A crockpot is a busy cook’s secret weapon in the kitchen. These easy-to-use appliances are virtually foolproof — just dump in your ingredients, choose your heat setting, and go. But did you realize with a few simple tricks, you can make your slow cooker meals even better? From how to make cleanup go faster to the 101 on food safety, here are 15 crockpot cooking tips you need to know.
1. Use a liner to speed up cleanup
Cooking in a crockpot is easy. Cleaning it? Not so much. The long, slow cooking time can lead to caked-on food that’s a pain to clean. The solution is slow cooker liners. These plastic bags go inside the crockpot before you add the ingredients. When the meal is done, just toss the bag, wipe off any dampness and drips, and your cleanup is finished. Goodbye, scrubbing.
2. Cook off caked-on food
Not everyone is comfortable cooking up their dinner in a plastic bag. If you’re not a fan of liners and are looking for a way to get your crockpot sparkling again, try this trick, courtesy of The Kitchn.
“Fill the stoneware with water and ‘cook’ on low for several hours,” the site advised. “Stubborn, cooked-on food should come off much easier after this treatment. Then, give it a whirl in the dishwasher.”
3. Use vinegar and baking soda to remove tough stains
Sometimes, soap and water isn’t enough to get your crock as clean as you’d like. If that’s the case, you’ll need to grab some baking soda, per The Kitchn. After filling the crock with water, add a few tablespoons of baking soda and a couple of drops of dish soap. “Cook” on the low setting for a while, and then wash as normal.
If your slow cooker insert is dark in color, you might have noticed mineral deposits on it. To make it look like new again, fill the crock with water, add 1 cup of white vinegar, and let it sit overnight. Then, wash it, according to The Kitchn.
4. Always preheat your slow cooker
You should take a few minutes to preheat your slow cooker before adding any ingredients, especially if you’re cooking with raw meat, according to food safety experts. Crockpots cook for a long time at a slow temperature, which is generally safe, but if ingredients take too long to get hot, there’s a chance of a foodborne illness.
“Preheating the crock before adding ingredients or cooking on the highest setting for the first hour will ensure a rapid heat start and will shorten the time foods are in the temperature danger zone,” explained the University of Minnesota Extension. Check your slow cooker’s instruction manual for guidelines on preheating.
5. It’s not safe to cook frozen meat in your crockpot
Here’s another food safety tip: Don’t place frozen meat directly in your crockpot, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Instead, let it thaw in the refrigerator first. The reasoning here is similar to the preheating logic. Frozen meat will take far too long to come to a safe temperature when you’re cooking from frozen, increasing the chances of you or someone in your family getting sick.
6. Brown meats first for best flavor
Slow cookers are perfect for soups and stews, but if you really want to take your crockpot beef bourguignon to the next level, you’ll want to brown the meat first. Searing the outside of the meat leads to a richer flavor, per Cooking Light. And if you’re making a stew, consider dredging the meat in flour before searing because this will create a thicker sauce.
7. You can use it for other household projects
Crockpots are for cooking, but these handy appliances can pull double-duty for other household projects. The Novice Chef has a recipe for slow cooker potpourri that will have your house smelling great, while the Nerdy Farm Wife uses a crockpot to make soap. You can also use your slow cooker to make play dough, candles, and lotion bars.
8. Freezer crockpot meals save even more time
Cooking with a crockpot is already easy, but what if you don’t have time to chop vegetables or measure out spices in the morning before work? Then, the slow cooker freezer meal is the answer to your prayers.
There’s a whole world of recipes out there that basically involve tossing all the ingredients for recipe in a single Ziploc bag and then freezing them. When you’re ready to cook, just transfer the defrosted contents of the bag to your crockpot. Ruth of Living Well Spending Less has a list of recipes for meals that fall into this category for the lazy and time-starved cooks among us. You’ll only need an hour to prep all five of the recipes, which make 10 meals.
9. You might need more than 1 slow cooker
Think one crockpot is enough? Think again. Slow cooking devotees might have multiple crockpots in different sizes and shapes. (The Crockin’ Girls admit to owning over 40 models.) You can get massive slow cookers that let you cook jumbo quantities of food; buffet-style slow cookers, so you can cook multiple dishes at once; and even one designed for cooking and serving multiple hot dips. Casserole-shaped crockpots are good for potlucks, and many cooks like models with programmable features.
10. Know your slow cooker
Like a lot of appliances, slow cookers can be a bit finicky. For best results, you’ll need to figure out your particular crockpot’s quirks and adjust your cooking accordingly. Newer slow cookers might have a higher “high” temp than old models, for example, but even two brands that sit next to each other on the shelf at Target won’t cook exactly the same.
“Know your slow cooker — that’s the best piece of advice I can give,” Kathy Hester, author of the Vegan Slow Cooker, told Café Mom. “I’ve had maybe 30 to 35 slow cookers, and I can guarantee that if you were to go to Target and purchase two slow cookers — same brand, same model — they will each cook a little differently.”
11. You can tweak the cooking time
You can cook most slow cooker recipes on either high or low. Generally, you can either double the “low” cooking time or halve the “high” cooking time. You can also convert many oven recipes to slow cooker ones, and the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach office has a guide for doing so.
But there are a few times where you don’t want to adjust the cook time. If you do cook pasta in your slow cooker (any many people argue you shouldn’t do this at all), you’ll want to do it on high because cooking on the low setting will produce a mushy mess of a meal.
12. Learn to love fat
Fatty, tough cuts of meat are perfect for crockpot cooking. The long, slow cooking time breaks down connective tissue in meats, such as short ribs or pork shoulder, while the fat keeps everything tender, explained Bon Appetit. Lean cuts of meat, such as pork tenderloin or boneless chicken breast, will dry out and get stringy. And make sure you remove the skin from chicken or turkey. Leave it on, and it will turn rubbery and gelatinous — hardly the makings of an appetizing meal.
13. Stick to sturdy veggies
Potatoes, carrots, and parsnips? By all means, toss these hearty veggies in your slow cooker. They can withstand the long cooking time. But hold off on adding more delicate ingredients, such as asparagus, zucchini, or peas, until the very end of cooking, advised Eat This, Not That. Otherwise, you’ll end up with mushy, overdone vegetable.
14. Store and reheat your meal safely
Tempting as it might be, don’t just stick the still-warm slow cooker insert in the fridge when you’re done eating. Hot food needs to cool down within two hours, or you risk bacteria growth, explained the University of Minnesota Extension. Although it might seem like stashing the entire crock in the fridge right away would get the job done, in reality, foods in large, deep containers might not cool quickly enough. Instead, you could stick the crock in a ice-water bath, or simply divide up the leftovers into smaller containers for storage.
Reheating foods in your crockpot is another no-no, also for food safety reasons. Your leftovers need to reach a temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and it will take too long to get to get there when using a slow cooker. Instead, reheat on the stove top or in the microwave, advised the University of Florida Extension.
15. Don’t peek
Tempted to check on the progress of your slow cooker dinner? Don’t. Lifting the lid adds to the cooking time and can increase the risk of foodborne illness, according to the University of Florida Extension.
“Each peek you take during the cooking process will add an additional 15 to 20 minutes of cooking time,” noted the Food Network. “And curb the urge to stir; it’s usually not necessary and tends to slow down the cooking.”