The crockpot or slow cooker is one of the best time saving appliances in the kitchen. It's great for beginning cooks because all you have to do is fill it and turn it on. Hours later, you come home to a house filled with wonderful smells and dinner ready for the table. Here's how to use a crockpot: Crockpot 101.
Purchasing and Safety
- When purchasing a crockpot, look for one with a removable liner. They are much easier to clean. If you have a nonremovable liner, however, all is not lost! Line your crockpot with a cooking bag and you'll have no cleanup at all. Spray the inside of the liner with cooking spray before you fill it to make cleanup easier.
- 140 degrees F is the temperature the food needs to reach as quickly as possible. If you are at home during the cooking times, test the food temperature after four hours of cooking on LOW - the temp should be at least 140 degrees. If it isn't, there's a problem with your crockpot and you should get a new one.
- For food safety reasons, it's a good idea to cook on HIGH for the first hour to quickly bring the temperature up to 140 degrees. Then turn the dial to LOW and finish cooking.
- The LOW setting is about 200 degrees, and the HIGH setting is about 300 degrees. Note that both of these temps are well above the minimum safe temperature of 140 degrees.
- Experts recommend you do not put frozen foods in the crockpot. All foods should be defrosted before cooking so the food temperature can reach 140 degrees as soon as possible. However, since none of my family members are in a high-risk group, I often cook frozen foods in the crockpot. The informed choice is up to you.
- One hour on HIGH is equal to two hours on LOW.
- Remove cooked food from the crockpot or liner before you refrigerate the cooked food. Because the liner is made of such thick material, the food won't cool down quickly enough to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria.
Crockpot General Cooking Tips
- Only fill the crockpot one half to two thirds full. The foods will not cook properly if the appliance is filled to the brim. If the food and liquid level is lower, the foods will cook too quickly.
- Foods cooked on the bottom of the slow cooker cook faster and will be moister because they are immersed in the simmering liquid.
- Remove skin from poultry, and trim excess fat from meats. Fats will melt with long cooking times, and will add an unpleasant texture to the finished dish. Fatty foods will also cook too quickly.
- You can thicken the juices and concentrate flavors by removing the lid and cooking on HIGH for the last half hour of cooking time.
- Most meats require 8 hours of cooking on LOW. Use cheaper cuts of meat - not only do you save money, but these meats work better in the slow cooker. Cheaper cuts of meat have less fat, which makes them more suited to crockpot cooking. Moist, long cooking times result in very tender meats.
- Follow the layering instructions carefully. Vegetables do not cook as quickly as meat, so they should be placed in the bottom of the appliance.
- Don't lift the lid to stir, especially if you are cooking on the low setting. Each time you lift the lid, enough heat will escape that the cooking time should be extended by 20 minutes to half an hour. To check progress without lifting the lid, spin the cover until the condensation falls off. Then it's easy to see inside.
Specific Crock Pot Cooking Tips
- For best results, ground meats must be cooked in a skillet before cooking in the crockpot.
- Seafood should be added during the last hour of cooking time, or it will overcook and have a rubbery texture.
- Large pieces of meat can be browned before cooking in the crockpot, but this step isn't necessary. Browning adds color and helps in flavor development.
- Cayenne pepper and tabasco sauce tend to become bitter if cooked for long periods of time. Use small amounts and add toward the end of the cooking time.
- Add tender vegetables like tomatoes, mushrooms and zucchini during the last 45 minutes of cooking time so they don't overcook.
- Dairy products should be added during the last 30 minutes of cooking time, unless the recipes states otherwise.
- Liquids do not boil away in the crockpot, so if you are making a recipe that wasn't specifically developed for the crockpot, reduce the liquid by 1/3 to 1/2 unless you are cooking rice or making soup.
- Stir in spices for the last hour of cooking. They will lose flavor if cooked with the rest of the ingredients for the long cooking period.