cooker recipes. If your dish is looking thin and runny, turn your slow cooker to high and remove the lid for the last 30 to 45 minutes of cooking to boil off excess moisture.
6. Keep the Lid On!
We cannot stress this enough: Do not lift your slow cooker lid! Keeping the lid on is key to maintaining both the pressure created when food cooks and the proper food-safe temperatures. Repeated lid-lifting will cause your recipe to take longer to cook, too. Nobody wins.
7. Using Dairy Products
Milk, cream, and natural cheeses break down when cooked for long periods of time. This can make using these ingredients in a slow cooker recipe a little tricky. A lot is in the timing. See just how delicious dairy products from the slow cooker can be with our Hot Chocolate Seven Ways recipe.
If you're looking for extra creaminess in your dish, try adding canned condensed cream soups and packaged white sauce mixes. Evaporated milk works if you add it the last 30 to 60 minutes of cooking. Stir cheeses into the finished dish just before serving.
8. Working with Dried Beans
If you're making a recipe with dried beans, don't add them directly to your slow cooker. Use the fast-soak method as tested in our Test Kitchen.
- Rinse beans and place them in a saucepan. Add 6 to 8 cups of water per 1 cup beans. Bring to boiling.
- Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, 10 minutes.
- Remove saucepan from heat; cover and let stand 1 hour.
- Drain and rinse beans.
After you've cooked, drained, and rinsed the beans, they're ready to go into your slow cooker.
9. Quick Cleanup
Although convenient and easy to use, slow cookers can be a pain to clean, mostly because they are so heavy that it's difficult to hold them while scrubbing well. For a cleanup shortcut, use a handy slow cooker liner, such as Reynolds Kitchens Slow Cooker Liners, to keep your slow cooker clean.
Before adding ingredients to your slow cooker, put a liner in your pot. After all the food has been served, toss the liner and you're done!
11. Converting Recipes for a Slow Cooker
Turn some of your favorite recipes into slow cooker meals by following these tips:
- Choose recipes featuring less-tender cuts of meat, then find a slow cooker recipe similar to the recipe you want to convert. Use the slow cooker recipe as a guide for quantities, piece sizes, liquid levels, and cooking times. These cuts of meat work best in your slow cooker:
- Beef: arm pot roast, blade steak, brisket, chuck pot roast, chuck short ribs, flank steak, round steak, rump roast, shank cross-cuts, shoulder steak, stew meat
- Pork: blade roast, boneless pork shoulder roast, country-style ribs, sirloin chops, sirloin roast, smoked pork hocks
- Chicken and Turkey: breast halves (bone-in), drumsticks, thighs (bone-in or boneless)
- For roasts, unless your recipe contains long grain rice, reduce the liquids in the recipe you are adapting by about half.
- Trim the meat, cut it to the right size for your slow cooker, and, if desired, brown it.
- Generally recipes with rice don't work well in a slow cooker. Converted rice performs best in a slow cooker, so if you want to make rice in the slow cooker, choose converted.
- Cut vegetables into bite-size pieces; place them at the bottom of the slow cooker so they'll cook evenly and completely.
- Enhance the flavor of meat dishes by adding broth, wine, or juice for the liquid.
- Most broth-based soups work well in the slow cooker (some cream-based soups may curdle). In general they take 2 to 4 hours on high or 4 to 8 hours on low, depending on the ingredients. If your soup includes pasta, add dried pasta toward the end of the cook time or precook the pasta in a saucepan and stir in at the end of cooking. (Note: You'll want to slightly decrease liquid in the slow cooker if you precook your pasta.)
12. Test Your Old Slow Cooker
We're all guilty of hanging onto small appliances like our slow cookers longer than we should. If your slow cooker has been in your home longer than you remember, test it to see if it's still heating accurately. Here's how:
- Fill the slow cooker ½ to ⅔ full of water and put the lid in place.
- Turn the slow cooker to low heat.
- Heat the water for 8 hours.
- Check the temperature of the water after 8 hours. It should register about 185°F. If it's lower, it's time to start shopping for a new slow cooker.