The Art of the Slow Cooker

Slow cookerFor busy professionals who want the frugality and quality of home-cooked food, the slow cooker can be a true lifesaver. However, most of the cookbooks out there have all sorts of weird requirements and usually end up seeming unusable or being as complicated as preparing a meal in the evening, somewhat defeating the purpose of using a slow cooker in many cases. So the slow cooker winds up gathering dust in the cupboard.

The truth is it doesn’t have to be this way. A slow cooker can be a very simple and incredibly effective tool in the kitchen of any busy professional. Here are a few items to help you get started with cooking with a crock pot.

Selecting A Slow Cooker

As with anything, you get what you pay for with a slow cooker. As a rule of thumb, the bigger ones have much more utility, but they may be overkill if you live alone and can’t foresee yourself making a large batch of soup or a large meal with it. Here are the two models I’m familiar with – both are quite nice, but one is my clear favorite.

Rival 3735WN 3.5 Quart If you live alone and have never tried a slow cooker before, this is the one I recommend. I used an older version of this for my first slow cooker when I was a single man, but this one seems superior to it, with a removable crock (meaning you can pull out the pot inside of it and put it on your table for serving food). Very simple settings and it holds plenty of food for one or two people.

KitchenAid KSC700SS 7 Quart This is the best slow cooker I’ve ever used, but you’re going to pay for it. It has all of the features of the above slow cookers, except that the exterior barely gets warm (let alone hot) and there are a bunch of extra settings. Time and time again, I’ve found the “buffet” setting to be wonderful when you’ve finished cooking the meal but want it to sit out for a while and keep warm while people serve themselves over time (such as at a large party). This is the slow cooker I recommend the most, though it is pricey.

Getting Started

Don’t have any idea what to cook? I’d recommend starting off with one of the spice packets sold in the grocery store, usually near the soup mixes. McCormick’s slow cooker packets are quite good for what you pay for, and the recipes usually involve dumping in the packet and four or five ingredients, turning it on low, and walking away for eight or nine hours. If you need to be away longer than that, add a quarter cup of additional water to the mix.

If you don’t have access to such packs, here’s the simplest really tasty recipe I know of for a slow cooker.

1 can condensed cream of chicken soup (chicken & herbs if you can find it)
1 small can mushroom pieces (a 4 ounce can, drain off the water first)
1/2 chopped red onion
1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breasts (cut into strips if you’d like)
1/4 cup white wine (optional)

Put them all in the crock pot. Turn it on low. Walk away for four hours. For every additional two hours it will cook, add a quarter cup of water.

Want more recipes? There are tons of great slow cooker recipes all over the place on the internet. I recommend searching Google for dishes you like plus the phrase “slow cooker” to find some interesting ones.

Five Big Tips

If you need to cook a recipe longer than the recipe calls for, add water. Just a small amount; a quarter of a cup or so per extra hour and a half of waiting. The best benefit of the slow cooker is the “steam” effect inside of it, and adding more water prolongs this effect, meaning your food won’t dry out (the biggest danger with leaving the food in the crock pot for too long).

Don’t fill it more than two thirds full. If you do that and something heats up in an unexpected way, you will have spillage and it will be messy. If your current slow cooker basically requires you to fill it up near the brim, you need a bigger pot – the one above is a great one.

Don’t fill it less than one half full. This isn’t a hard and fast number, but I’ve found if you fill it less than that, you regularly run into issues where all the liquid has steamed off and you’re left with a brown, crusty mess. Cook extra and save it for leftovers.

If it’s juicy, remove the lid and turn it on high. If your dish is nearing completion and it’s juicier than you’d like, remove the lid and turn the slow cooker on high for the final half hour. Your kitchen will smell tremendous and the juices will thicken up nicely.

Don’t put anything frozen in the cooker unless a recipe explicitly says to do it. Frozen foods (for me at least) wind up with a weird texture, plus they slow down the heating process of the food inside. You want the cooker to get to a safe temperature fairly quickly (safe temperature being about 55 C or 140 F) and frozen foods will slow this down drastically.

Slow cookers really make cooking at home much easier. If you follow these tips, the food should be quite delicious as well. We love our slow cooker and almost couldn’t live without it.

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  1. Wil says:

    One tip that has helped us as well: Get those slow cooker liners. They may seem like a waste of money, but they are the best investment. They really do work to help keep the cooker clean. If you’ve ever cleaned a slow cooker without one, you understand how much of a pain that can be.

    Yet another great post.

  2. Nisha says:

    Great post! I’m tempted to try! Getting a little tired of eating cereal and bagels after a long workday.

  3. monkeypox says:

    careful! a lot of those rival crock-pots were recalled. I just found out myself that mine was one of them (I have the model #3040), even though I’ve been using it for a couple of years already. more at rivalrecall.com.

  4. Bill says:

    If anyone is looking for one that is great to take to a tailgate… I love my Hamilton Beach Stay or Go. (http://www.target.com/gp/detail.html?ie=UTF8&frombrowse=1&asin=B000AOE5W0)

  5. Aimee says:

    I just used my slow cooker yesterday to make corned beef and cabbage. I put the meat in before I left for work and added the cabbage with some carrots and onions when I returned home. I’ve also used it to prepare chili overnight for our annual chili-cookoff at work. The only issue I have is that our dog sits in the kitchen and stares at it for hours on end…
    If anyone has any good low-carb slow cooker recipes, I’m always on the lookout – I need ones without potatoes!

  6. HustlinPete says:

    Question about these:

    I’m single so the 3.5-quart makes the most sense at first. On the other hand, I prefer buying high quality stuff the first time and buying it once. In your opinion does the 7-quart work just as well with smaller amounts of food?

  7. Mary says:

    Crock pots/Slow cookers also save a great deal of electric when you compare to making a roast/soup/chili on top of your stove or in the oven. One more reason to use one in an attempt to be frugal!

  8. We’ve tried the slow cooker probably a dozen times. My fiancee loves it, but I find that meat tastes like it’s been boiled. I’ve gotten to the point, where I BBQ (or Foreman Grill) the meat portion of the food to add to the slow cooker at the end. It kind of defeats the whole purpose though.

    So my question is, are we doing something wrong? Maybe the food is just drying out (though we try to be good with the recipes).

  9. Lotsofbluesky says:

    I liked your recommendation to use a crockpot. But may I suggest you also say something about nutrition? Why? I just read a book, _Eat To Live_ by Joel Fuhrman, M.D. I learned that fruits and vegetables are the two foods with the best correlation with longevity in humans. Not whole-wheat bread, not bran, not even a vegetarian diet shows as high a level of correlation. Refined grains, cold breakfast cereals, white rice and pasta do not protect against cancer. Yet vegetarians do live a lot longer than nonvegetarians do. Research indicates it is the amount of green salad consumption that best predicts how much longer they live than nonvegetarians. That was a real eye-opener for me. So maybe be sure to have a big green salad to eat with your crockpot meal. It won’t kill us to forget, but maybe we’ll enjoy life a little longer.

  10. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Yes, there’s a trick: spices. If the meat tastes bland, try taking the meat and rubbing it down hard with spices of all kinds before you put it in the crock pot. Crushed black pepper helps with most meats, as does sea salt – I would consult a herbal guide.

  11. skye says:

    What kind of meat you’re using also makes a load of difference. Talk to your local butcher. I suffered through years of awful tasting crockpot beef before getting the lowdown on which cuts are ok to use in a crockpot and which ones are not.

  12. Richard Sinor says:

    My favorite way to use the slow cooker is to put a large beef roast in on medium heat and let it cook for about 8 hours. The meat will be very tender and fall apart. Take it out and put it on a cutting board to scrape off all the fatty parts and then cut the pieces up into small chunks. Make roast beef sandwiches with mustard, mayo, salt and pepper. We save the rest for taco meat. The flavor and tenderness of the meat cooked this way is terrific.

    Richard Sinor

  13. EasyChange says:

    Monkeypox, thanks for the tip; I think that my crockpot has been recalled. I will check the site tonight when I am at home. Everyone, check out the site http://www.rivalrecall.com/ to see if yours is recalled as well.

  14. Bob says:

    I wanted to echo Bill’s comments, I got a Stay or Go for Christmas. The great thing is the lid actually clamps on so it doesn’t spill in the car. I routinely make food in the crockpot to share and have to transport it. My other crockpots all got really messy.

  15. Brian says:

    This was a great post, thank you for all the information. Right after I get my recalled Rival slow cooker taken care of I intend to try this again.

  16. WendyB says:

    I like to use a packet of Lipton’s Onion Soup mix with a roast. This adds lots of flavor and doesn’t require rubbing the meat. I also like to make barbeque chicken in the crock pot. Just be sure to add enough water.

    Thanks for the tip for adding 1/4 cup water for the extra 1.5 to 2 hrs you’ll be away. I always have struggled with being at work too long for the recipes on those frozen crock pot meals.

    I really enjoy your posts.

  17. cherie says:

    I’m curious about using a crockpot. This blog has been very helpful, but I have a few questions:
    does all the food taste mushy, or have the same texture (is the texture boring?)?
    Also, what was the bbq chicken recipe, or any other chicken recipes, if anyone has them.
    Thanks a bunch!

  18. A says:

    The Hamilton Beach 3-in-1 slow cooker has three different size crocks that fit into the cooker. So, you can use a 2-, 4- or 6-quart crock to cook your meal. The crocks fit together to store, have semi-handles for picking them up–plus, they’re pretty! (Southwest colors) The cooker part comes in white or (for more money) stainless steel. This is my all-time favorite slow cooker, because it gives me the most options. And–in response to some previous questions–you can find tons of recipes on the Internet, so no need to buy any special cookbook. Enjoy!

  19. DY says:

    My favorite crock pot companion is my timer. For all those recipes that require the meal to be cooked at high for 4 hours, or even at low for less time than I’ll be gone, I got one of those timers with the “pins”. Rotate the time it is in the morning, push the pins down for when the crock pot needs to be on, plug pot into timer, plug timer in wall…Voila! Now my biggest problem is to remember to actually set up the crock pot in the morning before I leave.

  20. WendyB says:

    Cherie,
    I think the only time everything turns out mushy is when you cook it too long.
    For the roast-and-potatoes-and-carrots thing (and probably applies to most meats and vegetables dishes) you should put the meat in for a while first and add the veggies later, because they can get really mushy. Veggies don’t need to cook as long as meat, especially when they’re sliced small.
    For the barbeque chicken, I just use chicken breasts (boneless, skinless), any barbeque sauce, and some water. You could also add a sliced onion and/or some minced garlic or garlic powder, salt and pepper for that something extra.

    Slow cooker liners are my favorite!! Definitely worth the couple of bucks (for 4) as a trade-off for half an hour of scrubbing after hours of soaking.

  21. Tahlia42 says:

    If the cost of the crockpot liners rubs your frugal nature the wrong way, try looking for them at a kosher grocery store. I normally get a package of 10 for under $2 (as opposed to 4 for $3 at Ralphs). They work just as well at a fraction of the cost.

  22. Rosie says:

    The “boiled meat” flavour is significantly reduced if you take 5 minutes to brown the meat in a frypan before you put it in the slow cooker. Then you may as well brown the onions too, which avoids the raw-onion factor.

  23. wmboy says:

    Hi Trent,

    In reading Wikipedia there is quite a negative few paragraphs regarding slow cookers:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crock_pot#Disadvantages

    What is your take on this?

  24. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    There are disadvantages to slow cooking, just as there are when you cook rapidly. If you cook rapidly, you lose a lot of flavor blending and you tend to scorch things, leaving fullerenes and other materials on the outside of the food. As for the “lead” reference, items sold in the United States have extremely low legally allowable lead tolerances – the comment is mostly historical and for countries without such restrictions.

    You can create fear about anything if you want to. Even carrots.

  25. Josh says:

    One modification of the tip above about turning the heat to high if it’s too wet at the end of cooking: If you do that, it can often lead to the “star of the dish” (be it animal protein or vegetable) getting overcooked. I often dump my slow cooker’s contents into a strainer, pouring the liquid into a small saucepan, and then reducing until I’ve got as much liquid as I wanted. This is (1) faster, as you’re not heating that huge pot — you can reduce 3 cups to one cup in 5-6 minutes, (2) intensifies the flavor and gives you a good opportunity to adjust seasonings, (3) means you can stop cooking when things are DONE, not when the liquid has cooked off.

    As with all things in life there are cons — 2 more dishes :)

  26. Karen says:

    IM NEW TO USING A CROCKPOT. I AM GONE FOR ALMOST 12HRS A DAY SO I REALY LIKE THE IDEA OF USING A CROCKPOT BUT IT SEEMS LIKE NO MATTER WHAT I MAKE ITS BLAND AND EVERYTHING TASTS THE SAME. HELP! WHAT AM I DOING WRONG

  27. Gilora says:

    To Karen — if you are going to be gone for a long time and are worried about food drying out, get a cheap appliance timer to use with the crock pot. You can set the timer to run electricity to the crock pot a couple of hours after you leave for work and the food will be ready when you get home. I got my appliance timer for about $5 at CVS.

  28. steve says:

    Getting the timing right in slow cooker cooking is very important.

    meat often doesn’t need added water in the slowcooker. A chicken is, what, 80% water? As you cook it (I use the LOW setting, it releases water into the pt.. Just be sure not to overcook it-check a slow cooker recipe or user’s manual for suggested times.
    The slow cooker does an amazing job cooking up my batches of pre-soaked beans, making them really plump and perfect. It’s probably not as energy efficient as my pressure cooker, but it’s hands-off and the timing isn’t as finicky. I keep a batch of beans on hand at most times in the fridge to use as staples in my weekly meal preparations and packed lunches.

    Also, the slow cooker is great for some grains. I have done barley with great success, and I’m going to experiment with rice next.

  29. Jean says:

    Leaving a crock full of raw chicken in an appliance that isn’t going to get electricity for another four hours = a sure case of food poisoning.
    WOrd to the wise.

  30. Erica says:

    I think I may be convinced. I have been thinking about getting a crockpot for the nutritional and convenience aspects, but money saving is definitely a bonus.

  31. EngineerMom says:

    Some foods and meats are definitely appropriate for, and frequenstly best when done in the crockpot. Foods that respond well to slow cooking, like chili, certain soups (pea soup, for example), stews, and beef roasts (the cheaper, the better, since the factors that make them tough when cooked quickly make them very tender in the crockpot).

    When you crockpot, everything WILL taste the same! If it turns out bland, that’s not the result of the cooking method, but a lack of proper flavorings like herbs, spices, and aromatic veggies (garlic and onions). The whole point of a crockpot is to mingle and meld the flavors of all the different ingredients. Potatoes cooked with a roast are going to taste roast-y – that’s sort of the point.

    That’s why it’s important to choose dishes that benefit from that flavor melding – like chilis, stews, and roasts. If you’re looking to cook a bunch of different things and have them all taste like they were cooked separately, you’re using the wrong tool.

  32. EngineerMom says:

    To the request for a chicken recipe:

    Chicken Salsa Chili
    1 jar Pace salsa (or your favorite – you’ll need about 2 cups of salsa)
    2 large cans (28 oz) of petite diced tomatoes
    2 small cans (14-oz) of black beans, drained and rinsed in cold water (to remove some of the salt)
    2 c. frozen corn
    1 tsp cumin
    3-5 frozen chicken breasts (about 2 lb)
    3 oz cream cheese (optional)

    Add everything to the crockpot, chicken on the bottom. Cook on high for 2-4 hours or on low for 6-8 until chicken is done. Remove chicken from crockpot and shred, then return to pot. Stir in cream cheese, if desired. Serve with crackers.

    Note: If you use the Hot salsa, this dish will be very hot! If you’re not into very spicy chili, then definitely use the Mild.

    This dish is best made with chicken, not ground beef. We’ve tried it both ways, and the unanimous vote is for the wonderful texture of the shredded chicken. I suppose a recipe using shredded beef may also work, but ground beef just does not taste right.

  33. Rosemary says:

    I love my crock pot. I take a beef roast. Poke holes into it and put slivers of fresh garlic into the holes. Salt, pepper and flour the roast. Quickly brown the roastn on all sides in large skillet with small amount of oil. Place roast in crock pot cook on low all day. The smell when you arrive home is wonderful. Leftovers you can shred and use in in enchiladas, tacos, etc.

  34. awujoola says:

    this is crazy wonderful — thanks for sharing. i’m getting a crock pot & plugging that baby in tonite!!!

  35. Beth says:

    I just learned how to make yogurt in my crockpot (google it) for a fraction of what the stores charge. Preservative free. I like knowing what’s in my food and how it was made.

  36. Nasreen says:

    just want to know how curries would taste in a crockpot?

  37. Jenna says:

    I would like to note that not all foods are generally ideal for a crockpot. Ideally, root vegetables (carrots, parsnips, potatoes) and tougher cuts of meat are ideal for crockpots because these foods often take longer to cook. The wonderful thing is that these foods are often inexpensive (especially in bulk).

    When you’re cooking meats for a period of 7-9 hours, you need a large amount of connective tissue on the meat in order for the meat to not dry out. This is why leaner meats, like pork chops, tenderloins, or chicken breasts tend to get very dry in a slow cooker.

    Slow cookers are a great way to utilize inexpensive cuts of meat and vegetables, because you can allow to meat to cook without necessarily putting in the time to do so. That being said, a lot of more delicate vegetables do not do well in a slow cooker, and are best eaten raw or steamed to get the most nutritional benefit.

    Great post Trent, keep up the good work! :)

  38. dlm says:

    Does any brand of crockpot seal better — I can’t stand the smell after a while??? I think a crockpot would make great stock.

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