Don’t Be Shy: Answers to the Slow Cooker FAQs You Were Too Afraid to Ask
Though this machine is simple to operate, it doesn’t mean how to use it is obvious. All your Crock-Pot questions, answered.
Slow cookers are the ultimate braisers, allowing you to transform humble ingredients into 5-star meals while mostly ignoring them. With a control panel that rarely has more than four functions — low heat, high heat, warm, and a timer — it’s pretty basic. But no one is an instant expert at any kind of cooking; what follows are commonly asked questions and clear answers.
Let’s get (slow) cooking!
What IS a Crock-Pot? And are a Crock-Pot and slow cooker the same?
While the Crock-Pot didn’t come to market until 1971, our ancestors have been doing some form of slow cooking for the last 27,000 years — although the OG style entailed digging pits in the ground and lining them with smoldering embers before tossing in a freshly killed carcass (fortunately, today all you need is an outlet for the plug). Crock-Pot was the first brand, but now there are many excellent options and they’re all called slow cookers.
Regardless of the exterior, each one uses an electric heating element to bring a vessel or crock — usually made of stoneware, ceramic, or cast aluminum — to somewhere between around 170°F for Low and around 280°F for High. A domed lid on top, typically made of tempered glass, allows you to watch the bubbling process while resisting the urge to lift it and lose the precious heat building up inside. Most slow cooker lids purposely don’t form a perfect seal with the crock below in order to let off a little steam as the cooking progresses.
Is it dangerous to leave a Crock-Pot on when no one is home?
Nope. A slow cooker is the original “set it and forget it” device; it cooks on such a low and steady electric-based heat that you can turn it on and leave without a care, not unlike leaving a lamp on. It revolutionized meal prep in the 70s, helping women who began working outside the home to still get a home-cooked meal on the table every night. And nobody’s house burned down.
Does it matter if the recipe calls for a different-sized slow cooker?
Sometimes. The vessel shouldn't be more than two-thirds full and might cook the food too quickly if filled less than about halfway. However, if you’re slow-cooking a smaller amount (like this delicious queso dip), you can put the ingredients in a 1 1/2-quart soufflé dish, place it in the crock and then make a "bain-marie" (a water bath) by pouring 2 to 3 cups of hot water around — not in — the soufflé dish.
Can you put frozen [fill in the blank] in a Crock-Pot?
No. You cannot put any sort of frozen meat, chicken, lamb, meatballs, or any other frozen protein into a slow cooker without serious risk of food poisoning. The slow cooker takes way longer than the stovetop or oven to get raw ingredients past the food safety danger zone (between 40°F and 140°F). If you start with frozen ingredients, the heating process takes too long to ensure a bacteria-free meal. Best to thaw it in the fridge the night before, or, if you're in a rush, do a quick thaw in the microwave first.
Frozen veggies are also a no-no unless there’s only a small amount of a more delicate vegetable to be added in the final half-hour of cooking. For example, you could add a 1/4 cup of frozen corn into an already-warm cooker of chili, where the corn will thaw quickly enough for safety (but may cool your chili more than you'd like).
Can you put a Crock-Pot in the oven? How about on a stove?
No and no! The cooking insert is purposely made to heat up very slowly and maintain a low temperature for long periods of time. The material it’s made of is sensitive to sudden changes of temperature, as well as extreme highs or lows (which includes the freezer): It can break or crack! Unless the manufacturer has spelled out that it’s also designed for stovetop cooking, don't put it on the stove.
Can you put a chicken stew in the Crock-Pot when you leave for work and use a timer to have it start cooking 4 hours later, or will you die of food poisoning?
You probably won’t die, but you are playing a dangerous game of food poisoning roulette. This article about prepping Freezer-to-Slow-Cooker Meals explains the science of heat-resistant toxins in food that’s been left too long in the temperature danger zone. Better to avoid intestinal pain and distress by starting the stew cooking when you leave, and then have the cooker switch to the Warm setting once the cooking time ends. This chart with slow cooking times for chicken may help too; some cuts can be slow-cooked longer than others with no negative impact on taste or texture.
How do you make it work if your job is a standard 8-hour day? Almost all of the recipes I see are between 4 to 8 hours cook time, which doesn’t work if you leave the house at 8 and don’t get home until 6!
It mostly comes down to your particular machine; some will automatically switch over to a Warm setting once the programmed cooking time has ended. While there are some dishes that must be cooked on the High setting for 4 hours or less, there are many that are supposed to be cooked for a longer time— sometimes 8 or 9 hours— on the Low heat setting; for those dishes, a couple more hours on Warm won’t cause problems or food safety issues for the final meal.
The other option is to use a timer to switch the slow cooker off after the completed cooking time. The cooking insert is designed to retain heat for extended periods; if you use a 7- to 8-hour recipe, let it go a little longer and then have the timer shut it off; the food should still be warm, tasty and safe an hour or so after the power has been cut.
Can you cook pasta or rice in a Crock-Pot?
Sort of. On its own, no, a slow cooker is not the right tool. But as part of a final dish, pasta or rice can be added to a brothy mixture for the last 20 to 30 minutes of cooking and will absorb the flavors in the dish beautifully. But don’t get distracted: If it's in there too long, pasta will get mushy.
Are slow cookers dishwasher safe?
Not really. Though they are large and heavy, the insert itself is somewhat fragile. It’s best to carefully hand wash the crock with hot water and dish soap to avoid breaking or chipping. And never put cold water in a still-hot crock; the dramatic temperature shift could cause it to crack.
Note: The exterior casing that contains the electric heating element should never be submerged in water; clean up any spills with a damp cloth.
What's the best way to transport a Crock-Pot?
There are many slow cooker carriers designed specifically to enclose the entire vessel, thus ensuring the heat stays contained and any spills are minimized. However, in a pinch, it also works to line a laundry basket with a towel, then place rolled-up towels around the cooker to ensure it won’t slide around.
And if you place it on a car seat, buckle up your slow cooker too! The lap belt will be sufficient to hold it in place, and should there be a sudden stop the floor mat will be spared from a hot bath of chili.
Ready to get slow cooking? Check out some of these slow cooker recipes on Yummly.