How to Use a Slow Cooker

How to Use a Slow Cooker: A Comprehensive Guide for Newbies

Slow cookers are undoubtedly one of the easiest kitchen appliances to use. However, this doesn’t mean that everyone knows how to use a slow cooker and will immediately get the most out of it without experimenting.

To help you maximise your results, we’ve compiled a list of frequently asked crock pot questions so you can use your appliance safely and correctly.

This article will not only focus on its proper usage but we’ll also share some hassle-free slow cooker tips and tricks for even better home-cooked meals.

What Are the Settings on a Slow Cooker?

A basic model may not have all of the slow cooker settings listed below, typically only featuring a high and low option. More expensive versions may also have a medium setting, plus a keep warm and auto settings. Here’s a rundown of each of the slow cooker menu options.

  • Low – Use the low setting for long cook times of more than eight hours. On low, your slow cooker will take longer to reach the simmering point.
  • Medium – The medium setting is handy if you want a slow-cooked stew but need to shave an hour or two off the finish time.
  • High – set your slow cooker to high if you need to prep a meal quickly. This will reach the simmer point faster and cook at maximum temp for longer. Your slow cooker should reach the simmer point within three to four hours, as opposed to seven to eight hours on low. Always use the high setting for white meat, such as chicken, that benefits from a faster cook time.
  • Auto Setting – if you want to leave your slow cooker on while you’re out all day, you’ll need a model with an auto function. This cooks on high for an hour then switches to low. It ensures that your food reaches a safe heat faster without you having to be around to switch it on to low for slower cooking for the rest of the day.
  • Keep Warm – some crock pots have a keep warm setting to ensure that your meal won’t get cold if dinner is temporarily delayed.

Do You Need to Put Water in a Slow Cooker?

slices of veggies in a potSlow cookers work by heating up your ingredients to a simmer point and holding them at this heat level over several hours with a tightly sealed lid. You will generally want your ingredients to be just about covered in liquid while respecting the slow cooker golden rule: always fill from half-way up to two-thirds maximum.

Since there is very little evaporation when you use a crock pot – thanks to the tightly sealed lid that locks in moisture and flavours, you’ll need much less liquid than you would for a recipe cooked on your hob.

A general rule of thumb when slow cooking is to reduce liquid by half, except for soups and sauces. Of course, you will still want to respect the above rule of mostly covering your ingredients to ensure that they cook thoroughly and evenly.

What’s the Best Way to Add Ingredients to a Slow Cooker?

As your slow cooker uses a heating element located below the cooking pot, the ingredients that you put in first will heat up faster. For this reason, it is recommended that you place the items that take the longest to cook right at the bottom of your cooking pot.

Root veg, such as carrots, swedes and potatoes, generally take longer to cook than meat. So, if your slow cooker vegetables are undercooked, try slicing them smaller and layering them at the bottom of your pot. Then add your meat and the recommended amount of liquid for your slow cooker approved recipe.

If you are going to be adding any quick-cooking, relatively “fragile” foods, such as green vegetables, fresh herbs, fish or dairy products, you can add these later on in the cooking process. Dairy tends to curdle when overheated over a long period, so stir in your cheese or cream just before the end to allow it to heat through.

Remember that using a slow cooker will result in a lot more of the flavour from your food being retained compared to conventional recipes. Hence, go easy on spices and any other extras. If you are adapting a stove-top recipe for a slow cooker, it’s recommended to reduce the amounts of dried herbs and seasonings. However, you can always add a little extra right at the end, if needed.

Can I Add Frozen Ingredients to a Slow Cooker?

frozen meatSome people do, however, we advise always to thoroughly defrost any food before slow cooking. Why? Quite simply because slow cookers are, as their name suggests, slow. So, they take a while to heat up and are designed to be used with chilled or room temperature ingredients only.

As we all know, it’s unsafe to keep food warm at low temperatures. Doing so provides bacteria with a nice, warm, and moist breeding ground leading to the risk of food poisoning. Crock pots are designed to reach 140 degrees within four hours or less. If you place frozen food inside your slow cooker, this is likely to be delayed and your food can become unsafe to eat.

Simply thaw your frozen meat and veg safely in your refrigerator or use fresh foods. Even if your meat isn’t frozen, adding frozen veg to your recipe will still delay your slow cooker heat up times resulting in a potentially inedible, unsafe meal.

Should I Brown Meat Before Adding to the Slow Cooker?

Yes, we always recommend browning cuts of meat before adding it to your slow cooker. You can also brown any onions or other veg while you’ve got your pan out. This gives extra colour and flavour, as well as an improved texture.

However, if you’re in a rush and don’t have the time to fry, rest assured that it is perfectly safe to place raw meats inside your slow cooker and leave it to cook without browning first.

If you do decide to brown your meat or any other foods before adding them to your pot, don’t forget to deglaze your pan with cooking liquid (water, stock, etc.) before pouring it into your cooker, for extra taste.

What Are the Best Ingredients to Use in a Slow Cooker?

As these pots cook low and slow over several hours, it is best to make meals using food items that will stand up to this cooking process.

Anything that normally benefits from a long cooking period will work well with your slow cooker. Here are some of the best foods to use with your cooker.

Meats

Go for traditionally cheaper fatty cuts from hard-working muscles that are too tough to cook in a hurry. Steer clear of any cuts that are already tender, such as low-fat tenderloin or prime steaks in your slow cooker dishes.

Fish

We don’t recommend using your crock pot for fish. However, if you really want to try one of the many slow cooker recipes online for fish stew, then we suggest using a robust fish such as swordfish, salmon or tuna. Avoid delicate species in your slow cooker recipe as they will simply break up completely, leaving you with more of a fish soup than a stew.

Vegetables

Choose root veg for a hearty one-pot supper. Root vegetables take a long time to cook to tender, making them a perfect ingredient for your slow cooker. Avoid more delicate green veggies, cook them separately or add them towards the end of the cooking process.

Remember to slice all your food to a similar size. Even, bite-sized pieces will ensure that all of your food is cooked through consistently.

Beans and Pulses

Bulk up your soups, stews and casseroles with beans or pulses. Dried beans and pulses are cheaper and often give tastier results than their pre-soaked counterparts.

Most pulses and beans will cook in your pot without any pre-soaking for slow cooker recipes that take eight hours and over. However, you may need to pre-soak if you are cooking for a shorter period. The main exception is dried kidney beans.

Never place dried kidney beans inside your slow cooker without boiling them for 10 minutes first. These beans contain a toxin that can cause stomach aches and symptoms similar to food poisoning. Boiling them destroys this toxin.

Is It Safe to Use a Slow Cooker for 12 Hours?

Yes, provided you respect all of the usage manual and your slow cooker is a recent model that is in perfect working condition. There is no reason that it would be unsafe to use your slow cooker for twelve hours.

Modern slow cookers are very safe to use and have a lot of inbuilt safety functions. Make sure that you place yours on a heatproof surface at least 15cm away from kitchen walls and objects. When slow cooking, your meal will lose very little water, so it won’t run dry or need stirring. However, as 12 hours is considerably long, make sure that your dish is suitable for this cooking period to avoid overcooking. Most crock pot recipes state 6 to 8 hours slow cooking times.

Your slow cooker may switch to keep warm mode once your cooking time is up. Keep warm functions are designed to hold your food at a warm temperature that is within the safe zone, so too hot for bacteria to thrive. If you get home late and your slow cooker has been ticking over on keep warm, it should be perfectly safe and ready to eat when you arrive.

What Size Slow Cooker Do I Need?

Crock pots come in a wide variety of sizes – from compact 1.5-litre versions up to seven litres. Here’s how to use a slow cooker based on average adult portions.

  • Cooking for two: 1.5 to 2.5 litre slow cookers depending on your anticipated usage and portion size.
  • Cooking for four: 4 to 5 litres will give you plenty of space for extra ingredients to serve a family meal.
  • Cooking for more than four : if you have a large family, a 5.5 to 7-litre crock pots will enable you to serve six portions or slightly more, depending on your recipe and sides.

If you like to entertain or use your slow cooker for the week ahead, consider buying a larger crock pot. After all, slow cookers make some of the most moreish recipes around, so it seems a shame to only cook enough for just one night.

Summary

We hope you have enjoyed reading this guide and our tips have given you some ideas for your next slow cooker meal. Slow cookers are highly versatile, inexpensive and very easy to use appliances. Summing up, when cooking with a slow cooker always use chilled or room temperature ingredients only – not frozen, and be sure to never overfill your cooking pot.

Favour tougher, inexpensive cuts of meat and hearty root vegetables and pulses for deliciously tasty slow-cooked meals. Best of all, once you know how to use a slow cooker, you’ll find it to be a hassle-free solution to a variety of delectable dishes without having to stand over pots and pans for hours on end. Whether you are cooking for yourself or for the whole family, using a slow cooker will take the effort out of preparing dinner while our guide will help you stir up a few great recipes.

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