Updated on 07.14.11

A Beginner’s Guide to Slow Cooker Use

Trent Hamm

A few weeks ago, I put out a call on Twitter and on Facebook for detailed posts that people would like to see. I got enough great responses that I’m going to fill the entire month of July – one post per day – addressing these ideas.

By email, Kevin asked “Could you post an article outlining how to get started with slow cooker/crock pot usage and how it saves money?”

Our slow cooker is an essential piece of kitchen equipment in our house. We use ours multiple times per week for a wide variety of meals and ingredient preparation.

How a Slow Cooker Saves Time
In truth, a slow cooker doesn’t so much save time but move it. It allows you to do the prep work for an evening meal earlier in the day.

Here’s an example. Let’s say that we know that a given evening is going to be very busy. One child has soccer practice, another child has dance practice, and my wife has to stay late for an after-work meeting. Our solutions for dinner are now limited. We’re either going to eat out, get take-out, or prepare something very quick and dirty at home.

A slow cooker solves this problem. Whenever we arrive home, a good home-cooked meal made from basic ingredients is sitting there fully cooked, hot, and waiting for us. We just set the table and eat – it’s far faster than even eating out.

Simply put, a slow cooker moves your food preparation from a point where there are a lot of demands on your time to a point when there are many fewer demands on your time.

Cooked casserole

How a Slow Cooker Saves Money
Since you’re able to make the time transition described above, you’ve suddenly made it possible to cook at home when it previously didn’t really work all that well.

You’ve either turned a meal eaten out to one eaten at home, or you’ve turned a prepackaged meal into a fresh, healthier, and probably tastier meal.

In either case, that’s a net gain. The gain is clearer when compared to a meal eaten out, but it’s still prevalent when compared to a prepackaged meal, as the costs on those are often quite high compared to what you get. Even if your costs are equivalent, the meal you’ve prepared is of better quality than the prepackaged one.

We also save money by using a slow cooker to prepare other ingredients, such as making shredded chicken, chicken stock, and vegetable stock.

Selecting a Slow Cooker
For your first slow cooker, I’d suggest picking up a very low-end cooker, just to see if you’ll use it or not. A low-end slow cooker (or crock pot, as they’re often labeled) usually just has a dial on the front that enables you to choose warm, low, or high for settings and is “on” whenever it’s plugged in. Straightforward, indeed.

If you find you’re using that one a lot, it’s worthwhile to invest in one with some more sophisticated features. A timer is a very useful feature, as is a programmable slow cooker that allows you to have the slow cooker adjust from low to high at a designated time. This enables you to put in the ingredients, have the dish start a few hours after you leave, and kick up to high just before you’re planning on returning, resulting in a perfect meal. This really adds to your flexibility with using this for family meals when you’re out for the day. A good example of this type is the Hamilton-Beach 6 quart programmable model.


Using a Slow Cooker
There’s an absolute abundance of slow cooker recipes online. If you’re just starting out, I suggest sticking to simpler recipes. One approach I often use is the “five ingredient slow cooker meal.” All you really do is combine five ingredients that you like and know will go well together, put the slow cooker on low for several hours, and then enjoy. The post linked there has several examples of this, but you almost can’t mess this up as long as you stick to what seems good together to you.

About to make stock

Once you’ve tried some of these, start digging into the abundance of more detailed slow cooker recipes online. I’ve posted two different sets of slow cooker recipes over the years (this one and that one) and many of my Friday afternoon food posts are slow cooker recipes. Not only that, there are entire blogs and websites devoted to slow cookers, such as A Year of Slow Cooking.

The only real limit is your creativity (or perhaps ingredient availability in your area).

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. Carole says:

    Slow cookers can often be found at garage sales. That would probably the best place to buy the first one to see if you like it.

  2. Vivianne says:

    Crock-Pot, like Kleenex and Xerox, is a brand name fallen into common usage.

    When picking a slow cooker, find one in which the pot can be COMPLETELY removed from the base for washing.

    For best flavor when cooking add much less liquid than you think you might need, put the vegetables on the bottom, and brown meats. Add tomato paste, boullion or concentrated stock. Fill the cooker about 2/3 – 3/4 full for more even cooking.

    Slow cooker mistakes: Green peppers become unpleasant for some reason, and chiles become more spicy, good to know if you’re making chili. Some curry powders also react badly — ymmv on this one, and it’s not the cinnamon, cumin, cardamom, turmeric, mustardseed or ginger if you wish to make a homemade mild curry blend.

  3. valleycat1 says:

    Consider: If your mornings are busy or even hectic getting everyone out the door to school, day care and/or work, you’ll need to prep or at least gather all your ingredients the night before – you won’t want to add yet one more thing to do in the morning.

    Some people aren’t comfortable leaving a heated appliance on all day in the house if no one’s there (I’d put it on a GFI outlet or a power strip if that’s a concern).

    We’re replacing our recently deceased slow cooker with one with a removable pot that can also be used on the stove top or in the oven rather just on the slow cook base. I wasn’t going to replace the a slow cooker and we were looking at getting a good dutch oven instead, so this gives us both options.

  4. Ken says:

    Get decent non-programmable crockpot and then buy an appliance timer. Now you have a more useful crockpot than all but the most powerful programmable crockpots.

  5. deRuiter says:

    “…very quick and dirty at home.” ?????? “dirty”??????? What’s a “dirty” meal?

  6. Jen says:

    Definitely agree with the “pull out” variety!

    We use our slow cooker all the time. My favorite no-think dinner is Italian Chicken: Put 3-4 chicken breasts in the slow cooker, cover with your favorite Italian dressing, cook on high for 4-5 hours. in the last hour, I add some vegetables–usually broccoli, carrots and cauliflower. serve over rice.

  7. Now you cannot use the time excuse to avoid cooking at home. You will save 80% by cooking at home and you’ll discover how fun it can be. Use the savings to pay down debt, start an emergency fund and save for retirement.The more you cook at home, the faster you’ll GET LIQUID.

  8. Jamie says:

    I have found that I can cook nearly every slow cooker recipe on the stove top, using a “chicken fryer” pan (a deep fry pan with a lid), in less than an hour and it tastes 10 times better than meals prepared in a slow cooker. The first slow cooker I bought in 1988 had “off” “low” and “high” and worked great. I’ve bought four slow cookers since and they all cook too hot. I’ve given up on slow cookers.

  9. Nate Poodel says:

    It would be nice to see a series on Slow Cooker Meals. My husband and I work very long hours. 9-9 on most days. Getting a Crock Pot has saved us time but we tend to get stuck in a rut with what we cook. I also find alot of the recipes tend to be heavy on the meat side. That’s all fine and dandy sometimes but meat is very expensive where we live and some low meat/veg options are always appreciated.

  10. Emma says:

    @#5 deRuiter Oh, I know what quick and dirty meal is! I do it all the time. Rushing after work, frying chicken cutlets on one pan, bread crumps all over over the dish, beaten eggs, zillion utensils, 2 dish rags, oil, broccoli, minced garlic, rice, safron and spices cooked in the thrid pot, greens beans in the next. Steam, adrenaline rush. I take 30 minutes to cook a healthy meals for teens- but it takes me 1.5 hr to clean the working area after such ordeal. And I am tired. Trent’s slow cooking is neat and not much cleaning after is involved.

  11. Jen says:

    Trent, Great post! My husband and I have a slow cooker but rarely use it because we are gone for so long throughout the day and even on “low” have overcooked the last few meals we have tried. I had no idea they had programmable ones! I am going to try a few more recipes and if I still have problems with the cooking done-ness I’m going to look into one of the programmable ones. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *