What’s the big deal about slow cookers? The convenience, health benefits, and rich flavor are all reasons you should dust off that slow cooker and let it handle dinner for you.
I tend to go in waves with my slow cooker. I’m either using it constantly with a frenzied devotion, or I forget about it for several weeks. And each time I bring the slow cooker out again, I think, “I should be using this every day!”
Slow cookers, also known as crock pots, are humble but invaluable appliances. They’ve been around a while, so they don’t have the flash and pizzazz of Instant Pots or air fryers. But don’t underestimate them. If you know how to use it properly, your slow cooker is sure to become your best friend in the kitchen.
If you’re wondering if a slow cooker is worth it, read about the slow cooker benefits, how to use one and get answers to common questions regarding slow cookers. You’ll be a slow cooker master, ready to take on all the recipes!
Ready to get cooking… slowly? Keep reading to learn more.
What Is a Slow Cooker?
A slow cooker is an electric countertop appliance designed to cook food at low temperatures over several hours. Using a slow cooker is a convenient way to prepare a fresh, delicious meal.
Slow cookers first became popular in the U.S. in the 1940s, when many women began to work outside the home. Their convenience was attractive to busy parents. Today, slow cookers are still popular for their ability to turn out delicious meals with little preparation time.
A slow cooker consists of a round or oval cooking pot with a tight-fitting lid. The cooking pot is often made of glazed ceramic or porcelain, but you can also find stainless steel and aluminum inserts.
The slow cooker insert is surrounded by a metal housing, which contains an electric heating element. Most slow cookers have a glass lid that sits inside a groove at the edge of the pot. When you turn on the slow cooker, the electric base produces heat that rises up the sides of the pot and slowly cooks the food inside.
How to Use a Slow Cooker
Follow these easy steps to prepare slow cooker recipes:
- Gather all the ingredients. Make sure everything is thawed before placing it in the slow cooker. Plug in the slow cooker.
- Place tougher cuts of meat and heartier vegetables first. Vegetables cook slower, so you might choose to add them first.
- Avoid overfilling the slow cooker. A good rule of thumb is to fill it one-half to two-thirds of the way full.
- Add liquid according to the recipe. This could be chicken broth, crushed tomatoes, or even cold water. Remember that if you’re converting a standard recipe, reduce liquids by one-third.
- Ensure the lid is closed. This will keep the slow cooker at the right temperature and seal in the moisture.
- Turn on the slow cooker. Most crock pots have a high setting and a low setting. Low settings require longer cooking time. If you’re unsure of which one to use, consult your recipe. Generally, foods at the high setting require four to six hours of cooking time, while foods at the low setting require seven to eight hours of cooking time.
- Leave the slow cooker alone. Each time you open the lid, it lowers the temperature. If you must stir or check the internal temperature, do so quickly and then replace the lid. Most slow cooker lids are glass, so you can monitor the food as needed.
- Add finishing touches. During the last hour (or even last few minutes) of preparation time, add any fresh herbs, cheese, or cream to the dish. Stir if necessary. Be sure not to add those ingredients earlier, as they could wilt and/or curdle.
How Does the Slow Cooking Process Work?
The cooking process all boils down to three things–heat, moisture, and time.
As the electric base heats up, the temperature of the food inside rises until it reaches a boiling point. Because the heating elements are generally located at the bottom, most slow cookers have a minimum recommended liquid level to avoid overheating.
Once the contents reach boiling point, steam is created. The condensed vapor collects in the groove, which forms a low-pressure seal. There is no abrupt pressure release, like with pressure cookers.
The condensation helps baste the food during the cooking process. Because the heating element never comes into direct contact with the cooking pot, you get more even results. And since the temperature is low and consistent, the liquid doesn’t evaporate or concentrate.
Most slow cookers have two or three settings– high, low, and warm. The low and high settings are specifically designed for cooking. The keep warm setting is strictly for keeping food warm and preventing bacteria growth. Hot foods should be kept at 140°F (60°C) or higher, according to the FDA.
The good news? Once your food is done cooking, it will be kept at a safe temperature for two hours or until you’re ready to eat, as long as the unit is operating.
Benefits of Slow Cooking
There are several reasons you might like to use a slow cooker. While slow cookers can’t handle every kitchen task, there are plenty of reasons to use one when you can.
The longer cooking times bring out maximum flavor and add moisture to the food. For a flavorful dish that hits the spot, a slow cooker is where it’s at.
Less Chance of Scorching
Low-temperature cooking minimizes the chance of scorched foods. You can certainly appreciate that if you’ve ever cleaned out burnt food stuck to the bottom of a pan.
Slow cookers use less electricity than a standard electric oven, which saves you money long term. Slow cooking also allows you to batch cook (prepare meals in bulk). This saves energy when compared to preparing separate meals each night.
Frees Up Stove & Oven
Using a slow cooker frees up your stove and oven for other dishes, which is especially helpful during the holidays or for large gatherings. This slow-cooker chili goes perfectly with a side of cornbread baked in the oven.
Tenderizes Tough Meats
A slow cooker can tenderize less expensive cuts of meat, such as chuck steaks, roast, and brisket. The extra long cooking time can break down the connective tissue, resulting in juicy, tender meat. For instance, this slow cooker pot roast is perfect for a Sunday dinner with friends and family.
You don’t have to scrub multiple pots and pans once dinner is done. With a slow cooker, you can reduce your cleaning time. Not only does the low temperature prevent burnt, stuck-on food, but slow cooking is the quintessential “one pot meal.”
Where I live, it can get hotter than a stolen ghost pepper in the summertime. The last thing you want to do is make it worse by turning on the oven. Slow cooking allows you to prepare a meal without heating up the entire kitchen.
Let’s face it. There are some recipes we enjoy but never cook because they require so much “hands-on” time. No, I don’t particularly want to stand at the stove for an hour stirring. I’ve got laundry to fold and candy to crush, thank you very much.
Using a slow cooker means you can make healthy homemade meals and still be free to do other things. Set it and forget it!
Getting dinner on the table is a challenge, especially if you work a typical 9-5 job. Not only are you tired after work, but you also have to prepare the food in time for the kids to eat and still get a bath before bed. And if you have older kids involved in after-school sports? You can forget it.
A slow cooker lets you cook fresh food on your timetable. Soups, stews, meats, roasts, potatoes, you name it. Swap out the drive-thru for a home-cooked meal with a slow cooker.
What’s the Difference Between a Slow Cooker and a Crock Pot?
The terms “slow cooker” and “crockpot” are often used interchangeably. Technically, a crock pot is a type of slow cooker, but you can use both terms comfortably without confusing others.
The Crock-Pot brand was the original company to make slow cookers with a heavy ceramic insert. So some people might use the term “crockpot” to refer to a heavy ceramic pot.
It’s a classic case of a brand name becoming the generic term for an object. For instance, you might hear people refer to facial tissue as a “Kleenex.” It’s the same with slow cookers and crock pots.
Nowadays, however, you can find slow cooker pots in a variety of materials, including stainless steel and aluminum.
Why Does Slow Cooking Taste Better?
People agree that slow-cooked stews, vegetables, and especially meats just taste better. If you’ve ever wondered why that is, it all boils down to the science behind it. So what exactly happens to food when it’s cooked in the crock pot?
The most noticeable change happens in meat. The collagen in meat begins to melt at 160°F (70°C), turning into gelatin. This adds more flavor and makes the meat more tender. That’s why it “falls off the bones” after being cooked in the crock pot.
Another consideration is the low heat. Using high heat results in more uneven cooking. The more evenly the meat is brought to the desired temperature, the more moisture it retains.
A slow cooker allows the flavors to meld together. That’s why stew, soups, and other liquid-based dishes taste so good out of the crock pot. The lengthy cooking time gives the spices and other flavors time to blend and intensify.
Foods You Should Never Put in the Slow Cooker
Your slow cooker might be great, but you can’t use it for ALL dishes. There are a few foods you should avoid putting in the slow cooker.
Frozen Meat or Poultry
The danger zone is the range of temperatures at which bacteria can multiply rapidly. That range is between 40° and 140°F (5° to 60°C). If food is in that range for longer than two hours, it can become dangerous to consume.
Obviously, a slow cooker will heat and cook slowly, which means frozen food would spend too much time in that danger zone. To avoid this danger, thaw all the ingredients before adding them to the slow cooker.
Dry Kidney Beans
Wait a minute, don’t dried beans need to soak overnight anyway? Yes, but some beans contain a natural toxin that is destroyed by boiling. A slow cooker can rarely hit the temperature necessary (212°F/100°C), so you should either use canned beans or soak, rinse, and boil beans for at least 10 minutes before adding them to a slow cooker.
It might be tempting to put leftovers in the slow cooker, but it’s a bad idea. It could potentially spend too much time in the danger zone, allowing harmful bacteria to grow. Instead, reheat the leftovers in the microwave or on the stovetop. You can then put the hot food in the slow cooker to keep it warm until serving.
It’s safe to cook pasta and rice in a slow cooker, but it’s easier to just boil it on the stovetop or use a dedicated rice cooker. Furthermore, it can turn to sticky mush if you don’t pay close attention to the timing. You can add cooked pasta or rice at the end of the cooking time to keep the shape and texture intact.
Creamy or milk-based products break down and curdle at warm temperatures. The dairy proteins stick together, resulting in a lumpy, grainy mess. This also can happen with non-dairy products like coconut or almond milk.
If your recipe calls for milk or a creamy product, add it at the end of the cooking time, when you’re almost ready to serve the dish. The same applies to recipes that call for cheese. You can also substitute a processed cheese product, like Velveeta.
It’s best to avoid putting fresh herbs in the slow cooker. Soft herbs like basil, cilantro, and oregano will lose their flavor and wilt the longer they are cooked. You can add fresh herbs at the end of the cooking process or use dried herbs that can stand longer cooking times.
Seafood, specifically shellfish and mollusks, doesn’t need long to cook. While it doesn’t pose a health risk to cook shellfish in a slow cooker, it does pose a culinary risk. Overcooked shellfish is tasteless and rubbery. Yikes.
If your recipe calls for shellfish, add it during the last hour before you’re ready to serve the meal. You might even get away with adding it in the last several minutes, depending on the type.
Expensive Cuts of Meat
Cooking filet mignon in a crock pot isn’t a health hazard; it’s a sad waste of money. Lean meats don’t need the extra cooking time to be juicy and tender. Instead, use the slow cooker to tenderize less expensive cuts of meats like beef chuck roast, pork shoulder, and brisket. Many venison dishes also turn out well with the crock pot.
What Temperature Do Slow Cookers Cook At?
The majority of slow cookers have two or three settings–warm, low, and high.
The low-temperature cooking happens between 190-200°F (88-93°C). Most recipes have recommended cooking times of 7-8 hours to reach a simmer or boiling point.
Many slow cookers have a high temperature setting at 300°F (150°C). Many recipes call for at least 3-4 hours on a high-temperature setting to reach a simmer point.
Many slow cookers will have a keep-warm setting that should run between 145°-165°F (63°-74°C). You can safely keep your food warm for up to 2 hours. After that, you’ll need to refrigerate it or toss it.
You can also convert recipes from a traditional oven to a crock pot. Refer to the chart below to see the appropriate cooking times at each temperature setting. Just remember to reduce liquids by roughly one third, since they won’t evaporate in a slow cooker.
Conventional Oven Cooking Time (350°F/180°C) Slow Cooker Low Setting (200°F/93°C) Slow Cooker High Setting (300°F/150°C)15-30 minutes
1.5 hours30-40 minutes
3-4 hours50-180 minutes
Need more guidance on the proper temp? Check out my complete guide to slow cooker temperatures.
Can You Put Raw Chicken in a Slow Cooker?
Yes, you can! It may sound dangerous, but in fact, using a slow cooker to cook raw chicken is 100% safe, according to the USDA.
You can cook chicken breasts, chicken thighs, or even whole chickens, although it’s best to cut large pieces of poultry into smaller portions for even cooking.
If you can, it’s best to turn the cooker to the highest setting for the first hour, then switch to the low setting. But if you can’t, it’s okay. Your food is still safe to eat. If you’re worried about bacteria, use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature. If it’s at or above 165°, you’re good to go.
You should never put frozen food in a slow cooker. Always thaw frozen meat or poultry before adding it to the crock pot.
Why Use Slow Cookers: Wrap-Up
Slow cookers can help you cut down prep time, use less electricity, and maximize the flavor. It’s a super helpful appliance to use year-round. If you’re ready to make delicious hot meals, check out my list of top non-toxic slow cookers or visit my review of the best programmable cookers.