Using a crock pot or slow cooker is very easy; just add the food, cover, turn on low heat and cook all day. But there are always more things to learn. The newest crock pots on the market come with divided liners and timers to adjust the cooking start time. The newer appliances seem to be hotter than models only a few years old, so it's best to learn how your particular crock pot cooks.
How to Convert Recipes
Many recipes can be converted to cooking in the crock pot. Soups and stews, of course, are natural slow cooker favorites. Casseroles and most meats benefit from the low temperatures and even cooking heat.
Reduce the amount of liquid a recipe calls for since liquids do not evaporate during crock pot cooking. However, if you are cooking rice, beans, or pasta, don't reduce the liquid called for. You generally need twice as much liquid as a product to cook these ingredients. Here are basic conversion times:
- If conventional time is 15 to 30 minutes, then cooking time on low should be 4 to 6 hours.
- If conventional time is 35 to 45 minutes, the cooking time on low should be 6 to 8 hours.
- If conventional time is 50 minutes to 3 hours, the cooking time on low should be 8 to 16 hours.
We generally prefer cooking most raw meat and vegetable combinations at least 8 hours on LOW. This gives the vegetables time to soften, the meat time to tenderize and all the flavors to blend.
Of course, the new hotter cooking crock pots change the rules. If you have a crock pot that is less than five years old, you'll probably need to reduce the cooking time. In fact, some of the newer recipes in magazines cook the food for only 3 to 4 hours on low. That's not really 'slow cooking', but it's the reality of the crock pot manufacturing today. Check the food at four hours on low, using an instant-read meat thermometer to see if the food is done.
- Surprisingly, vegetables cook more slowly than meats in the moist heat of the slow cooker. So vegetables should be cut or chopped roughly the same size and placed in the bottom of the crock pot.
- Browning meats helps reduce the fat content in large cuts of meat like roasts. It also caramelizes the sugars in the meat, adding to appearance and flavor.
- Trim off any visible fat from cuts of meat. Fat will make the dishes cook faster.
For Your Health
- Studies have shown that the low, constant heat crock pots cook by may help prevent disease. Some compounds called "advanced glycation end products" are formed when sugars, fats, and proteins are heated at high temperatures, as when food is grilled, broiled, or microwaved.
- These AGE's irritate cells and may be a factor in the formation of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Since slow cookers only heat between 200 and 300 F, fewer of these compounds form in crock pot cooked meals, so slow-cooked meals are healthier.
- Most crock pot recipes don't need to be stirred during cooking, especially if cooked on low heat. When you lift the lid, the crock pot loses so much heat that the cooking time should be increased by 20 minutes each time.
- Use whole leaf herbs and spices instead of ground for better flavor. Some spices, especially pepper, can become bitter over the long cooking time. Add those in the last hour of cooking for the best flavor.
- Some of the newer crock pots seem to cook at a hotter temperature, probably because manufacturers are concerned about food safety. You can check the temperature of your crock pot this way:
- Place 2 quarts of water in your crock pot
- Cover and heat on low for 8 hours
- Lift the lid and immediately check the water temperature with an accurate thermometer
- The temperature of the water should be 185 F. If the temperature is higher foods may overcook and you should reduce the overall cooking time. If the temperature is lower your foods will probably not reach a safe temperature quickly enough, and the crock pot should be discarded.
- Pasta and rice can be cooked in the crock pot. Pasta needs lots of liquid to cook properly, and should be added during the last hour of cooking time, depending on the consistency of doneness you prefer. Rice can be more difficult to cook. Use brown or wild rice for better results. Make sure you have enough liquid in the recipe so the rice becomes tender.
- You can make cakes and desserts in the crock pot! Use a small round rack or vegetable steamer to lift the cake pan off the bottom of the crock pot so heat circulates evenly around the pan. You do need a larger crock pot for 'baking' cakes and other desserts. A 5-quart slow cooker will hold an 8" or 9" cake pan or springform pan. You may need to increase cooking times if you live at a high altitude, usually by 40 to 50 percent.
Cleaning the Crock Pot
- Fill the appliance with hot soapy water when the cooker has cooled. Let soak for 15 to 20 minutes, then scrub with a cloth, nylon net pad or a plastic sponge. Do not use a harsh abrasive cleaner, SOS pad or metal pad. Rinse well in hot water and dry.
- To remove mineral stains, fill crockpot 3/4 full with hot water and 1 cup white vinegar. Cover and cook on high for 2 hours. Then let the crockpot cool and soak and clean as directed above.
- To remove watermarks from glazed crockery, rub the surface with vegetable oil and let stand for 2 to 3 hours. Then fill with hot soapy water, rub the surface, and scrub with a nylon net-pad. Rinse and dry well.
- Many people cook frozen foods in the crockpot. And others like to reheat foods in the crockpot. Most food experts do not recommend these practices, as foods need to reach a temperature of 140 F within 1 1/2 hours to prevent bacteria growth.
- Even if the foods do eventually reach a safe temperature and cook thoroughly, bacteria in the food can produce toxins that aren't destroyed by heat and that can make you sick.
- Many people have experienced food poisoning and don't even know it. They may have some digestive discomfort or feel ill for a day or two and then recover. Unfortunately, a person in a high-risk group (elderly, persons with compromised immune systems, small children, and pregnant women) can suffer serious consequences from food poisoning.
- More than 5,000 people die each year in the U.S. as a result of food poisoning. If you decide to cook frozen foods or reheat foods in the crockpot, do so at your own risk.
- One thing you can do is to warm the liquid used in the recipe and add it along with the frozen foods, to help raise the temperature more quickly.
- Taking a calculated risk may be acceptable to you as long as you know the consequences and as long as no member of your family is in a high-risk group.
Learning to safely use your crock pot will help maintain your family's health. And once you become an expert at using this appliance, the time you spend in the kitchen will be greatly reduced.
US Department of Agriculture. Slow cookers and food safety. Updated February 2012.