11 Slow-Cooker Tips Every Home Cook Needs to Know
Don't settle for bland, mushy food. These expert Crockpot tips and tricks will ensure your dinner turns out tasty and tender every single time.
On busy days, it’s so tempting to hit up a drive-thru so you can skip cooking and cleanup time. But you can also skip that stuff with a slow cooker. With these tips on how to use a slow cooker, dinner will be way more satisfying, too.
Don’t own a slow cooker? Our Test Kitchen tested several brands to find the best slow cooker for your needs.
Tip 1: Buy the Right Type of Meat
It’s a common dilemma: you didn’t have the cut of meat the recipe called for, so you swapped in something else. And as a result, your pork roast turned out tough and dry, yet also greasy. Before you make a substitution, consider that when slow-cooking for an extended time, it’s best to use well-marbled cuts. It’s a great opportunity to use less expensive meats, such as beef chuck roast, pork shoulder and chicken thighs. To minimize fat drippings, trim meats before cooking or plan to skim off some fat before serving.
Tip 2: Sear the Meat Before You Start
Before you put a raw pot roast into the slow cooker, there’s something you should know. Browning the meat ahead of time will help you lock in extra flavor, plus it’ll seal in the meat’s delicious juices. If you want to be really turn up the flavor, add a little rub or spice mix to the meat, too. This step takes just a few minutes but makes a world of difference.
Tip 3: Avoid Overfilling the Crock
Halfway through cooking, your slow cooker starts rattling. Turns out the lid is clanking against the crock because the contents are bubbling over. Or, when you open the lid to dish up dinner, you discover your meal is a hard mass stuck to the bottom of the slow cooker. Eek! Since slow cookers operate best when filled halfway to three-quarters full, make sure your recipe meets that criteria. If you’re cooking with more or less food, cooking times may need adjustment.
Tip 4: Chop Veggies to a Uniform Size
That Slow-Cooker Beef Stew has smelled so good all day. But when you dig in, some of the veggies are crunchy—hardly even crisp-tender—and others have completely disappeared! This unfortunate situation is why it’s so important to cut your vegetables to the right size. They should all be about the same size so they cook evenly.
Tip 5: Don’t Peek!
We know you’re jonesing for that Slow-Cooker Barbacoa, but resist the urge to look! Every time you open the lid, heat escapes, meaning your food will take longer to cook. To determine if the meat is up to temp, consult this food-safe temperature chart. (And make sure you invest in a quality meat thermometer!)
Tip 6: Keep the Sides in Mind
Don’t let your long-awaited lasagna recipe come out of the cooker scorched in some places. When cooking “solid” foods, such as lasagna, meat loaves, bread pudding and breakfast bakes, it’s OK to check the sides for over-browning. In most slow cookers, the side opposite the control panel is where foods cook fastest, so it’s the best place to check first. Just be sure to look quickly and only near the end of the cook time.
Tip 7: Thicken the Sauce
If tonight’s slow-cooked chicken recipe is swimming in broth, don’t just dump it out! Juices don’t evaporate in a slow cooker because the lid is closed. As a result, they may be thinner or more plentiful than you wish. Transfer them to a saucepan and thicken into a gravy with flour or cornstarch.
Tip 8: Always Add Cheese at the End
We’ve all been there; at least, I have. You’ve made a delicious recipe in your slow cooker, topped it with cheese and left it for just a little too long. There’s nothing worse than a gooey, somewhat rubbery mess. To avoid this issue, you don’t have to avoid cheese altogether. Instead, simply make sure that you add it right at the end, around 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
Tip 9: Stop Overcooking
If your family consistently gives your slow-cooked dishes low marks because of the mushy veggies, chalky meat and/or muddy, one-note flavors, you may be overcooking your recipes. Instead, take advantage of the slow cooker’s “Keep Warm” setting if you need to leave something on longer than the recipe requires. Or, choose one of these slow-cooker recipes that take a full workday to cook, so it’s ready when you get home.
Tip 10: Skip Washing Up
The least fun part of using a slow cooker is definitely the cleanup. No one likes it, and yet we all have to do it, right? Not quite. Using a slow cooker liner means that you can avoid most of the cleaning and get on with eating your deliciously tender home-cooked meal.
Tip 11: Think Outside the Box
If you thought that slow cookers were just for stews, I’ve got news for you. You can cook anything from rice pudding to mulled wine, and even cheesecake. If you’re looking for some inspiration, check out all the foods you didn’t know could be made in a slow cooker.
Next, browse our ultimate slow cooker guide, which has even more tips, recipes and deep-cleaning instructions.