Slow Cooker Guide

Everything you need to know guide! Create easy, flavorful meals by learning these essential slow cooker basics, benefits and trying new tasty recipes.

Slow cooker with food cooking inside

I am the BIGGEST fan of using a slow cooker for creating easy, flavorful meals. I admit I was on the sidelines for a long time. I just wasn’t convinced that one appliance could produce such incredible dishes. That is until a new shiny CrockPot joined our family.

With a little bit of prep, patience, and imagination, you can be the hero of your household and create crowd-pleasing meals with little effort. If this sounds good to you, keep reading. I’m going to share with you some slow cooker basics, benefits and a few of my favorite recipes to get you started.

How Does a Slow Cooker Work?

  • Parts: A base with the heating element, vessel, and a glass lid. The vessel is where food gets placed for cooking. It’s typically constructed of heavy stoneware that keeps the heat constant, even and stable.
  • Process: Slow cooking is similar to a stovetop or a dutch oven. In a slow cooker, heat begins at the base and works its way up the sides, then into the food. The steam generated from the heat creates a vacuum seal with the lid. Low and consistent temperatures help to retain moisture during cooking. The liquid does not evaporate or become concentrated.
  • Settings: Most machines have a low, high, and warm setting. The cooking temperature range is between 175°F to 215°F. The low and high setting will peak at 215ºF, however the low setting cycles on and off that temperature more frequently. Therefore, the high setting will cook the food in a shorter period of time than the low setting. On the warm setting, the Crock-Pot will be between 165 to 175ºF.
    • Large roasts: Use the low or high setting.
    • Lean proteins: Chicken breasts, thighs or pork loin work well when braised on low and bone-in for chicken.
    • Stews and soups: Use either the low or high setting.
    • Warm: Perfect for keeping dishes hot for parties.

Good for Poaching and Braising

Poaching: Best for seafood, fish and lean meats like chicken breast, and cooks quicker than other proteins.

Braising: Great for tougher, inexpensive cuts of meat with marbling, like shoulder cuts from beef or pork. The low-and-slow process allows collagen in the connective tissues of meat to break down, tenderize and turn into gelatin, which gives a flavorful by-product.

Benefits of Using a Slow Cooker

  • Friendly on the wallet: This low wattage appliance uses very little electricity compared to blasting your oven or stovetop for hours. It’s also a safe way to cook in a small vessel that doesn’t warm up your entire home, but it does make it smell quite good!
  • Tender Meats: Tougher cuts of meat also benefit from low and slow cooking, so you don’t have to spend tons of money on restaurant-quality meals that would usually take all day to make.
  • Convenient: We’re all super busy and don’t have time to spend all day in the kitchen, as much as some of us would like to. Slow cooking is a safe way to prepare set-and-forget meals which save us hours of free time to get other important things done or just spend time with family. No food babysitting! It’s also very simple to prep the ingredients before you add them to the slow cooker.
  • Healthy Options: You can make low-fat recipes in the slow cooker by poaching and braising, cooking in broths, water, adding spices and other aromatics.

Slow cooker with lid open and meat braising inside

How To Use a Slow Cooker

  • Fill: A good rule of thumb is that the slow cooker typically needs to be filled at least halfway to operate correctly, but not be filled more than 2/3 full.
  • Settings: Typically there are just two cooking settings, high or low. Some units even have a keep-warm setting for when you’re entertaining. What setting you choose depends on the model you have, how fast you want to cook the dish, and what kind of ingredients you’re using.
  • Time: Most slow cooker recipes have a time range. Different variables like temperature, thickness, type of meat, and how full the cooker is will affect how much time is needed. Usually, the low setting takes twice as long as the high temperature. Give yourself a little extra time before serving, in case you need to cook for a bit longer

Cooking Tips

  • Do not open the lid! Try not to be tempted to open the top repeatedly. A secured cap generates steam which creates a seal. Each time you lift the lid and lose steam, you may be adding 20 or so minutes to your cooking time, so no peeking unless instructed by the recipe!
  • Use a thermometer: check the doneness of food at the beginning of the recommended time for the temperature setting and allow to cook longer as needed.
  • Serve SAFE food: To keep food safe, remove the contents of the slow cooker within an hour of thoroughly cooking, and then refrigerate the leftovers. Don’t reheat food in the slow cooker. It’s better to use the stove or microwave to heat then add back to the slow cooker.

Person checking internal meat temperature with instant-read thermometer

How to Prepare Foods For Slow Cooking

  • Vegetables: Root vegetables like potatoes and carrots cook longer than meat, cut into smaller even-sized pieces and place on bottom sides of the cooker with meat on top. Add more delicate vegetables during the last 15 to 60 minutes. Ingredients like spinach, zucchini, kale, chopped fresh tomatoes, peas, or fresh basil and parsley benefit from adding towards the end.
  • Beans: Canned beans are recommended and can be added in during the last 30 minutes to keep the shape while warming. You can use dried beans, but they are trickier to cook. You must soak overnight if using dried beans, except lentil and split peas. Don’t add acids, sugar or salt to dried beans at the beginning of cooking because it prevents them from becoming tender. Add those ingredients at the end.
  • Dairy: Add milk, cheese, sour cream, cream cheese or others at the end of cooking (last hour) because they tend to break down over a more extended period.
  • Fish and Seafood: Add at the end of cooking as these tend to cook very quickly.
  • Meat: If roasts are more significant than 3 pounds, cut in half for even cooking. Trim excess fat as it retains heat and can cause overcooking. Browning some meats before cooking can add more color and texture to the proteins, which is optional.
  • Oats: Old-fashioned oats hold up better in a slow cooker, but instant can be used as well.
  • Pasta: It’s best to cook separately then add to the end of cooking, as dry pasta gets very sticky in the slow cooker. Smaller pasta like orzo cook better in the slow cooker, but only at the last hour to prevent it from becoming mushy.
  • Rice: Instant rice should be added in the last 30 minutes of cooking. Converted rice works well for all-day cooking.

Make sure to skim excess fat from stews, braises, and chili before serving. This reduces the fat content of the recipe and makes the dish more palatable. You can use a large spoon to remove the fat, or transfer the liquid to a fat separator and allow it to sit until the fat rises to the surface.

chicken and vegetables placed inside a slow cooker

Slow cooker safety

To ensure that your slow cooker is working efficiently, make sure the temperature of the cooking liquid is 185°F. If it runs too high, you can overcook meat (depending on the cut), too low and your food will be unsafe to eat. The temperature danger zone of optimal growth for spoilage microorganisms is about 40 to 140°F, especially if held for over 3 to 4 hours at this range.

Verify a Slow Cooker is operating correctly

  1. Fill slow cooker 1/2 full with room temperature water. Cover and heat on low for 8 hours.
  2. Use an instant-read thermometer to check the water temperature immediately. Water should be at least 185°F.
  3. The slow cooker meal should be discarded if the temperature is below 185°F. Older slow cookers lose efficiency over time.

Tools for the Slow Cooker

There are many brands, shapes (round or oval), sizes (1 ½ to 7 quarts) and prices ($20 to $200) available. If you’re looking to buy your first slow cooker, I recommend at least a 6-quart size. There are also several tools and accessories available for the slow cooker.

infographic with pictures of slow cooker tools and accessories

  1. Slow Cooker
  2. Slow Cooker Liners
  3. Digital Meat Thermometer
  4. Travel Bag
  5. Metal Tongs
  6. Fat Separator
  7. Meat Shredder Claws

Some of the links above are affiliate links, which pay me a small commission for my referral at no extra cost to you! Thank you for supporting my website.

Slow Cooker Recipes

You can make just about anything in a slow cooker, even desserts! Vegetarian meals, fish, chicken, beef, pork, roasts, pasta, casseroles, sides, and sweets. Anything you can imagine! Here are some of my recipes to get you started:

View all Slow Cooker recipes

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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Reader Interactions

72 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Janice says

    What a great post! Thanks for sharing. I love using my crockpot and I often forget about it using it.

  2. Brenda says

    I love my crockpot too. Have you tried to use the CrockPot Stoneware Casserole Slow Cooker? If so, How is it compare to baking in regular oven such as the lasagna, etc…

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi Brenda! I have not tried the casserole slow cooker, but it sounds like a great idea! I’ll let you know if I ever get a chance to try, maybe santa will bring me one this year 🙂

  3. Sarah says

    Hi Jessica,

    Thanks to your tips I’ve added fresh herbs 10 minutes before finished and it adds an amazing good taste. Thanks for sharing your experience ! Have a great day

  4. Connie says

    If I put the entire crockpot porcelain into the fridge can I reheat it by putting it back into the heating part ? Or will it damage it or crack from going from cold to heat to fast?

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi Connie- I would recommend taking the contents out and transfer to a container, and then add back to the pot. Because the pot will be cold it will take longer to reheat and not be as efficient. I’m not sure if it will crack. Great question!

  5. Sherry says

    Hello! My question is regarding a slow cooker. Quite often due to time constraints I may combine high and low settings to cook using a slow cooker. For example if I am cooking a stew where the recipe indicates 7-9 hours on low or 4-5 hours on high I may cook it on high for 3 hours and 3 hours on low to complete it. Is this safe? I always start with the high setting. Usually this is because I am leaving the house and haven’t started it early enough to get in all the hours on low, but will be gone too long to keep the setting on high. I always cook it for the longest period of time and consider one hour on high to correspond to two hours on low. I only do this with recipes that give both high and low settings options.

    Thanks for your time
    Sherry

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi Sherry- Great question! I think if you are starting it on high and then adjusting to low that is okay. I think the most important thing is the final temperature of the dish. If you are cooking something like chicken, the internal temperature of the meat should be 160-165 degrees F. Do you have a thermometer to check?

  6. Joe says

    My problem: crock pot settings are worn. A house guest used tape to label settings HI, Med, LO. The recipe called for 1 hour on HI and 4 hours on LO. The food wasn’t done in the recommended time, so I heated back to HI for a couple of hours then set it on LO again. Using the back of my hand just to feel for heat I discovered a temperature that felt “warm,” and immediately suspected the temperature markings were incorrect. I peeled the tape back to see if original settings were visible, and saw enough that indicates they should have been labeled HI – LO – WARM. The hours the dish should have cooked on LO was actually spent on WARM as a result. I have made necessary adjustments, and I can check temperature of the chuck roast, but now I’m concerned those hours on WARM may have caused irreparable harm to the meat. What would you suggest?

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Oh no! Looks like it’s time for new slow cooker Joe 🙂 I think that since you typically want to cook chuck roast for a longer time at gentler temperatures the meat should be okay, but your taste buds would be the best judge for the texture. If it doesn’t look right, that definitely don’t risk eating the meat. Let me know what you ended up doing. Thanks for your comment!

      • Joe says

        In the end I decided to discard the chuck roast. ???? The crock pot heats well, and it has produced some amazing dinners, which is why I’m interested in learning to use it; however, it is critical to know and use the right heat settings. I’m new to crock pot cooking, and information you’ve provided on the subject is extremely important. Thank you.

  7. Linda Henderson says

    Cooking beef borgingnon, sp? Recipe says cook on low for 8-10 hrs, Epicurious recipe, ok to cook on high for less time? Mine is Crock Pot brand, no medium. Thanks much!
    Linda

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Great question! Most of the recipes I see call for the low and long cooking times. My best guess is that because the meat is a tougher cut, the longer it cooks the more tender it will become from the collagen converting to gelatin. I thinking the higher heat and short time may cause the meat to dry out and not give it enough time to tenderize. If you can, keep it low temp and slow cook time. And grab a glass of wine and relax 🙂

  8. Tom the Kitchen Rookie says

    Jessica, I’m trying to become a better cook for me and my family so please help me understand “cooking”. I think it works like this. If I put a roast into a 350F oven the meat heats from the outside inward, then I have to pull it when the internal temp reaches about 155F on its journey to the temp of the oven…i.e. 350F. In a slow cooker, the liquid temp is about 185F as you suggested above so a roast could be in that environment for a very long time and never get above 185F… and by maintaining that temp for a long time the meat will become more and more tender. So should I let the meat stay in the slow cooker for all of the recommended hours and I should not be tempted to pull it when it reaches 160F as I would in the regular oven?? This may be a silly question, but I am not getting good, tender, flavorful results in either device because I am letting the internal temp get too high or it reaches 155F too quickly and is not cooking long enough to really get tender. I was hoping a slow cooker could help me do a better job. Thanks for your help.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Thank you for your great questions, Tom! You have a good basic understanding of cooking, yay! I think it comes down to what kind of cut of meat and type of meat you are using to determine if say the stove, oven, slow cooker or combination of methods works the best. The slow cooker does great with tougher cuts of meat like pork shoulder because the moisture, longer time and moderate temperatures really gives the gelatin to convert to collagen, allowing the meat to tenderize. However leaner cuts of meat like chicken breast or a beef roast could be cooked in the slow cooker, but not for as long as a time because they will dry out and should be stopped in cooking as soon as they reach the desired doneness. Is there a particular type of meat you would like to cook?

  9. Elaine Whan says

    Hi Jessica I am new to slow cooking, I have received a multi cooker for Christmas which has a slow cooker ability but the settings are not the usual settings of a slow cooker, the settings are temperatures ranging from 80 – 240 degrees centigrade and I want to cook a roast beef joint what temperature should I use to cook it on high ?

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi Elaine! Slow cookers usually operate between the range of approximately 175°F–215°F range. Try to target around 185°F if you can and use a thermometer to check the temperature of the beef for doneness, this will likely take a few hours.

  10. Michael Wright says

    I thought I was having trouble with my crockpot heating to the proper temperature. I am going to use your test of heating water on low for 8 hours. My question is what should the liquid temperature be if the crockpot is on medium or high? Wouldn’t be a higher temperature so the food cooks more quickly?

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi Michael- After receiving your comment I decided to chat with someone from Crock-pot since that is the brand I own. What they said is that on all setting (low, medium or high will reach a maximum temperature of approximately 215 degrees Fahrenheit, but they cycle differently in that the low setting cycles off of that temperature more frequently. Therefore, the High setting will still cook the food in a shorter period of time than the Low setting will. On the warm setting, your Crock-Pot will be between 165 degrees and 175 degrees Fahrenheit. Please remember that these are all approximate temperatures and they can vary depending on what you are cooking. So all overall the slow cooker should operate at the same range (approximately 175°F–215°F range), but how long it holds it at the higher part of the range is the difference in the setting.

  11. Jerry Gillians says

    If a recipe calls for 5 lbs of meat to cook on low for 7 hrs, what would the time be for 2.5 lbs of meat?

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi Jerry- What kind of meat are you cooking? If you are cutting the amount in half, you should definitely check for doneness sooner. For example, a beef roast at about 3 pounds would need 8 hours on low and 5 3/4 hours in high.

  12. Diana says

    I’m getting really frustrated. No one seems able to answer what I thought was a pretty basic question…if a recipe is designed to be made in a 6 qt slow cooker, do I need to adjust ingredient amounts if using a 7 qt slow cooker? And, if so, how by much? Thanks.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi Diana- You want the slow cooker to be at least 1/2 full to 3/4 full (max) for consistent cooking. If you underfill than it may cook too quickly or dry out the food. Take a look at the recipe and all of the ingredients once prepped to see where you are at. You made need to 1.5X the recipe, but it’s hard to say without knowing what recipe you are making. Is there any more info you can share?

      • Diana says

        Hi, Jessica — It would be faster to tell you where to find the recipe …at the Betty Crocker website. It was for a “Deep Dish Slow Cooker Pizza”. The recipe does not follow the guidelines you recommend. Suggestions? Thanks.

        • Jessica Gavin says

          Hi Diana- This is definitely a unique recipe! Seems like all you have to make sure to do is cover the bottom of the vessel with the crust. The thing I don’t know is if the 6 vs 7-quart difference is in height or width of the vessel. If you use one pizza dough and feel like it’s pretty thin after you press it into the bottom and up the edges, check earlier for doneness in time. The instructions say the pizza is done when it reaches 165°F, so make sure to check using an instant-read thermometer. I would get a little extra sauce and topping in case the vessel is actually wider. This will take a little experimentation in your slow cooker but it sounds really tasty!

          • Diana says

            Hi, Jessica — Regarding height vs. width, they’re both oval so I would assume the major difference is more likely to be in the width than the height?! I guess I’ll just have to make sure I have extra ingredients on hand and, if I don’t need them for this, I can always use them in some other recipe. Thanks for your help.

      • John says

        At one point in time we had both a 6 and a 7 quart slow cooker. Don’t recall the brands. One day just for fun I filled the 6-quart crock to the brim with water, then from there poured it into the 7 quart crock. To my surprise it went all the way up to the brim. They were both exactly the same capacity!

  13. Pat says

    I made a ham in the crock pot last Christmas and it was terrible, very embarrassing. I liked that I could serve both ham and turkey so would like to be able to do this again. I read a comment that putting the ham into the crock pot early on the day, and set it on the warm setting, leave it for the day (8 hours?). Do you think this would warm the ham sufficiently without drying it out or undercooking it? Basically, a fully cooked ham only needs to be warmed through.
    Thank you.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi Pat- It could be a little risky depending on your unit. Some may keep the temperature constant between 145 to 165 degrees F (62 to 74 degrees C) on warm, but not all models/brands will stay that way and cold cause overcooking. The warm setting is meant for the food to be kept at a safe temperature for eating. However, if you do try it, I would check every hour to make sure the ham is not overcooked. How about baking the ham first and then transferring to the slow cooker when ready to serve, or perhaps the hour before?

  14. Cindy says

    Will it take longer to cook two 3 lb. boneless turkey breasts in a slow cooker vs. cooking one 3 lb. boneless breast?

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi Cindy- I would predict it may take longer since there is more food in the vessel to heat up. Just make sure to check both with a thermometer to check for doneness.

  15. Sherry says

    Hi Jessica! Will too much salt in a crockpot ruin the crockpot? For instance, cooking boiled peanuts. They take a lot of salt. Concerned for the coating of the interior.

  16. Nancy says

    I usually cook 31/2-4 pound beef roasts. I need more than that for a family dinner.
    I have 2-3 pound beef roasts, oval in shape, totaling 6 pounds of meat. Can both be cooked together or is the weight a problem? I never have read any info on regarding a weight limit when using the slow cooker. Thank you.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi Nancy- I don’t there should be a weight issue as long as it fits in the slow cooker. I’ve cooked a 5-6 pound chicken in the slow cooker before.

  17. Linda says

    I was making turkey broth with cooked turkey bones and accidentally left it on warm all nite instead of low in my crock pot. Is it safe to use

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi Linda- The “keep warm” setting will keep a temperature of between 62 to 74 degrees C (145 to 165 degrees F.) The temperature danger zone is 40-140 degrees F, where bacteria will multiply to unsafe eating levels. I think you will be okay to use the turkey broth. Did you refrigerate it after it was done cooking?

  18. Gordon Miller, MD says

    Thank you Jessica for your precise and useful instruction on slow cooking. I have observed that people who cannot cook for themselves do not survive as long as those who can cook for themselves.

  19. TINA Nguyen says

    I saw some of the cooks they lined the slow cooker with the foil.. Is it keeping the food hotter ? Thank you very much for your time.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Some people suggest that it may help cook more evenly and makes it easier to clean. I’ve only used it to wrap baked potatoes to keep them from burning on the bottom of the insert.

  20. Maggie says

    I have used a crockpot for years to cook dried beans overnight on low. Never had a problem until I bought a new one and the LOW setting seems to run much hotter. The beans are overcooked and the water in the crock is at a full rolling boil. Is the crock defective or will I get the same performance if I buy another new one?

  21. Katie says

    New to slow cookers and haven’t used mine yet. Came here to understand the mechanics and found this article extremely informative and useful. Can’t wait to give it a go! Thanks Jessica!

  22. Daniel Tosches says

    I use to have a Crock Pot slow cooker that you could set the digital timer to go between low and high for cooking, then when time was up automatically go to warm.
    example: High for an hour, then it would go to Low for 5 hours
    Are there any slow cookers on the market today that do that. I have not been able to find any. Seems you can only set them for either low or high and that’s it.

  23. Roni NZ says

    This was so helpful! At present I use my slow cooker twice a week and the last two dishes I made they came out tasting burned. I always thought the longer they simmer the better but I’m learning that’s not the case. So now the trouble is finding recipes that have an eight hour cooking recommendation as I set it before work. Any extra long recipes you have would be helpful! 🙏

  24. Brenda Shaw says

    I am using my purchased from Costco Crock Pot for the first time. Directions say when turning on the pot, either 8 hours or 4 hours will display. On my pot, they are 8 minutes and 4 minutes. The maximum amount of minutes I can add by using the + sign is 20 minutes. I do not see any additional information in the Cookbook and Owner’s Manual to rectify this situation. Please help.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi Brenda- What brand is the slow cooker. On my crock-pot I use the “select” button to choose high or low setting. Then use the up or down timer to set the minutes (usually in 30 minute intervals). 4 or 8 minutes seems really low. Are you sure you didn’t get a pressure cooker? Or it’s a dual pressure cooker and slow cooker? That usually has it by shorter time intervals in the minutes.

  25. Jane says

    I am cooking a pork loin roast (3 1/2 lbs) after marinating it over night, I have trimmed most of the fat, I have a Rival crockpot. If cooked in the oven at 350° the recipe calls for 30 minutes per lb. How long should I cook it in the crockpot on high?

  26. Kathy Humber says

    I have a. Small rival crockpot low and high. No thermometer I cooked a 2 lb bottom round for 8 hrs. Can I refrigerate wait. Til cool?

  27. Gail says

    I just took out a corned beef from my slow cooker!
    That’s how I make it now. My mom always used the Dutch oven. But we didn’t have a slow cooker. I made it the same way until back surgery keeps me for standing very bp look.
    I have a beautiful bone-in chuck roast that I want to cook off. Any recipe I can look at? I love cooked carrots, celery and a nice gravy. I love your site.

  28. Alexander Murphy says

    My slow cooker defaults from ‘slow cook’ to keep warm immediately after placing warm cooked chicken in. Should it do this?

  29. Bonnie says

    Hello. I already cooked my meatballs and put in refrigerator. Now I want to warm them up for tonight in the slow cooker for a football team. What’s best way to do this?

    • Jessica Gavin says

      I would place the meatballs on the warm setting about an hour or so before you are ready to serve. If you are pinched for time, you can microwave them first, then place them in the slow cooker on the warm setting.

  30. Joanne says

    I find everything burns if I am not watching and stirring frequently. I have tried every settings but still getting burned food. I thought it was my appliance so have purchased two others but the same thing. I definitely can’t put it in and leave the house.

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