What I've Learned About Cooking in a Crock-pot Slow Cooker

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Crockpot Beef Stew
In 1971 Rival introduced the Crock-Pot slow cooker and since that time people everywhere have been using this handy electrical appliance to cook dinner while the cook is busy doing something else. For years I owned a crock-pot and used it sometimes for convenience, but wasn't ever really wowed by how the food came out. The last few years though, I've really gotten my crock-pot mojo going, and now that I've learned a few tricks, I love cooking in the crock-pot. With people sharing crock-pot recipes and tips on food blogs, crock-pots are more popular than ever, and there's even a food blogger who's cooking a new crock-pot recipe every day for a year.

Before you try some of the fantastic sounding recipes I found on food blogs, learning a little about crock-pot cooking can help you get better results. I'm still learning about crock-pot cooking myself, so if anyone has other crock-pot tips or recipes to share, please leave them in the comments.

Get to Know Your Crock-pot
Newer crock-pots cook at a much higher temperature than those from years ago. This can be a problem if you're using a recipe that was developed for one of the earlier crock-pot, which were called "slow-cookers" for a reason. Todays crock-pots will usually overcook the food if left unattended all day, even on low. For best results, try the crock-pot a few times when you're home to watch it so you can better judge timing. As a general rule, one hour on high is equal to two hours on low for most crock-pots.

Pick the Right Size Crock-pot
Size is more important in crock-pot cooking than many people realize, and there are more sizes than ever on the market today. For most recipes, the crock-pot should be one-half to two-thirds full. I have several sizes, but the ones I use most are probably the 2.5 quart and 3.5 quart size. If the recipe you want to try doesn't indicate what size crock-pot to use, estimate how much the recipe makes and how full that will make your crock-pot and increase or decrease amounts if needed.

Think About Food Safety
One of the things that helped make crock-pots more popular was the invention of the removable crockery liner. As convenient as this is for cleaning up, don't use the crock to store food either before or after it's been cooked in the crock-pot. Also never put frozen food in the crock-pot.

Choose Foods or Recipes that Benefit from Long Cooking Times
Not everything is meant to be cooked in a crock-pot. Look for recipes that say "braise" or "simmer" if you're adapting another recipe. I think the crock-pot is great for soup, stew, and cooking inexpensive cuts of beef such as pot roast. It's also good for cooking root vegetables, ham, dried beans, and many chicken dishes. I wouldn't ever use it for fish or seafood, most vegetable dishes, or any recipe where I wanted a crispy texture to the food. See the recipes I chose below for examples of the kinds of dishes I think can benefit from crock-pot cooking.

Less Liquid + More Seasonings = Flavorful Results
There are two rules for crock-pot cooking that can help increase the "wow" factor in the finished dish. First, use much less liquid for crock-pot recipes than when cooking on the stovetop, because liquid doesn't evaporate from the crock-pot and most foods produce more liquid as they cook. If your food looks like it's "high and dry" when you start cooking, you may be tempted to add more liquid, but don't. Second, be sure food is highly seasoned for crock-pot cooking because long, slow cooking can cause things to lose flavor. Use more than usual of strongly flavored seasonings like onions and garlic, and choose dried herbs over fresh. If you're adapting a recipe to the crock-pot I'd use double the amount of dried herbs.

Try the Crock-Pot to Keep Things Warm
One great use for crock-pots is to keep things warm when you're making a big holiday meal and don't have enough stove burners or oven space. Things like mashed potatoes, stuffing, or even rolls can be cooked ahead and kept warm in the crock-pot.

More Crock-Pot Cooking Information
Here are more sources for information about using a crock-pot:
Crock-pot.com official site
Crockpot 101 from About.com
Slow Cooker Safety Tips (added 3-3-08)

Crock-pot Recipes from Food Blogs
These are a few of my favorite crock-pot recipes and a good sampling of the kinds of things
bloggers are cooking up in their crock-pots.

Beef
Crockpot Beef Stew with Olives, Garlic, Capers, and Tomatoes (show in the photo, this is the latest thing I've cooked in my crock-pot)
Slow Cooker Ropa Vieja from Bearly Edible
Slow Cooked Roast Beef with Fresh Sage and Dried Tomatoes from The Inadvertent Gardener
Slow Cooker Korean Ribs from Daily Unadventures in Cooking
Crock Pot Beef Fajitas from Mommy Cooks
Southwestern Pot Roast from Kalyn's Kitchen
Slow Cooker Sloppy Joes from Divine Domesticity
Slow Cooker French Dip Sandwich from Baking Bites

Chicken
Chicken Adobo from Taste and Tell
Crock Pot Chicken Cacciatore from Mommy Cooks
Crockpot Chicken Goulash from Kitchen Parade
Crockpot Chicken Supreme from Full Bellies, Happy Kids

Soup
Slow Cooker Onion Soup from A Veggie Venture
Mexicali Chicken and Corn Soup from Taste and Tell
Chicken Tortilla Soup from Andrea's Recipes
Rustic Chicken Soup from Karina's Kitchen - Recipes from a Gluten Free Goddess
Black Bean and Rice Soup with Lime and Cilantro (vegetarian) from Kalyn's Kitchen
Crockpot Bean Soup (vegetarian) from Vanesscipes

BlogHer Food Editor Kalyn Denny also blogs at Kalyn's Kitchen.

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