Slow Cooker 101

I’ve been making dinners with slow cookers for decades now. I first started using them when we were renovating our kitchen and all of our appliances were unplugged. It’s how I first came to create my “fried” chicken in the Crock Pot recipe.

Speaking of Crock Pot, that brand name of slow cookers has become synonymous with this countertop appliance, much like Xerox is for copiers and Kleenex for tissues. And maybe even Peloton for stationary bikes. Nonetheless, many other brands make slow cookers. Even the Instant Pot pressure cooker has a slow cooking setting.

opening top of crock pot after chicken cooked
My Crock Pot brand slow cooker. Photo credit: Leah Ingram.

Benefits of using slow cookers

Not only do slow cookers save you time in the kitchen, but they can also save you money in the supermarket. Grocery dollars don’t go nearly as far, in today’s economy, but a slow cooker turns inexpensive cuts of meat into tender, flavorful stews. They also make it easy to get dinner on the table, helping you avoid buying expensive takeout.

A well-chosen and properly cared for slow cooker will last many years, help to save money, and reduce your meal-prep stress immeasurably. 

Features To Look For

Whether purchasing a slow cooker for yourself, as a gift for a cook or baker you know or as a Mother’s Day gift, there are important features to consider.

  • A Glass Lid — A tight-fitting lid that holds in heat is essential to proper slow cooking. Removing the lid over and over to check your food allows that important heat to escape. Choose a model with a glass lid, so you can check progress without lifting it.
  • Functions — Standard, less expensive slow cooker models can have analog or digital controls. Most offer HIGH, LOW, and KEEP WARM functions. More expensive models can have features that include searing/sauteing, braising, baking, sous vide, and even proofing bread. Choose a slow cooker that fits your needs, budget, and cooking style.
  • Timers — While it’s not a necessary feature, having a timer on your crockpot can be a nice feature. They can automatically shut off the slow cooker at the end of the cooking time. And they can often be set up to switch to that keep warm setting.
  • Heating Method — Standard slow cookers usually have a base that heats from the bottom and encloses a removable insert. More expensive models may have bases that also heat from the sides. This definitely allows for more even cooking, but is considered a premium, rather than a necessary feature. Avoid slow cookers that are designed with a flat base and no sides. The free-standing crock sitting on top of the base doesn’t hold heat as well.

Size Matters

Do you like having leftovers to work into another meal? Do you regularly cook for more than three or four people? How much space do you have for storing a slow cooker?

An average slow cooker recipe is usually written for six-quart, or larger, models. If you are a small household and don’t mind scaling recipes, a three- or four-quart slow cooker may be just right for you. Smaller slow cookers don’t allow as many options for leftovers, however.

A six-quart slow cooker is the size most cooks begin with. It’s perfect for roasting whole chickens, making Mississippi pot roast or creating hearty soups and stews.

If you often double recipes, to create intentional leftovers, then you may find that eight-  or 10-quart slow cookers are even better suited to your cooking style. Choose the slow cooker size that is right for you.

Caring for Slow Cookers

Slow Cookers require only a minimum of care and are fairly easy to clean. It’s important to choose a slow cooker with a removable crock. Being able to remove the inner cooking pot means you can easily put it into your sink for cleaning.

Can you put a slow cooker in the dishwasher? According to the brand Crock Pot, yes, you can put the ceramic crock in the dishwasher. Truth be told, if my crock is really dirty, I will always put it in the dishwasher.

You can purchase liners for slow cookers that help make clean-up quick and easy. But if you want a more affordable solution, simply soaking the crock for 30 minutes to an hour makes cleaning it a breeze.

Clean and dry both the insert and the base, after each use. Store your slow cooker with the crock in the base and the lid on the crock.

Benefits of Slow Cooking

There are definite benefits to preparing meals in slow cookers.

  • Fix It and Forget It — The few minutes it takes to prep ingredients and load them into a slow cooker are usually the only hands-on minutes a cook spends cooking their dish.
  • Saves Electricity — Depending on energy costs in your area, slow cookers use less energy than your range or oven. And they won’t heat up the house like your oven.
  • The House Smells Amazing! — Just like baking bread or cookies in the oven, or simmering a pot of soup on the stove-top, the meal in your slow cooker will send delicious aromas wafting through your home.
  • You Avoid Takeout — Knowing there is a delicious, hot meal waiting at home curbs the temptation to hit the drive-thru or call for takeout.
  • Meat Is Tenderized — Slow cooking allows the breakdown of tougher cuts of meat. They’ll become melt-in-your-mouth tender, while remaining succulent and juicy. Try this gluten free pot roast recipe and you’ll see what I mean.
  • Flavor Is Magnified — Slow cooking ingredients with seasonings, herbs, spices, and aromatics creates a much deeper flavor profile than can be achieved in short cooks on a stove-top. 
  • One-Pot Meals — The entire meal can be prepared in your slow cooker. Add some bread and a salad and the meal is complete.
  • Save Money — Choose affordable, tougher cuts of meat and more cost-effective recipe ingredients for fabulous slow cooker meals. Slow cooking means they’ll be as delicious as more expensive cuts.

Timing Perfect Slow Cooker Dishes

You will quickly find that most recipes written for slow cookers fall back on the standard three to four hours on HIGH or six to eight hours on LOW instruction. This is a best-estimate timing at best, and one that can turn perfectly good food to dust, at worst.

You wouldn’t roast chicken breasts in the oven for the same length of time that you would a chuck roast. So you shouldn’t cook them for the same amount of time in a slow cooker, either.

Perfectly roasted chuck roast can withstand, and even needs, the full eight hours recommended by most slow cooker recipes to become tender. A delicious pork loin may require only six. And whether you want to serve slices or serve it shredded will affect the amount of time it should cook.

Perfectly juicy, slow cooker chicken breasts require only two and one-half to three hours on LOW in most slow cookers. They will be tender and can be cut into beautiful slices or even chopped or shredded to add to other recipes.

A reliable meat thermometer is the best way to test the doneness of meat whether you slow cook a homey family meal or prepare an elegant dinner for a properly set table.

Final thoughts

Using slow cookers is a huge win for modern cooks! They save you time. Slow cookers help save money on grocery and energy bills. And they help you prepare flavorful meals like a pro.

This article originally appeared on Food Drink Life.

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