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If you are trying to learn how to use a slow cooker, here are 15 secrets to success I've learned over the years. You'll be a pro in no time!
How to Use a Slow Cooker (15 Secrets To Success!)
Have I mentioned lately I love my slow cooker (aka Mrs. Potts?) 🙂 Y'all know I do ~ seriously one of my favorite things ever to use in my kitchen. Slow cooker recipes are SO easy and hands-off!
But if you're new to using a Crockpot, there can be a wee bit of a learning curve. Here are some tips and tricks that I've learned through the years to help things go more smooth AND to help the food taste better.
If you don't use a cooker often, here are a few secrets for how to use a slow cooker:
1. First off, know that a slow cooker and crock pot are the same thing.
Crock-Pot is a specific brand, so if you find a recipes for a slow cooker or crockpot, they'll all work in whatever machine you happen to have.
2. Find the right size for your family.
Slow cookers come in all different sizes, and depending on the size of your family you'll want to make sure you use the right size. When you're first learning how to use a slow cooker, this can be a bit daunting!
- A 4 quart slow cooker is awesome for 2 people, or for keeping smaller dishes hot for parties or buffet-style dinners (i.e. meatballs, soup, mashed potatoes, mac & cheese)
- It's kind of nice to have a little baby slow cooker on hand as well – for keeping hot dips hot for Super Bowl Parties! This 8 quart slow cooker comes with a little dipper included!
Depending on the size of your family, you'll want to get one that's big enough, but not too big so things cook correctly.
3. Pick the right cut of meat.
While I cook just about everything in the slow cooker, there are certain cuts of meat that seem to do better for me.
Here are my “proven winners”:
- Beef shoulder roasts (also chuck roasts, but I think shoulder roasts tend to be less fatty)
- Boneless skinless chicken breast
- short ribs
- pork shoulder
- pork tenderloin
These usually get nice and tender without turning rubbery.
4. Plan ahead.
Be sure to plan slow cooker meals ahead of time, especially if you're heading out the door early in the morning.
Chop your veggies, set out your ingredients, and make sure to have your meat ready to go. If a recipe requires the meat to be pre-cooked, take care of that the night before too.
Important: Thaw your meat beforehand! Using frozen meat is not recommended because it won't get to 140 degrees quickly enough, and can stay in the bacteria danger zone for too long (40° – 140°) Even though you'll hear from many home cooks that have slow-cooked frozen meat and lived to tell the tale, it's worth the extra step so avoid causing a foodborne illness!
5. Most recipes that tell you to brown the meat ahead of time are okay without the extra browning step.
If you're in a hurry and a recipe (typically for pork or beef) tells you to brown the meat ahead of time, skip this step in a pinch. The recipe may be a little more flavorful if you have a few minutes to sauté the meat, but most recipes will be fine even without that extra step.
6. Fill your slow cooker no more than 3/4 way full.
Also, you don't want your slow cooker too empty or the food will dry out, so make sure it's at least half full.
7. Know where the heat comes from in your cooker.
The heat in your slow cooker comes from below the crockpot, so you want to place items that take longest to cook (typically veggies like potatoes and carrots) on the bottom. As you get more comfortable and learn how to use a slow cooker a bit more, you'll start to get a feel for how things need to be assembled.
8. Layer your ingredients.
Most recipes recommend putting veggies in the bottom before adding meat on top.
Here's a general guideline:
- Layer root veggies (carrots, potatoes) first (make sure these and all veggies are cubed before adding to crockpot)
- Then add in other vegetables
- Next add in meat or poultry
- Lastly add on additional seasonings or sauces
9. Keep the lid on.
To keep the heat in and make sure your meal cooks properly, keep the glass lid on your slow cooker throughout the day. Lifting the lid can lower the temperature in the cooker so much, that it can add up to 20 minutes of cooking time on every time you do it! If you need to lift the lid, try to do it quickly and wait until the dish is 3/4 of the way done.
10. Most crockpot recipes (other than soups) don't require much liquid.
It's easy to want to add quite a bit of liquid to recipes, however because liquids don't evaporate easily in the slow cooker, most of the moisture cooked out of your meat will keep it moist. Add the recommended liquids in the recipe, but don't overdo it. This is probably the hardest thing to get used to as you're learning how to use a slow cooker – but after a few recipes, it will be pretty easy! (and all of our recipes will let you know exactly how much to add).
11. Newer slow cookers cook much more quickly than older models.
If you've purchased a new cooker in the last few years, you'll notice it cooks much faster than an older version. If you get a new slow cooker, I recommend trying it out the first few times while you're at home to gauge how quickly it cooks.
(For example, my newer slow cooker easily cooks boneless, skinless chicken breast in four hours on low.)
You can test whether or not your slow cooker cooks “hot” with this trick: Cook 2 quarts of water in your crock pot on Low for 8 hours. Immediately check the water temp with a thermometer. It should be 180° – 200°. If it's higher than 200, your food may overcook. If it's lower than 180 – you should get a new crockpot because your food might not heat quickly enough to be safe.
12. As a rule, meat needs to be cooked to 140° or above.
- Poultry cooked to 165°
- Meat cooked to 140°
- Roasts 145° – 160°
If you don't have a meat thermometer –this inexpensive model has awesome reviews and has the recommended temps on the back so you don't have to remember it!
13. To prevent food from sticking, spray with cooking spray prior to cooking.
I've also heard you can add bacon to the bottom of your slow cooker to prevent food from sticking and add extra flavor. I haven't tried it myself, but yum. 🙂
You can also purchase Reynolds Slow Cooker liners for a super simple cleanup option!
14. Many recipes can be changed to slow cooker recipes by changing the cooking times.
Typically, when cooking on the “low” setting on your slow cooker it should be cooking around 200°, and the “high” setting cooks around 300°.
Here's a general idea of how to swap things out . . .
15. Some things don't cook well.
While you can cook many (many) things in the slow cooker, not everything will work.
Here are a few things I generally avoid cooking in Mrs. Potts.
- pasta – you definitely CAN cook pasta in a slow cooker, but it's pretty easy to overcook it and end up with mush. Instead cook on stove top and add it to the crock pot for the last 30 minutes of cooking if you're making a recipe that requires cooked pasta (note – I have made macaroni and cheese in the slow cooker, and this recipe is definitely a winner!)
- tender veggies (think peas and asparagus)
- most dairy products – if a recipe calls for dairy, make sure to add it in add the end of the cooking time to keep it from curdling
Looking for a great slow cooker? Here are a few I recommend . . .
Here are 5 Reasons You Need to Use Your Slow Cooker Every Single Week + a few more recipes to get you started.
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