When you know how to use a slow cooker you can easily make a home-cooked meal even with a jam-packed schedule. How? It's all about the set it and forget it idea. Add your ingredients to the slow cooker before heading out to work, to run errands, to drop of the kids, etc. When you come home, dinner is ready. If you're one of the skeptics, yes, it is okay to leave a slow cooker on all day.
A slow cooker cooks through surrounding coils that transfer heat indirectly to the inner crock (that heavy "bowl" you put all your ingredients into) of your slow cooker. In traditional recipes like chilis and roasts, this causes pressure and steam to build so juices that would normally flow out of ingredients like meat and veggies are held in the slow cooker giving you moist and tender foods. That's why you should cook budget-friendly cuts of meat that tend to be tougher in the slow cooker. It makes them tender and succulent.
Cooking with Your Slow Cooker
Slow cookers (aka crockery cookers) are simple appliances to operate. The following general hints will help you use your slow cooker more efficiently.
- Do some of the chopping and measuring of ingredients ahead if possible. Assemble the ingredients in separate containers, cover, and refrigerate until it's time for cooking.
- Test Kitchen Tip: We encourage you to brown your meat before adding to the slow cooker, but DO NOT do this the night before due to food safety concerns.
- Layer your slow cooker recipe ingredients as directed so each item cooks at the correct rate.
- Keep the lid securely on the slow cooker during the cooking and be sure the food doesn't push up on the lid. Slow cooking depends on the heat that builds up in the container itself so resist the temptation to take a peek or stir frequently.
- To protect the crockery liner, avoid subjecting it to sudden temperature changes. For instance, do not preheat the cooker and then add food.
- As soon as possible, transfer any leftover food to a storage container and refrigerate or freeze.
- Make cleanup easy by using a slow cooker liner. Simply add the liner to your slow cooker before adding ingredients as directed in your recipe. When your recipe is done, spoon the food out and dispose of your liner.
Related: See our top slow cooker Test Kitchen tips
Slow Cookers 101
Slow Cooker Size
Slow cookers range in size from 1 to 8 quarts. The midsize cookers (3½ to 4 and 6 quart) are most common. Be sure the slow cooker recipe you're using matches the size of slow cooker you have. The timing will vary based on size. Underfilled or overfilled slow cookers will throw off cooking time. In general, try to have your slow cooker filled ½ to ⅔ for proper cooking.
- Test Kitchen Tip: If you're unsure what size slow cooker you have, fill it with water 1 quart at a time to see how much it can hold.
Position of Heating Elements in Slow Cookers
In addition to size, slow cookers can vary based on where the heating element is located. No, this is not an easy thing to see without taking your small appliance apart, so here's what to know:
- Heat around the middle: This allows for even heat distribution, even if the food is below the level of the heat element.
- Heat near the bottom: If you're using your slow cooker for non-traditional recipes like breads that don't fill a slow cooker as full, this kind of heat element could cause food to burn because it's immediately subjected to direct heat (instead of gradual warming). In instances like these, it's helpful to carefully rotate your slow cooker liner halfway through cooking.
Low and High Settings on a Slow Cooker
Slow cookers have at least two heat settings (sometimes they have a warm setting, too), one for low and one for high. In general, low heat cooking will take twice as long as high heat cooking. Opt for low heat slow cooking when you'll be gone all day. Choose high heat cooking when you want to start your slow cooker recipe in the afternoon to enjoy for dinner that night.
Common Slow Cooker Questions
Q: Do I have to put water in a slow cooker
A: No. Always use the amount of liquid called for in your recipe, but some recipes (like this Slow Cooker Bacon Cheeseburger Pizza) don't require any liquid added and you can cook in the slow cooker without any problem.
Q: Can you put raw meat in a slow cooker?
A: Yes, you sure can! Admittedly, we were nervous about this our first time, too, but as long as you follow your recipe and layer the ingredients correctly, raw meat will cook perfectly safely in a slow cooker. Still have doubts? Try this Italian Pork with Sweet Potatoes recipe and see how slick it works.
- Test Kitchen Tip: When possible, we encourage you to brown your meat before putting it in the slow cooker. It's an extra step you can easily skip when pressed for time or energy, but it results in more flavor and a prettier dish.
Q: How long can you leave food in a slow cooker?
A: Stick to the recipe. Like all food, slow cooker dishes need to be kept out of the danger zone (40°F to 140°F) to keep food safe. When the cook time is up and you switch your slow cooker to warm or turn it off, food should be eaten, stored in a refrigerator or freezer, or tossed out within two hours.