Using a slow cooker couldn’t be much easier; just place the food in the cooker, put on the cover, turn the cooker on to low-heat and allow the cooker to cook the food all day long. But, as with anything else, there are always more things to learn. The newest slow cookers on the market come with divided liners, timers to adjust the cooking start time, as well as other features. The newer appliances seem to be hotter than models only a few years old, so it’s best to learn how your particular slow cooker cooks.

  • When purchasing a slow cooker, look for one that has a removable liner, as they are much easier to clean. If you already have one with a non-removable liner, you can easily compensate by lining your cooker with a cooking bag – if you do this, you’ll have no cleanup at all. But, first spray the inside of the liner with cooking spray before you fill it, to make cleanup easier.
  • It is important to fill the slow cooker only one half to three quarters full. Most foods will not cook properly if the appliance is filled to the brim, and if the food and liquid level is too low, the foods will cook too quickly.
  • Foods cooked on the bottom of the slow cooker cook faster and will be moister because they are immersed in the simmering liquid – as a result, if your food mix is such that you want everything cooked evenly, you may find that you want to stir the food about half way through the cooking time (though this is not necessary).
  • Always remove the skin from poultry, and trim any excess fat from meats. Fats will melt with long cooking times, and will add an unpleasant texture to the finished dish. Fatty foods will also cook too quickly.
  • You can thicken juices and concentrate flavors by removing the lid and cooking your meal on HIGH for the last half hour of the cooking time.
  • The temperature the food should reach as quickly as possible is 140° F. If you are at home during the cooking times, test the food temperature after four hours of cooking on LOW – the temperature should be at least 140° F. If it isn’t, there’s a problem with your slow cooker and you should replace it with a new one.
  • For food safety reasons, it’s a good idea to cook your meal on HIGH for the first hour to quickly bring the temperature up to 140°. Then turn the dial to LOW and the food to finish cooking throughout the day.
  • The LOW setting on a slow cooker is about 200° F, and the HIGH setting is about 300° F. Note that both of these temperatures are well above the minimum safe temperature of 140° F.
  • Do not put frozen foods in the slow cooker. All foods should be defrosted prior to cooking so the food temperature can reach 140° F as soon as possible.
  • Most meats require 8 hours of cooking on LOW. With a slow cooker, you can use cheaper cuts of meat than you might otherwise – not only do you save money, but these meats will actually cook better in the slow cooker. Cheaper cuts of meat have less fat, which makes them more suited to slow cooker cooking. Moist, long cooking times result in very tender meats.
  • Ground meats must be cooked in a skillet before cooking in the slow cooker.
  • Seafood should be added during the last hour of cooking time, or it will overcook and have a rubbery texture.
  • Large pieces of meat can be browned before cooking in the slow cooker, but this step isn’t necessary. However, browning adds color and helps in flavor development.
  • One hour on HIGH heat is equivalent to two hours on LOW heat.
  • Cayenne pepper and Tabasco sauce tend to become bitter if cooked for long periods of time. Use small amounts and add them closer to the end of the cooking time (normally within the last hour or so).
  • Add tender vegetables like tomatoes, mushrooms and zucchini during the last 45 minutes of cooking time, so they don’t overcook.
  • Dairy products should be added during the last 30 minutes of cooking time, unless the recipes state otherwise.
  • Liquids do not boil away in a slow cooker, so if you are making a recipe that wasn’t specifically developed for the slow cooker, reduce the liquid content by 1/3 to ½, unless you are cooking rice or making soup.
  • Remove any excess cooked food from a slow cooker or liner before you store it (this is because the liner is made of such thick material the food can’t cool down quickly enough to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria).
  • Stir in spices for the last hour of cooking. Otherwise, they lose their flavor if cooked with the rest of the ingredients for the longer cooking period.
  • Follow the slow cooking layering instructions carefully. Many are surprised to learn that vegetables (other than tomatoes, mushrooms and zucchini) do not cook as quickly as meat, and should, therefore be placed in the bottom of the appliance.
  • Don’t lift the lid to stir the ingredients, especially if you are cooking on the low temperature setting. Each time you lift the cover, enough heat will escape such that the cooking time should be extended by 20 minutes to half an hour. To check the cooking progress without lifting the lid, spin the cover until the condensation under the lid falls off, thus making it easy to see inside the cooker.