Kitchen Hack: Not Your Mama’s Crock-Pot—5 Tips for Slow-Cooked Gourmet

Last Update: December 22, 2023

In 1971, Rival introduced a revolutionary kitchen appliance: the Crock-Pot. Promising to “cook all day while the cook’s away,” as one advertisement read, it appealed to an emerging market of working women by providing an easier way to get dinner on the table.

Before long, every household had a harvest gold ceramic slow cooker tucked away in a kitchen cabinet. Though the gadget promised delicious meals without all the hassle, the food cooked in it more often than not came out with a paste-like texture. Subsequently, a whole generation of children grew up dreading the day mom pulled out the crock-pot, and slowly but surely it fell out of favor.

Then something happened—a slow cooker renaissance. Whether it was triggered by wanting to save money, convenience, or simple nostalgia, the crock-pot found its way back into 83 percent of American homes by 2011. Just three years later, sales skyrocketed to 4.4 million units.

What exists today is not your mama’s crock-pot. With a little creativity, you can make almost anything in the appliance—just make sure to always follow these five slow cooker commandments for every dish.

1. Choose the right ingredients

Picking ingredients that can endure hours of heat is crucial. Lean meats like skinless chicken breasts will come up bone dry. Soft vegetables like tomatoes and mushrooms pretty much disintegrate into nothing.

Instead, fatty cuts of meat (chuck roasts, short ribs, pork shoulders, lamb shanks, and chicken thighs) are your best bet. The low, slow cooking dissolves the connective tissue that usually makes them tough. And there’s a reason why hearty vegetables like dried beans, carrots, potatoes, parsnips, onions, and celery show up so often in stew recipes—they turn out more tender and juicy.

2. Prep properly

You could just toss everything into the pot, turn it on, and call it a day, but spending a few extra minutes to prepare the meal can make the finished product turn out so much better. Here are some tips:

Chop the veggies

Make sure to cut all your vegetables into evenly-sized pieces—no huge chunks or tiny cubes. A nice even chop ensures they’ll cook at a uniform rate.

Brown the meat

There’s one thing the slow cooker can’t do, and that’s caramelization. Searing the meat in a pan beforehand triggers the Maillard reaction, a.k.a. the chemical change responsible for that lovely golden-brown color and creating hundreds of different flavor compounds.

Layer it

When all the ingredients are ready, add each into the pot strategically, layering vegetables and beans on the bottom and meat on top. This ensures all the ingredients get cooked all the way through, and allows the fat to drip down onto the vegetables for even more savory flavor.

3. Don’t pass the fill line

The crock-pot is kind of like Goldilocks. It needs to be just right—neither too empty nor too full—to cook the food appropriately. When combined, all the ingredients should measure somewhere between halfway and two-thirds full in the pot. Less than that, and your food will turn out overcooked—but more than that, and the dish won’t be done by the dinnertime.

Also, be careful of how much broth or water you add. For stews, braises, and other recipes that call for added liquid, don’t fill more than halfway.

4. Spice it up

When it comes to seasoning foods in a crock-pot, it’s go big or go home. A pinch of ground ginger, for example, might get lost over hours of cooking, so it’s okay to get more aggressive than normal in this instance. Though you could season after cooking, the flavors won’t develop nearly as well.

Also, save fresh herbs and citrus for the last few minutes of cooking. The brightness of parsley and basil adds crucial balance to hearty dishes like pot roast or pulled pork, but they will quickly become limp and brown if tossed in at the beginning. And, if you’re yearning for some parmesan cheese or sour cream, leave any dairy products until the very end, too—the prolonged heat will curdle them, and trust us, it’s not a pretty sight.

5. Turn it on and relax

Here’s the best part about a slow cooker: You get to plug it in, put the lid on, and forget about it. It’s almost like having your very own private chef—when you get home from work, dinner will be waiting for you.

The first time you try this method, it might be a little unnerving to leave food cooking all day. But as long as you make sure to set it for the right amount of time, there’s no need to worry. Here are some basic guidelines to translate how long any recipe will take to cook in a crock-pot:

  • If something usually takes 15 to 30 minutes in a regular pot: set the slow cooker to 1 to 2 hours on high or 4 to 6 hours on low
  • If something usually takes 30 minutes to 1 hour: 2 to 3 hours on high or 5 to 7 hours on low
  • If something usually takes 1 to 2 hours: 3 to 4 hours on high or 6 to 8 hours on low
  • If something usually takes 2 to 4 hours: 4 to 6 hours on high or 8 to 12 hours on low

Whatever you do, resist the temptation to lift the lid for a peek. Taking the top off will let the heat escape, disrupting the cooking process.

Slow cooker recipes

Get started with one of these simple recipes. Trust us—the results are well worth the wait.

Classic Pot Roast

Chuck roast, potatoes, and carrots become incredibly tender after hours of slow simmering in bone broth.

Braised Short Ribs With Cauliflower Mash

Instead of traditional spuds, try a velvety cauliflower puree with these short ribs—all of the flavor, way fewer carbs.

Apple-Pear Butter

Leaving apples and pears in the slow cooker allows them to caramelize completely in their own sugars. The result? An addictive spread you’ll want to slather on everything.

Photo credit: Paul Delmont

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Annalise Mantz

Annalise is a foodie, Brussels sprouts lover, grammar nerd, and political pet aficionado.

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