1. Use the Right Size
2. Don’t Overfill Your Slow Cooker
3. Keep a Lid on It
4. Plan Your Meals Ahead
If you want to turn your slow cooker on first thing in the morning, a little planning goes a long way.
• The night before: Cut and trim any meat, chop any vegetables, measure out dry ingredients and prepare any sauce; refrigerate the components in separate containers. (Do not refrigerate components in the slow-cooker insert; a cold insert takes too long to heat up and affects cooking time and food safety.)
• In the morning: Add ingredients to the cooker according to the recipe; reheat any sauce to a simmer before adding. If you won’t be home close to the end of the cooking time, make sure you have a slow cooker that can switch to the Warm setting when cooking is done.
5. Maximize Flavor
If you’re in a hurry or really prefer to just dump your ingredients in the cooker and go, then you can skip this tip—it’s by no means necessary. But when I have a little extra time, I like to brown my meat and/or vegetables in a skillet before I add it to the cooker. Then I “deglaze” the pan with my liquid to get all the brown, caramelized bits from the sauté pan into the cooker. You’ll end up with a richer flavor that can’t be achieved by slow-cooking alone.
6. Keep Temperature in Mind
A slow cooker is certainly convenient, but if not used correctly there is the potential for food-safety hazards. Temperatures between 40° and 140°F fall into the so-called “Danger Zone,” since bacteria thrive in these temperatures. When using a slow cooker be sure to take precautions that keep food from being in the Danger Zone for too long. To avoid the Danger Zone, never add frozen ingredients to your cooker, refrigerate any ingredients you’ve prepped ahead in separate storage containers and bring liquids to a simmer if you’re cooking on Low before adding them to your cooker to give the heating process a jump-start. Never attempt to cook a whole chicken or roast in your slow cooker: large hunks of meat won’t cook thoroughly enough in the slow cooker. So when cooking with meat, make sure it’s cut into smaller pieces that will cook throughout.
7. Make Sure You Have the Best Crock Pot
You may have a 20-year-old slow cooker that still works great, but it’s probably a basic cooker for which you need to time your cooking manually and then be there to turn it off. A programmable slow cooker cooks your meal for a predetermined time and then switches to a setting that keeps the food at a safe temperature until you’re ready to eat. Our favorite is the crock pot 5.5 Quart Smart-Pot (you can get one for around $50). Its digital touchpad allows the user to control the heat settings and time the cooking in increments of 30 minutes up to 20 hours. Find one at crockpot.com.