10 top tips for using a slow cooker

Economical and easy, are slow cookers really all they're cracked up to be? Yes!, says food writer Caroline Hire. Here's how to make the most of one...

Slow cookers are cheap to buy, economical to use and they're great for making the most of budget ingredients. They offer a healthier, low-fat method of cooking and require the minimum amount of effort. Really, what's not to love? 

We spoke to Ginny Thomas, a training manager for Crock-Pot, to find out how to get the best results. We've also adapted some of our favourite recipes from the site to get you started. (Bet you didn't know you could do a treacle sponge in one...)

Which slow cooker to buy

You can pick up a slow cooker for as little as £15 (or as much as several hundred pounds) but price doesn't always equate to quality. Read our product review to discover the best models on the market. 
 

The best slow cookers and how to use them

1. Save time and effort 

One of the main attractions for many people is the ease of a slow cooker, so when you're looking for recipes, avoid those that suggest a lot of pre-preparation. For many dishes, particularly soups and stews, you really can just throw all the ingredients in. It can be nice to cook the onions beforehand, as the flavour is different to when you put them in raw, but experiment both ways as you may find you prefer one. It can also be good to brown meat to give it some colour, but again, this is not essential.

Watch our video for tips on how best to cut your veg and prepare your meat for the slow cooker:

2. Prepare for slow cooking the night before 

If you're short on time in the morning, prepare everything you need for your slow-cooked meal the night before, put it into the slow-cooker dish, cover and store in the fridge overnight. Ideally the dish should be as close to room temperature as possible, so get it out of the fridge when you wake up and leave it for 20 minutes before turning the cooker on. If you need to heat your dish beforehand, then put the ingredients in a different container and transfer them in the morning.

Spicy lamb shank3. Save money with a slow cooker

Slow cookers are great for cooking cheaper cuts like beef brisket, pork shoulder, lamb shoulder and chicken thighs. You can also use less meat, as slow cooking really extracts a meaty flavour that permeates the whole dish. Bulk up with vegetables instead.

4. Trim fat from meat before slow cooking

You don't need to add oil to a slow cooker – the contents won't catch as long as there's enough moisture in there. You don't need a lot of fat on your meat either. Normally when you fry meat, a lot of the fat drains away, but this won't happen in a slow cooker so trim it off – otherwise you might find you have pools of oil in your stew. Removing the fat will give you a healthier result, and it'll still be tasty.

5. Go easy on the liquid when using a slow cooker

Because your slow cooker will have a tightly sealed lid, the liquid won't evaporate so if you're adapting a standard recipe, it's best to reduce the liquid by roughly a third. It should just cover the meat and vegetables. Don't overfill your slow cooker, or it may start leaking out the top, and the food won't cook so well. Half to two-thirds full is ideal – certainly no more than three-quarters.

6. How to thicken slow cooker recipes

Just as the the liquid doesn't reduce, it also doesn't thicken. You can roll meat in a small amount of seasoned flour before adding it to the slow cooker or use a little cornflour at the end. If you want to do the latter, take a teaspoon or two of cornflour and mix it to a paste with a little cold water. Stir into your simmering slow cooker contents, then replace the lid. 

7. Use the slow cooker low setting

Ginny has been working with slow-cookers for over a decade, and her advice is to use the 'Low' setting as much as you can, finding that most dishes really benefit from a slow, gentle heat to really bring out the flavours. This also means you won't need to worry if you're heading out for the day – it'll take care of itself. "I think of it as my cook fairy making my dinner while I'm out," says Ginny.

8. Leave your slow cooker recipe alone

Slow cookers are designed to do their own thing, so you don't need to keep checking the contents. Every time you take the lid off it will release some of the heat, so if you keep doing this you'll have to increase the cooking time.

Slow cooker9. When to add food

Ideally you want to choose recipes where most, if not all, of the ingredients can be added at the beginning, leaving you free to do other things. However, in most cases, pasta, rice and fresh herbs will need to be added towards the end. 

10. How long should I cook a slow cooker recipe?

If a dish usually takes: 

  • 15-30 mins, cook it for 1-2 hours on High or 4-6 hours on Low
  • 30 mins – 1 hour, cook it for 2-3 hours on High or 5-7 hours on Low
  • 1-2 hours, cook it for 3-4 hours on High or 6-8 hours on Low
  • 2-4 hours, cook it for 4-6 hours on High or 8-12 hours on Low

Root vegetables can take longer than meat and other vegetables so put these near the heat source, at the bottom of the pot.

Treacle spongeSlow cooker recipes:

1. Schooldays treacle sponge 
2. Spiced poached pears in chocolate sauce 
3. Self-saucing Jaffa pudding 
4. Tangy onion chutney 
5. Rich paprika seafood bowl 
6. Turkish lamb pilau 
7. Sweetcorn & smoked haddock chowder 
8. Better-than-baked beans 
9. Baked mushrooms with ricotta & pesto 
10. Chicken & red wine casserole with herby dumplings 

More slow cooker recipes.

And if you haven't already got a slow cooker and are wondering which one to buy, take a look at our pick of what's on the market.

Comments, questions and tips

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Vasily@ricechef.com
20th Mar, 2017
Thanks
jemi johuni
10th Nov, 2016
cool
andylangfor
22nd Oct, 2015
I use mine as I have a solar system. All that free energy during the day, instead of exporting it to the grid, I can cook the evening meal for free. Any meat (especially the cheaper cuts benefit from low and slow.....especially when cooked using free electricity.... :)
shelliwilson
7th Apr, 2014
Just started experimenting with mine as I just used to make casseroles etc but when I know I'm going to be really busy In a morning (most days!) I put some porridge oats in with some dried fruit and cinnamon and enough milk before I go to bed and put on low. The next morning it's just perfect because it's cooked beautifully and I know it's going to give me enough energy to last through the morning.
james77777
12th Mar, 2014
What you say about slow cookers is true, but I have my own way of doing things. I cook pot roast and corn beef for 12 hours on low and you can cut the meat with a plate. I remove the meat. The water and slow cooker I place in the refrigerator or in the garage with the lid on in the winter. I skim off the fat the next day. Then I have a flavorful broth. Much better than I can buy. Why throw it out? Texture is important to cooking, so I cook my pasta, and vegetables, etc. separately in the microwave to get the the texture I like. I add the vegetables to a bowl and pour on the water from the slow cooker and heat in the microwave and have the better soup than I can buy. The only thing tossed is the fat. By experimenting, I end up with duds for some meals like dry chicken. That goes in the soup and the family eats and enjoys it. Anybody else have ideas?
The Chinaman
7th Jan, 2017
My fav is brisket, on low, for 18 hrs. Sear in fry pan with butter first. Add Porter or Guinness as liqueur at start. Leave well alone. Tips. Do not remove fat as all the flavour is there. Add 2 Tbs of recipe below. (I have a ready made simple additive of stock made of 12 beef OXO cubes, 1 tub Bovril, 1 tsp English mustard & as little water as poss)
kathleenj
20th Oct, 2016
I cooked liver and bacon casserole in my slow cooker today according to the recipe in a slow cooker recipe book. It said cook on low 6 to 8 hours on low, but after about 3 1/2 hours it started to burn, I put more water in and started to cook again but in another 1 1/2. I had to switch it off as it was burning again. Just what did I do wrong ?
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goodfoodteam
1st Nov, 2016
Thanks for your query. Without seeing the recipe it's difficult to be sure of what happened but it sounds like there wasn't enough liquid. All ingredients should be just covered by the liquid content of the recipe. Perhaps you have a large slow cooker? Hope that gets to the bottom of it.
amb77
23rd Mar, 2016
HI - I have bought a very basic , very good slow cooker and have used it often - but in the manual is says SLOW is for heating up cooked food ( it only has HIGH, LOW , WARM and OFF) - but many recipes say cook on SLOW - so can I ?? Many thanks AM
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goodfoodteam
20th May, 2016
Hi there. We think that if a recipe says to cook on SLOW you should cook it on LOW in your slow cooker, but it may be a good idea to check with the manufacturer if you're unsure.
Mitzi Ho
23rd Nov, 2015
Twenty people will be coming over to our house for a small informal get-together and, mostly, to taste my "famous" (they are kind) pasta. I have never made pasta for so many and it is my rule to prepare, serve immediately, eat immediately--which cannot be done at a buffet-style party. My question is: Could I buy a crockpot and pour the finished pasta (cooked on the stove in my usual pot and already mixed in with the sauce) into the crock-pot only to keep it warm? I never used a crock-pot before. Thank you for your attention and help.
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goodfoodteam
10th Dec, 2015
Yes this should be ok if you are just storing it in there for a short time. Oil the inside of the slow cooker to prevent the pasta from sticking then add the pasta already coated with the sauce. Cover and leave on the warm setting. Keep back some hot pasta water so that you can toss a little into the pasta if it has absorbed the sauce as it sits to return it to your desired consistency. Once the lid is removed, if you are using it to serve from, just make sure that the pasta doesn't cool too quickly as it isn't designed to work with the lid off.
El Gordo
25th Jul, 2014
Hi, I have struggled with my slow cooker for years but I keep coming back to it, every dish I make doesn't have much flavour, even though I use the seasoning as shown in the recipes, I cook from scratch so am not a lover of the sauces you buy in a supermarket, so any tips on how to get more flavoursome meals, also, I would like to know how to adapt Gordon Ramsays beef-bourguignon for a slow cooker as it sounds superb. Any advice greatly appreciated.
eleanola
20th Jan, 2014
british slow cooker recipes always say to make sure the food is immersed in liquid, but often US recipes have very little liquid. I haven't dared try. Do their machines work differently from UK ones?
goodfoodteam's picture
goodfoodteam
4th Aug, 2014
There is usually no need to immerse the food in liquid as more liquid is generated while cooking, in general we would always recommend using 1/3 less liquid when cooking in a slow cooker. Thanks.
e_gascoyne
5th Jan, 2014
Is it safe to brown meat the night before and then refrigerate?

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1Jane1
15th Jan, 2017
The self saucing jaffa recipe does not appear to be for a slow cooker - am I missing something?
harry10
3rd Oct, 2016
If I am at home but don't want the oven on I cook a casserol in my slow cooker on high for the same time it would take in the oven, the result is perfect.