Slow Cooker Guide

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

Slow cooker with food cooking inside.

I am the BIGGEST fan of using a slow cooker for creating effortless, flavorful meals like chicken thighs and pot roast. 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.

Like a pressure cooker, with a 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 will share 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 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: The food cooks similarly to a stovetop or a dutch oven. But in a slow cooker, the 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.

Crock-Pot Slow Cooker

4.5qt Manual

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Crockpot settings

Most machines have a low, high, and warm setting. The slow cooker temperature range is between 175°F to 215°F. The low and high settings 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 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.

Suitable for poaching and braising

Poaching: Best for seafood, fish, and lean meats like chicken breast, and it 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 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 usually take all day.
  • 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, saving us hours of free time to get other important things done. 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 must be filled at least halfway to operate correctly, but not 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 ingredients you use.
  • 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 moisture, 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 it to cook longer as needed.
  • Food safety: 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 it and then add it 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 the 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 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 with dried beans, except lentils 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 an 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 also be used.
  • Pasta: It’s best to cook separately and then add to the end of cooking, as dry pasta gets very sticky in the slow cooker. Smaller pasta like orzo cooks 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 recipe’s fat content 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, ensure the cooking liquid’s temperature 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, primarily if held for over 3 to 4 hours at this range.

Verify a slow cooker is operating correctly

  1. Fill slow cooker ½ 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

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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77 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Barbara Lynn Jorgensen says

    I have just been given a 2nd hand Russell Hobbs slow cooker and no manual and the symbols are left: 1s Middle: square with diagonal line Right: 3s.s?
    Could you please indicate what these symbols mean?

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Do you know what unit you have? What I’m seeing online could be the “time/delay timer” button with the diagonal line. The unit usually has a low, high, and warm setting.

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