Who doesn’t love cooking in a crockpot? With the convenience of a slow cooker comes the ease of dinner made simple. Have a few mouths to feed? Cook up enough food for everyone. Short on time and too exhausted to cook after a long day of work? Start the crockpot before heading out the door in the morning. Have a bunch of random food in your fridge and freezer you’ve been looking to use up? Toss your favorite ingredients into the pot and let the savory flavors marinate.
But not so fast. Beware of a few issues you might encounter as you conjure up a wide array of culinary creations. Here are 10 mistakes people make when cooking in a crockpot.
1. Overfilling the crockpot
Don’t stuff your crockpot to the brim and expect anything less than a mess on the counter when you return. When asked about the convenience of the crockpot, writer, working mom, and parenting expert at Kars4Kids Varda Meyers Epstein told The Cheat Sheet she can set it up in the morning, and at the end of a long day, return home to great smells and a fully cooked meal. “But it’s easy to overestimate how much a crockpot holds,” Epstein said. “You tend to forget that when everything begins to bubble, the level of liquid in the pot is going to rise. I’ve learned to leave a lot of headroom at the top.”
2. Cooking the wrong foods
Some foods just don’t belong in a crockpot. Plain and simple. Although slow cookers are useful for what have been dubbed “dump meals,” they’re certainly not meant for every kind of food, that’s for sure. From rice to pasta to seafood, avoid tossing these 10 foods into a crockpot. You’ll thank us in the end.
3. Not using the right amount of water
Water is typically a key element when using a crockpot to cook up a tasty meal, so getting the right estimate is crucial to the success of your dinner. “Most cooks don’t put enough water in it, causing the food to dry out,” Steffanie Rivers, a 20-year crockpot veteran, told The Cheat Sheet. “Some add too much water and it bubbles out causing a mess on the walls and surface around the pot. So the crockpot cooking process is not totally hands off. You have to give minimal attention to it.”
4. Not searing the meat
Not to burst your bubble here, but some schools of thought say it’s better not to throw totally raw meat into the slow-cooker. According to The Huffington Post, you’re better off browning meats prior to cooking them in a crockpot. The reasoning behind this harsh rule? You’ll end up with a more flavorful meal. Chicken, however, is an exception.
5. Not accounting for frozen food
According to No. 1 bestselling cookbook author Cathy Mitchell, who’s been revered as the queen of “dump meals” in a crockpot, “Crockpots are often the recipients of frozen meal creations, but an easy mistake is not allowing for more time for a meal to cook. It is almost always preferable to thaw frozen food prior to placing it in the slow cooker to avoid a frozen core or undercooked food.”
6. Opening the lid while the food is still cooking
Most people are familiar with this crockpot taboo, yet many are guilty. Although it’s human nature to do something you’ve been told not to, including keeping your hands off museum displays, try to resist the urge. Opening the slow cooker lid won’t result in the destruction of a T-rex skeleton, but it will delay your dinner time. Good Housekeeping says it takes a long time for a crockpot to gain all that lost heat back, so fight the urge to peek at your masterpiece before it’s ready.
7. Destroying fresh herbs
Fresh herbs add tons of flavor, but timing is everything! “Fresh herbs add flavor and color when added at the end of the cooking cycle; if added at the beginning, many fresh herbs’ flavor will dissipate (or burn!) over long cook times,” Mitchell said. “Ground and/or dried herbs and spices work best for long cook cycles. As an added note, use caution with chili and garlic powders as these can sometimes intensify over a long period of time — don’t burn your herbs or your mouth!”
8. Adding dairy products
As Mitchell told us, it’s imperative to use good judgment when incorporating milk, cream, etc. into your crockpot meal. “Dairy products break down in extended cooking so add them during the last 15 to 30 minutes of cooking until just heated through,” Mitchell said. “A tip is to use condensed soups as a substitute for milk as they can cook for longer.”
9. Using lean cuts of meat
Yes, this is technically a type of food you shouldn’t cook, but it deserves to be singled out. As The Huffington Post points out, cooking lean cuts of meat in the crockpot is a huge mistake because you’ll end up with something stringy and tough. Since the goal is typically to get something flavorful and tender, this is obviously detrimental.
10. Cooking on high for too long
Choosing the correct temperature setting and length of cooking time is an essential part of crockpot cooking. A long cook time used to break down tough cuts of meat is great, but too high of heat combined with a long cook time can be too much. “The heat causes the meat to break down too quickly, resulting in pliable but stringy results,” said Jenny Dorsey, professional chef and culinary consultant. “Additionally, the water evaporates very quickly and the meat is less able to soak up the juicy goodness of the braising liquid. I recommend searing/browning meats like that, making sure the braise holds a light simmer and keeping it at a medium heat for best results.”