Slow cooking is a busy home cook’s secret weapon for making long-cooking recipes without minding a pot all day. Cooking basics like beans or bigger pieces of meat in the slow cooker can also cut down on grocery costs, too. And slow cooking isn’t just for dinner… You can use this kitchen workhorse to make breakfast and dessert.
With a little planning, you can cook less, cut down on grocery costs, and eat well-balanced meals—all with the help of a simple appliance that slow cooks.
What Is a Slow Cooker?
A slow cooker is an electrical cooking appliance that uses moist heat to cook food over a long period of time. Slow cookers generally have an electric base that includes temperature controls—either a simple knob or a digital interface—as well as a pot or crock and a lid. The ceramic crock style of a slow cooker was popularized by the Crock Pot brand which is why the two are often conflated but not all slow cookers are Crock Pots. Instant Pots and other electric multi-cookers can also be used for slow cooking, too.
What Can I Cook in a Slow Cooker?
The list of things you can cook in a slow cooker is very long! Generally foods that are braised or require simmer or slow heat are best for the slow cooker. Here are some slow cooker favorites:
- Soups and stews: Tender turkey chili, hearty pasta e fagioli, creamy tomato soup, even stocks and broths can be made in your slow cooker.
- Beans: If you’ve ever been befuddled by cooking dry beans on the stovetop, try them in the slow cooker. You can even soak them in the crock overnight and then cook them throughout the following day.
- Big proteins: Pork shoulder, beef arm roast, whole chickens, and pork and beef ribs are more affordable cuts of meat but require longer cooking time— perfect for the slow cooker.
- Casseroles and dump dinners: Need to open a few cans and a box of pasta and let the slow cooker do the rest? It absolutely can. Enchiladas, “baked” ziti, and even corn pudding can be made without heating the oven with your slow cooker.
- Eggs: Slow cooking egg-based casseroles is a super smart way to wake up to a hearty breakfast and especially nice for feeding an early morning crowd.
- Simple desserts: Yes, you can totally make dessert in your slow cooker! Simple cakes steam in the low heat of the slow cooker, but you can also use it to gently cook puddings or even make fruit butters or sauces for topping ice cream.
- Warm beverages: Hot chocolate, mulled wine, and spiced cider can all be made and kept warm in a slow cooker.
If you’ve ever wondered how you can make the most of your inherited slow cooker, are in the market to buy one for yourself and want to figure out how to fit “crock-pot cooking” into your busy schedule, you’re in the perfect place. Here are the 5 essential, need-to-know morsels about slow cooking.
1. Plan your work when slow cooking.
Hopefully the name conveys that slow cooking isn’t fast! Many slow cooker recipes take hours even on the high setting, so you’ll have to do a little math to work backwards from when you want to eat to when you’ll want to start. Most slow cooker recipes give a range for high and low cooking so you’ll want to make sure you’re home (or your slow cooker can switch to a warming mode) at the shorter end of the cook time. Contrary to what some people believe, you can overcook things in the slow cooker.
2. Prep ahead for slow cooking.
Most slow cooker crocks, especially the ceramic ones, take a little bit of time to heat up so you’ll want to preheat before you begin. You don’t need to let it heat up empty for long—even just 10 minutes of preheating will help dishes cook more evenly. If your slow cooker recipe has you adding food in batches or throwing in tender vegetables at the end, it is really helpful to have these prepped and ready before you get the main part of the dish slow cooking.
3. Use slow cooker recipes when possible.
You can adapt almost any recipe to the slow cooker, especially those made for oven braising, but that requires an intimate knowledge of both the recipe and your slow cooker. In most cases, you can easily find a recipe written specifically for the slow cooker. Here’s why that matters: slow cookers retain liquids better than Dutch ovens or even pots with nice-fitting lids and they often require less cooking liquid than other vessels. So unless you want to make a soup rather than a braise, use a slow cooker recipe and let the slow cooker do its thing.
4. Slow cooker size and brand matters.
A good slow cooker recipe will tell you what size slow cooker you should be using. This is important for capacity (you don’t want to run the slow cooker at more than ¾ capacity) but also for heat distribution. Some recipes take advantage of the tall narrow shape of smaller capacity slow cookers to keep delicate dishes (think egg casseroles and fluffy cakes) from overcooking. Other recipes might seemingly “underfill” larger slow cookers so that everything cooks more evenly.
Also because brands vary widely in wattage and capacity, we recommend trying a recipe once while you can be close by before you try setting and forgetting it.
5. Know the difference between HIGH and LOW slow cooking.
Simply cranking your slow cooker from high to low isn’t quite the same as turning down the heat on the stovetop. The LOW setting is about 200°F and the HIGH setting is about 300°F. One hour on high is roughly equal to 2 to 2½ hours on low. Keep in mind that some recipes call for low or high based on the final dish's desired texture, so if there isn’t timing provided for both settings, cook as directed.