In 1936, an inventor named Irving Naxon applied for a patent for a cooking device that would promote more consistent and even cooking. This device held a crock inside of a heating element. Then, in the early 1950s, an appliance company called West Bend started selling an electric bean pot to make cooking chili and a variety of other foods easier. Since then, slow cookers have made their way into kitchens across the world; some have smart capabilities or do more than just slow cook food.
When most people think of slow cooker recipes, they think of easy instructions that allow you to toss ingredients in a pot and walk away for up to eight hours. While this is partly true — cooking in a slow cooker is nothing shy of convenient — your food may not come out right if you don’t follow best practices. If you use your slow cooker incorrectly, your meal may turn out unappetizing, you could start a fire in your home, or you could make someone sick.
Check out our collection of slow cooker dos and don’ts, which will help make your slow cooking safer and your recipes better.
Cut up large meats and brown beforehand
If you want a roast that’s so tender it falls apart, you probably won’t get it by tossing a large 5- or 10-pound hunk of meat into your slow cooker. If you cut your meat into smaller pieces, this will help ensure you get that tender, stringy texture you want with foods such as pot roast, pulled beef, or pulled pork. Cutting up your meat also helps it reach safe temperatures faster. A large hunk of meat has a greater risk of sitting in the danger zone.
A slow cooker can make your meat tender, but unless you sear it beforehand, your meat may turn out one dimensional. If you take a moment to sear your roast before you place it in your slow cooker, however, this will enhance its flavor and help give it a better texture.
Submerge your meats completely, if you want them to fall apart
Submerge your meat in liquid completely if you want to achieve the kind of texture that falls apart with ease. If you don’t want a lot of liquid in your end product, you can drain out the excess liquid when you’re finished cooking, or you can take out the meat and shred it with a fork. Either way, it should break apart easily.
Use broth instead of water
If you use a beef or chicken broth instead of water in your soups, stews, and roasts, your meat will be more flavorful than if you were to just use water.
Clean your pot with a non-abrasive cleaner or vinegar
Cleaning a slow cooker can be a pain. Baked-on sauce often sticks to the sides, and it’s really difficult to remove. However, tempted as you may be to take a Brillo pad to your slow cooker, try to resist the temptation. After all, most manufacturers advise against using abrasive cleaners on your slow cooker.
To clean your crock, soak it in hot soap and water, and then use soap or vinegar and a sponge to remove any leftover residue.
Put food safety first
Follow all safety guidelines and thaw meats properly. When you’re slow cooking foods, you have to be especially careful to avoid food poisoning. To kill bacteria, start with your slow cooker on the highest setting for an hour, then reduce it to the setting the recipe calls for. This will help your slow cooker reach a high enough temperature faster. Also, if you’re unsure whether your food is done, use a thermometer. Poultry needs to reach at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit, while beef, pork, veal, and lamb need to reach temperatures of at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit.
Add raw ground beef, raw eggs, raw seafood, or certain other raw meats
You may notice how slow cooker recipes using ground beef typically instruct you to brown the ground beef beforehand. This is because certain raw foods — such as raw eggs, raw shrimp, and raw ground beef — don’t agree with your slow cooker. They won’t cook properly, and you run the risk of some these foods coming out under cooked or sitting at dangerous temperatures for prolonged periods of time.
You should also avoid adding uncooked rices or pastas to your slow cooker. Even if your slow cooker cooks them fully, they’re likely to come out mushy and unappetizing. Instead, use a rice cooker to perfect your rice dishes.
Add dairy at the beginning
Many recipes call for dairy products, such as heavy cream, sour cream, or cream cheese. It’s best to add these ingredients at the end (during the last hour) because if you let them sit in your Crock-Pot for several hours, they may curdle or separate.
Taste test during cooking
As hard as it may be, avoid opening the pot and tasting your creation halfway through cooking. When meats are covered in sauce or seasoned broth, it can be difficult to tell whether or not they’re fully cooked, so you may end up tasting under cooked meat. Also, opening the pot lets precious heat escape, and it takes time to restore that heat each time you open the lid. This can mess up the recipe you worked so hard on.
Use the pot for storage or as another type of cooking vessel
For food safety purposes, don’t store leftover foods in your crock, as they may not cool properly. You should also avoid reheating leftovers in your pot.
If you want to prepare a recipe like chili in advance and then heat it in your slow cooker at a later time, feel free to do so. However, do not store your recipe in the pot insert. You should only use the pot inside your slow cooker to cook foods that it’s designed for. Avoid putting the vessel in the oven, on the stovetop, or in the refrigerator.
Use a slow cooker that’s cracked or damaged
A cracked or damaged slow cooker can result in a flawed meal, burns, or even worse, an electrical fire if liquid leaks through to the heating element.
Leave your slow cooker unattended near electrical outlets
Slow cookers typically heat your food to 209 degrees Fahrenheit or higher in a few hours (after three to four hours on high and after six to eight hours on low). Your pot may release steam or droplets of water from the top, especially after your food has been cooking for a decent amount of time. This water can damage surfaces (like countertops), get into electrical sockets, toasters, surge protectors, and other places that may pose a hazard. If you’re going to be leaving your pot unattended, it’s best to keep your slow cooker at least 8 to 12 inches away from appliances and uncovered outlets. Also, follow your manufacturer’s instructions regarding safety and handling procedures.