Slow cookers (also known as Crock Pots) are incredibly convenient, but also a little mysterious. While they promise excellent flavor for minimal effort, cooks often make mistakes using them. Adding too much water or unevenly chopping ingredients can easily result in a subpar slow cooker meal. Phyllis Good, author of 17 books on Crock Pot cooking, has a list of top tips to get the most out of your slow cooker. She's also the author of the new collection of her favorite recipes: "Stock the Crock: 100 Must-Have Slow-Cooker Recipes, 200 Variations for Every Appetite." (You can check out the book's Baked Ziti instructions, excerpted on CraftFoxes.) Regardless of what you're cooking in a Crock Pot, it's likely you can learn something new from one of Phyllis' slow cooker tips listed below.
1. The Magic Amount: 2/3rds Full
A slow cooker cooks most evenly when it’s about 2/3 full. Pack it tight and to the brim, and there’s a good chance the food in the middle will not be cooked through. In fact, the whole dish will likely take longer to cook than the recipe predicts, and it will cook unevenly. Make it only half-full or less, and you risk overcooking what you’re looking forward to eating. So go with 2⁄3 full for the best success.
2. Chop Vegetables Evenly
If you’re chopping potatoes, carrots, and other veggies of a similar density, make the pieces as uniform in size as you can. Then they should all cook through in the same amount of time.
3. Have Enough Liquid for Pasta
You can put uncooked pasta into your slow cooker as long as you have adequate liquid. Just follow the recipe measurements and cooking times. Using raw pasta (as one ingredient in a recipe) without needing to precook it is one reason slow cookers are hero appliances.
4. Add 10 Minutes for Pasta
If a recipe calls for cooked pasta, add it about 10 minutes before the end of the recipe’s cooking time. If you add it earlier, there’s a good chance it will be overcooked and mushy, if it doesn’t disintegrate completely.
5. Add Fresh Herbs Just Before the Cooking is Finished
Add fresh herbs 5 to 10 minutes before the end of a recipe’s cooking time so they maintain their flavor.
6. Add Cream 5 Minutes Before Cooking is Done
Add sour cream, light cream, and heavy cream 5 minutes before the end of a recipe’s cooking time. You want the dish to heat through after making that addition, but you don’t want it to boil, and possibly curdle.
7. Don't Add More Liquid
Liquid will not cook off or reduce in a working slow cooker with its lid on. So don’t add liquid beyond the amount called for in the recipe because you assume some of it will evaporate. But if the food in your slow cooker smells too hot or is burning, slowly add some warm liquid if the food is not finished cooking. The liquid should be warm so it doesn’t risk cracking the hot crock.
8. Know When to Cook with the Lid Off
A slow cooker does a good job of cooking down sauces and fruit butters—if you take its lid off while it’s working. It takes a while for the recipe to reduce, but you don’t need to worry constantly about scorching the food, as you do when you try it on a stove-top.
9. Cooking Smart, in Stages
You can “stage” some recipes. Start by cooking a hearty base, such as potatoes or beans or grits, in the cooker for several hours. Then add more delicate foods at a much later stage—for example, seafood or peas, fresh spinach, or chicken tenders, and so on—10 to 20 minutes before the end of the recipe’s cooking time. By staging the recipe, the denser foods will be cooked tender, and the lighter, less dense foods will not be overcooked. Do this, and you’ll greatly increase the kinds of food you can cook successfully in your slow cooker. You’ll also bring a fresher, brighter flavor to the whole dish by adding the more delicate ingredients late in the cooking. You’re still benefiting by the slow cooker’s long, quiet work with denser ingredients while you’re away. Add the food that needs only a short cooking time when you come in the door. And 10 to 20 minutes later, after you’ve changed into comfy clothes, greeted the kids, and made a salad, dinner will be ready!
10. Thaw Meats Before Cooking
It is best not to put a frozen piece of meat into a slow cooker and begin cooking. It takes too long for meat to reach a safe temperature. Thaw frozen meats first.
11. Be Careful with a Hot Cooker
Many cookers get hot on the outside as they work. Clear the space around them so they aren’t against anything they could damage by their heat. Make sure, too, that the cord is clear and not caught or pinched. Remind anyone who will be handling a working cooker, or dishing food from it, not to touch the exterior of the cooker, its crock, or its lid without a pot holder.
12. High Versus Low Cooking
One hour of cooking on High is roughly the same as cooking 2-1/2 hours on low.
13. Know the Slow Cooker Cooking Temps
Curious about the temperatures a working slow cooker reaches compared to an oven? Remember that each slow cooker—and each oven—is likely somewhat different temperature-wise. Slow Cooker on High = 212-300F Slow Cooker on Low = 170°-200°F Slow Cooker on Simmer = 185°F Slow Cooker on Warm = 165°F 14.
14. Properly Lifting the Lid
The “Swoop” Condensation forms on the underside of its lid as a slow cooker works. Without special care, that condensation will drip on whatever’s cooking when you take the lid off. There are two ways to counteract this:
• Grip the handle of the lid firmly and, with a strong sweeping motion, lift the lid up and away from yourself. If you do this quickly and decisively, the water drops will hold tightly to the lid, and they’ll drop after they’ve cleared the cooker and you’ve relaxed your arm.
• Place several layers of paper towels on top of the slow cooker insert or crock, under the slow cooker lid.
Those paper towels will absorb any moisture that drips from the lid.
15. To Brown or Not to Brown?
How important is it to brown meat before putting it into the slow cooker? And what about sautéing vegetables before adding them to the slow cooker? I usually suggest browning the meat and sautéing the vegetables, but if you don’t have time, you can skip that step.
• Some flavor is added, although after extended cooking, much of the browned flavor is lost.
• For ground beef and sausage, the drippings and their fat are left behind in the browning pan, rather than being eaten. Unless, of course, you decide to add them and their flavor to the slow cooker.
• The meat and its drippings turn brown in color, which we tend to prefer since we think that’s the way cooked meat should look.
• You’ve spent more time prepping the dish.
• You’ve got an extra pan to clean up.
• Risks overcooking whatever you’ve browned or sautéed since it will then cook further in the slow cooker.
Excerpted with permission from Stock the Crock: 100 Must-Have Slow-Cooker Recipes, 200 Variations for Every Appetite.