Slow Cookers

In today's fast-paced world, slow cookers are a great way to get dinner on the table when you are pressed for time. Or if you are feeling particularly lazy. Whatever. I love mine - both of 'em.

Nowadays, they come in round or oval, with removable crock inserts, even multiple sizes for one heating unit.  Yeah, yeah, I know; most of y'all out there call them, starts with crock, ends with a pot, but that's a trademarked name, so you'll just have to imagine my southern drawl saying slow cookers for the purposes of this blog. But, regardless, they are a boon to have in the kitchen. To get the most out of your cooking buddy, there's few things to keep in mind.

Slow cookers are money savers. They use less electricity over the course of 8 hours than your oven does in 1 hour. But not only are they cheaper from your electric bill's perspective, they help with your grocery bills, too. Cheaper, tougher cuts of meat will benefit from the longer cooking times of a slow cooker, and will come out tender.

Size matters.  Ideally, it should be at least half full, or up to 2/3 full when you get ready to cook.  Anything less, and the food will cook much faster than the recipe states.  While trying to figure out what size may be the best for your family, a quick rule of thumb is figure about a quart or so per person.  A 4-5 quart slow cooker is recommended for a family of four, while a 1 to 1 1/2 quart cooker is great for singles.  But that's not a hard and fast rule, but might help you decide on which model to buy first.  Keep in mind what you might cook in it.  I personally own a 4 and 6 quart and it's just me and the hubby, but I use my slow cookers for when we have company, soups, or want to make leftovers to stash in the freezer.

Fill your crock wisely.  Also, be mindful of placing frozen items on the bottom of the crock with nothing else under it.  The shock of the heating element and freezing cold could cause cracks in the crock.  Consider layering vegetables under frozen meats if you are using them in your slow cooker.

To brown or not to brown.  Meats will not brown in the slow cooker - they will cook, but they won't brown like in a skillet.  Feel free to give your meat a quick sear or browning before putting them in the cooker; you don't have to cook them through, just enough to give color.  The results will be more appetizing.

No peeking.  Now I know with all those enticing smells coming from your kitchen, you're going to be tempted to peek in to see how your food is coming along.  And it's awfully hard to see through the condensation on the lid.  Don't do it unless you are checking for doneness towards the end of your cooking time.  Every time you lift the lid, you lose a lot of heat and need to add about 15 minutes of cooking time.

Newer. Faster. Hotter.  Newer slow cookers get much hotter than your momma's, and therefore, cook faster.  You may need to adjust the cooking times on older recipes.  Or consider hitting the thrift store or garage sales if you prefer the older pace of cooking.

You don't need extra liquid.  Seriously, you don't need it.  The food will make plenty of liquid on its own from steam cooking and condensing.  So don't be alarmed by the small -or no- liquid quantities of slow cooker recipes.  Keep that in mind when converting recipes from more traditional cooking methods to the slow cooker.  Most recipes for the slow cooker just need 1/2 to 1 cup of liquid.

Dairy comes fashionably late for the party.  Sour cream and milk just can't take the extended heat so add them only during the last hour or half hour of cooking.  Or else you might have a curdled mess on your hands.  Condensed cream of ... soups are a-okay for the full time of cooking.

Herbs can be fickle.  Fresh herbs don't usually hold up well under the long cooking times, so save them for seasoning at the end.  Garlic and chili powders tend to grow much stronger over the course of cooking.  Consider using half  your ground or dried herbs and spices in the beginning and taste and adjust towards the end of cooking when using a new recipe.

This was in the instructions of my last slow cooker and may be of help converting recipes for traditional oven cooking to using the slow cooker instead.

Oven to Slow Cooker Conversion
Original Oven TimeSlow Cooker on LOWSlow Cooker on HIGH
15-30 minutes4-6 hours1.5-2 hours
35-45 minutes6-10 hours3-4 hours
50 min. - 3 hours8-18 hours4-6 hours
*Most meat and vegetable combinations will need at least 8 hours to cook through.