The Ultimate Slow Cooker Guide

Learn how to use a slow cooker, what to cook in it and so much more with this definitive guide to everything slow cookers.

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Slow cookers are truly kitchen superstars. They make cooking a cozy meal for the family uncomplicated, are easy to care for and can last for years. But how much do you really know about slow cookers? We collected all of our slow cooker info, from how to use a slow cooker to how to clean it, and put it in one place to help seasoned cooks and kitchen newbies alike. Keep reading for our insider tips and tricks for the slow cooker.

Before you start, check out our most popular slow cooker recipes to get your mouth watering.

What Is a Slow Cooker?

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A slow cooker is an electric appliance that simmers food at a low temperature over a long period of time. Because of this low-and-slow method, slow cookers are great for breaking down and tenderizing large pieces of meat like pot roasts or beef stews. But that’s not all they can do. Slow cookers are also a home cook’s go-to choice for soups and ribs, plus dips, drinks and bread.

In addition to its versatility, there are many other benefits to using a slow cooker, like its ability to evenly cook foods hands-free. This frees home cooks to do other things around the house, run errands or go to work for the day. Plus, slow cookers are straightforward to use and usually require no more set up than plugging it in.

Not to mention, there’s a sneaky way you can put a slow cooker to work around the house.

What’s the Best Slow Cooker to Buy?

When it comes to buying a slow cooker, there are several factors to consider, such as how many people you’re usually cooking for, what price point you’re at and what features are a must.

That said, our Test Kitchen pros have found a slow cooker brand that they recommend above all else. After rigorous testing, the Chefman 5-quart slow cooker ($38) based on its innovative stoneware crock that’s also dishwasher-safe, superior cooking performance and affordability. Take a look at our full review of the Chefman slow cooker for more details.

No kitchen appliance is complete without some accessories. Check out our favorite slow cooker gadgets and some unique slow cooker accessories that you’ll want to get your hands on ASAP.

How Do You Use a Slow Cooker?

Using a slow cooker is fairly simple. Just plug in your slow cooker, add your chosen recipe’s ingredients, set the cooker to low or high, depending on the recipe’s instructions, add the lid and let it cook. Once your dish is done cooking, you can either switch the slow cooker off to turn off the heating element, or warm if you’re not ready to enjoy it yet. That’s it!

Some recipes, like a ground beef chili or pork chops, will call for some ingredients to be browned in a skillet before being added to the slow cooker. In these cases, you might want to consider preheating your slow cooker.

The Best Slow Cooker Tips

As easy as using a slow cooker is, we do have some tips for getting the best results possible. Here are some of our top pieces of advice:

  • Always fill your slow cooker to about ¾ capacity to prevent overcooking and overflow.
  • Don’t peek! Opening the lid and checking on your food releases heat and can extend your cooking time.
  • Yes, you can turn almost any recipe into a slow cooker meal! Find a similar recipe that’s written as a slow cooker recipe and use those instructions, or follow these steps.
  • Slow cookers are a meal prepper’s best friend. Freezer-friendly slow cooker meals mean you can always have dinner on hand and one-pot slow cooker recipes make sure you’re not stuck with a ton of dirty dishes.

What Can You Cook in a Slow Cooker?

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Honestly, you can cook just about anything in the slow cooker. You’re probably most familiar with slow-cooker main dishes which range from shredded chicken tacos to meatloaf to puller pork sandwiches—as well as cozy slow-cooked soups, stews and chili that gather more flavor from simmering over hours at a time. And all-in-one dishes like slow-cooker casseroles make dinner a breeze.

Slow-cooker side dishes, like cooked potatoes and veggie dishes are popular as they free up some room in your oven for the main event. If you’ve ever had an overly crisp sweet potato or mushy carrot, our Test Kitchen recommends being careful of how you cut your spuds and veggies. They should be prepped uniformly, as directed in the recipe. Larger pieces may end up undercooked while small pieces can end up overcooked. Also, try to add softer vegetables like peas, spinach or zucchini later in the cooking process. This will keep them from getting overly mushy or disintegrating altogether.

There are a few surprising things you might not know to turn to your slow cooker for, too. Hands-free breakfast and brunch recipes are a reality with slow-cooker hashbrowns, oatmeal and even cinnamon rolls. You can also plan ahead for a party with slow-cooker appetizers like cheese dip or fondue. Or try out a slow-cooker pasta recipe—but be careful not to let your pasta cook for too long or it will become grainy.

And slow cookers aren’t just for savory foods either. Make something sweet with these slow-cooker dessert recipes that include cakes, puddings and candy clusters or indulge in a sweet slow-cooker beverage like hot cocoa or tropical-infused tea.

The Best Meat to Cook in Your Slow Cooker

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While you can cook just about any meat in a slow-cooker, we recommend avoiding dry meat by choosing cuts that are tougher or have a higher fat content, as these cuts hold up better to long-term cooking. This means chicken thighs over chicken breasts, pork shoulder over tenderloin or beef chuck roast over strip steak. If you do choose to cook a lean meat, you may need to decrease the cooking time. A thermometer will accurately determine when the meat is done.

Pro tip: Only some meats can be cooked from frozen in a slow cooker. This list will give you the do’s and don’ts.

Not eating meat? These vegetarian slow-cooker recipes will give you a delicious meal, sans meat.

How to Care for a Slow Cooker

Soaking slow cooker in soapy water on low heat kitchen hackShutterstock / Joshua Resnick

Thanks to removable crocks, cleaning and maintaining a slow cooker is painless. Take a look at these ways to clean a slow cooker:

  • Every time you use it: After it has cooled, remove the crock and lid from the cooking element and wash them with dish soap and water. Wipe down the outside of the cooking element with a damp paper towel if there are any spills or spots on it.
  • When there are some tough spots: If your crock has some spots that won’t lift with soap and water, turn to baking soda. Create a paste with baking soda and water and use a soft-bristle scrubbing brush to buff out food bits.
  • When there are a lot of tough spots: When your crock is covered in cooked-on food bits, it’s time to soak. Fill your slow cooker about ¾ full with water and add ¼ cup of white vinegar and ¼ cup of baking soda. Let the mixture sit for about an hour. After that, food debris should wipe right off. Or, you can skip the cleaning altogether and use a slow cooker liner ($6).

In addition to cleaning your slow cooker, proper safety is also important to its care. From keeping a slow cooker on overnight to using a model from the ‘70s, these are the slow cooker safety rules you need to follow.

Caroline Stanko
Caroline has been with Taste of Home for the past seven years, working in both print and digital. After starting as an intern for the magazine and special interest publication teams, Caroline was hired as the third-ever digital editor for Taste of Home. Since then, she has researched, written and edited content on just about every topic the site covers, including cooking techniques, buzzy food news, gift guides and many, many recipe collections. Caroline also acts as the editorial lead for video, working with the Test Kitchen, videographers and social media team to produce videos from start to finish. When she’s not tip-tapping on a keyboard, Caroline is probably mixing up a killer cocktail, reading a dog-eared library book or cooking up a multi-course feast (sometimes all at once). Though she technically lives in Milwaukee, there is a 50/50 chance Caroline is in Chicago or southwest Michigan visiting her close-knit family.