Slow cookers are a great solution for busy cooks on a budget. Delicious meals that require very little prep can be hot and ready to serve at the end of a busy work day.
Prepare scrumptious roast dinners and melt-in-your-mouth chicken with ease. Create luscious soups and stews without hovering over the stove. Slow cooker recipes result in delicious, easy meals and allow you to spend your time out of the kitchen.
Not only do slow cookers save you time in the kitchen, but they a can also save you money in the supermarket. Grocery dollars don’t go nearly as far in today’s economy, but a slow cooker turns inexpensive cuts of meat like the beef rump roast used to make Mexican shredded beef into tender, flavorful dishes. They also make it easy to get dinner on the table, helping you avoid buying expensive takeout.
A well-chosen and properly cared for slow cooker will last many years (mine is going on 17 years), help to save money, and reduce your meal-prep stress immeasurably.
Features To Look For
- A Glass Lid — A tight-fitting lid that holds in heat is essential to proper slow cooking. Removing the lid over and over to check your food allows that important heat to escape. Choose a model with a glass lid, so you can check progress without lifting it.
- Functions — Standard, less expensive slow cooker models can have analog or digital controls. Most offer HIGH, LOW, and KEEP WARM functions. More expensive models can have features that include searing/sauteing, braising, baking, sous vide, and even proofing bread. Choose a slow cooker that fits your needs, budget, and cooking style.
- Timers — While it’s not a necessary feature, having a timer on your crockpot can be a nice feature. They can automatically shut off the slow cooker at the end of the cooking time. And they can often be set up to switch to that keep warm setting. It’s great for recipes that may be ready before you are to eat them such as this millet porridge.
- Heating Method — Standard slow cookers usually have a base that heats from the bottom and encloses a removable insert. More expensive models may have bases that also heat from the sides. This definitely allows for more even cooking, but is considered a premium, rather than a necessary feature. Avoid slow cookers that are designed with a flat base and no sides. The free-standing crock sitting on top of the base doesn’t hold heat as well.
Do you like having leftovers to work into another meal? Do you regularly cook for more than three or four people? How much space do you have for storing a slow cooker?
An average slow cooker recipe is usually written for six-quart, or larger, models. If you are a small household and don’t mind scaling recipes, a three- or four-quart slow cooker may be just right for you. Smaller slow cookers don’t allow as many options for leftovers, however.
If you often double recipes to create intentional leftovers, then you may find that eight- or 10-quart slow cookers are even better suited to your cooking style. Choose the slow cooker size that is right for you.
Delicious Slow Cooker Recipes for Beginners
Just starting out? Here are some of our favorite slow cooker recipes to begin with.
- Slow Cooker Frittata —This is the perfect brunch recipe. It also only requires 3 hours of cooking time. The ingredients are flexible to what you have on hand. Keep the egg base the same and change this recipe with the seasons.
- Slow Cooker Cranberry Sauce — Utilizing the slow cooker for holidays like Thanksgiving is a great way to free up oven space. Cranberry sauce is the perfect recipe to make in your slow cooker. This one requires just 5 ingredients and blows store-bought canned stuff out of the water.
- Slow Cooker BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwiches — The most iconic of all slow cooker recipes is probably pulled pork. It’s the perfect use for this kitchen appliance. This recipe combines pork shoulder with fall flavors such as apple and carrot for a delicious twist on traditional fare.
- Kabocha Squash Chili — Slow cookers are great for any chili recipe and even a plant based one at that! If you’re looking for a cozy hearty dish without the meat, try this squash chili.
Caring for Slow Cookers
Slow cookers require only a minimum of care and are fairly easy to clean.
It’s important to choose a slow cooker with a removable crock. Being able to remove the inner cooking pot means you can easily put it into your sink for cleaning.
You can purchase liners for slow cookers that help make clean-up quick and easy. But if you want a more affordable solution, simply soaking the crock for 30 minutes to an hour makes cleaning it a breeze.
If you find a stubborn spot, sprinkle baking soda on a damp cloth and then firmly rub the area. Baking soda won’t scratch glass or porcelain and is an inexpensive and effective cleanser.
Be sure the base is unplugged and cool. Then, you can use the same baking soda on a damp cloth trick to remove any baked on drips that have made their way into the slow cooker base.
Clean and dry both the insert and the base after each use. Store your slow cooker with the crock in the base and the lid on the crock.
Benefits of Slow Cooking
There are definite benefits to preparing meals in slow cookers.
- Fix It and Forget It — The few minutes it takes to prep ingredients and load them into a slow cooker are usually the only hands-on minutes a cook spends cooking their dish. Some recipes like this slow cooker summer beef stew may call for a quick sear before starting the slow cooking process but this can usually be omitted if time is short.
- Saves Electricity — Depending on energy costs in your area, slow cookers use less energy than your range or oven and they won’t heat up the house like your oven which is a great feature for summer weather.
- The House Smells Amazing! — Just like baking bread or cookies in the oven, or simmering a pot of soup on the stove-top, the meal in your slow cooker will send delicious aromas wafting through your home.
- You Avoid Takeout — Knowing there is a delicious, hot meal waiting at home curbs the temptation to hit the drive-thru or call for takeout. This slow cooker honey garlic chicken tastes just like takeout anyway!
- Meat Is Tenderized — Slow cooking allows the breakdown of tougher cuts of meat. They’ll become melt-in-your-mouth tender, while remaining succulent and juicy. This lamb stew is the perfect example of that.
- Flavor Is Magnified — Slow cooking ingredients with seasonings, herbs, spices, and aromatics creates a much deeper flavor profile than can be achieved in short cooks on a stove-top.
- One-Pot Meals — The entire meal can be prepared in your slow cooker. Add some bread and a salad and the meal is complete.
- Save Money — Choose affordable, tougher cuts of meat and more cost-effective recipe ingredients for fabulous slow cooker meals. Slow cooking means they’ll be as delicious as more expensive cuts.
Timing Perfect Slow Cooker Dishes
You will quickly find that most recipes written for slow cookers fall back on the standard three to four hours on HIGH or six to eight hours on LOW instruction. This is a best-estimate timing at best, and one that can turn perfectly good food to dust, at worst.
You wouldn’t roast chicken breasts in the oven for the same length of time that you would a chuck roast. So you shouldn’t cook them for the same amount of time in a slow cooker either.
Perfectly slow cooked short ribs can withstand, and might even need, a full eight hours of cooking time on low heat recommended by most slow cooker recipes to become tender whereas BBQ peach pulled chicken will need substantially less. How you plan to serve the dish also matters. Slices of meat will require less cooking time versus fall apart tender or shredded meat like balsamic pulled pork.
Practice Makes Perfect
Just like the air fryer, the more you use your slow cooker, the more adept you will become at preparing easy, delicious meals with it.
Start with slow cooker recipes from trusted sources and from any recipe book your manufacturer has provided.
Using slow cookers is a huge win for modern cooks! They save you time, help save money on grocery and energy bills all while preparing flavorful meals like a pro.
Now is the perfect time for you to choose the best slow cooker for your kitchen and your cooking style. You’ll soon be creating delectable slow-cooked meals for any occasion.
This article originally appeared on Food Drink Life.
Gina Matsoukas is an AP syndicated writer. She is the founder, photographer and recipe developer of Running to the Kitchen — a food website focused on providing healthy, wholesome recipes using fresh and seasonal ingredients. Her work has been featured in numerous media outlets both digital and print, including MSN, Huffington post, Buzzfeed, Women’s Health and Food Network.