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The Joys of an Unwatched Pot: Slow-Cooker Recipes and Tips

Slow Cooker White Chili

“Convenient” may be the word most often associated with slow cookers, but “creative” should be right up there, too. Sure, it simmers and bubbles while we work, play or sleep, but I no longer look at it as a one-trick pony.

Here’s my advice on the basics, plus some suggestions for working it deliciously (and inventively!) into your everyday cooking.

Slow Cooker Lentil Stew with Polenta

Fast Facts for Slow Meals

Lower is usually better. If you have a choice between using your cooker’s low setting or high setting, you should generally opt for low. Most cookers heat more evenly on low, and most foods will be tastier with longer cooking. But there are many exceptions, so let your recipes and your schedule be the ultimate guide.

Browning first adds flavor. Many recipes suggest you brown meats or vegetables in a separate skillet before adding them to the slow cooker. While not strictly necessary, this will add a depth of flavor that makes it worth the time.

Never put frozen food into the cooker. Icy meats or vegetables can cause a dish to remain at an unsafe temperature long enough for harmful bacteria to grow, so always thaw frozen foods first.

Watch the fat. You’ll get better results with minimal amounts of fats. Most slow-cooker recipes call for little or no added fat (that’s a healthy bonus!), and you should also trim meats as well as possible before adding them to the slow cooker. If you brown meats before adding them, pour off any excess fat first. 

Don’t add excess liquid. There’s virtually no evaporation during slow-cooking, so even if your dish seems dry in the beginning it will accumulate juices during cooking.

Stirring isn’t necessary. Leaving the cooker closed throughout the cooking process is important for most recipes; stirring isn’t usually needed and may unnecessarily increase the cooking time.

 

Slow Cooker Cinnamon Pot Roast

6 Reasons to Plug In

Make the Most of Bargain Beef. Slow cooking is my tenderizer of choice for inexpensive cuts like chuck, round, shin and more. Think beyond stews and chili by trying a recipe like our Slow-Cooker Cinnamon Pot Roast that gives you luscious, carvable meat.

Healthy Gets More Delicious. Many of the leanest and healthiest meals can be made in a cooker for super flavor with little or no added fat. It’s a terrific way to cook heart-healthy foods like lentils in our Slow Cooker Lentil Stew with Polenta, or try it for veggie-packed soups like Borscht with Cabbage and Potatoes.

It’s a Great Option for Young Cooks. Got teens who’d like to take charge of dinner once or twice a week? Slow-cooker recipes are ideal. Slow-cooking is relatively safe, and if cooked on “high,” most recipes will be ready by dinnertime if started after school. This Chicken and Apple stew requires minimal and cooks in around 3 1/2 hours.

It’s the Best for Casual Entertaining. Everything can be cooked and served (always hot!) from the same pot, so you never have to worry about scorching or reheating. Relax and watch the game with Slow Cooker White Chili or enjoy an easy gathering with Sausage and Shrimp Gumbo.

It’s Not Just For Dinner. Slow-cooker recipes started the night before can be just the ticket for busy mornings. Work more whole grains into your day with breakfasts like our Slow Cooker Honey-Vanilla Multigrain Porridge.

Homemade Stock Is Easier than Ever. It’s simple to convert your favorite stock recipe for slow cooking: Decrease the water used by about 20 percent, make sure you don’t fill the cooker more than 2/3 full, cover and cook on low for about 8 hours. Give our Golden Chicken Broth a whirl, or try our ultimately delicious vegan Easy Mushroom Broth.

Easy Mushroom Broth

How do you use your slow cooker? Share your tips and time-saving suggestions in the comments section below.

Originally published October 15, 2013.