7 Slow-Cooker Tips Every Home Cook Needs to Know

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Don't settle for bland, mushy food. These expert slow-cooker tips 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 buck.

Tip 1: 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 2: 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 substitute, 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. Psst! These slow-cooker stew recipes are full of meaty goodness.

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 cooking with more or less food, cooking times may need adjustment.

Tip 4: Chop Veggies to Size

That beef and veggie 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 (and that goes for width, too!).

Tip 5: Don’t Peek!

We know you’re jonesing for the slow-cooker barbacoa that’s been simmering all day, but don’t peek! Every time you open the lid, heat escapes, ensuring your food will take longer to cook. To determine if the meat is up to temp, consult this handy 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: Finish Your 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 (like this beauty from our cookware line) and thicken into a gravy with flour or cornstarch.

Ready to dive into slow-cooking? Try these easy recipes.
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Ellie Martin Cliffe
Now an executive editor at Taste of Home, Ellie has been writing about food and parenting for more than a decade. When she isn't at TOH HQ, she's likely trying gluten- and dairy-free recipes, canning whatever's in season, listening to anything with a fiddle, or playing Uno with her family.