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Slow Cooker Tips

Here are some great tips to get the most out of your crockpot and recipes.

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 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.

Using a crockpot or slow cooker is very easy; just add the food, cover, turn on low heat and cook all day. But there are always more things to learn. The newest crockpots on the market come with divided liners, timers to adjust the cooking start time. The newer appliances seem to be hotter than models only a few years old, so it's best to learn how your particular crockpot cooks.

How to Convert Recipes

Many recipes can be converted to cooking in the crockpot. Soups and stews, of course, are natural slowcooker favorites. Casseroles and most meats benefit from the low temperatures and even cooking heat.
Reduce the amount of liquid a recipe calls for, since liquids do not evaporate during crockpot cooking. However, if you are cooking rice, beans, or pasta, don't reduce the liquid called for. You generally need twice as much liquid as product to cook these ingredients. Here are basic conversion times:

  • If conventional time is: 15 to 30 minutes, then cooking time on low should be 4 to 6 hours.
  • If conventional time is 35 to 45 minutes, cooking time on low should be 6 to 8 hours.
  • If convenentional time is 50 minutes to 3 hours, cooking time on low should be 8 to 16 hours.

I generally prefer cooking most raw meat and vegetable combinations at least 8 hours on LOW. This gives the vegetables time to soften, the meat time to tenderize and all the flavors to blend.

Preparing Ingredients

  • Surprisingly, vegetables cook more slowly than meats in the moist heat of the slow cooker. So vegetables should be cut or chopped roughly the same size and placed in the bottom of the crockpot.
  • Browning meats helps reduce the fat content in large cuts of meat like roasts. It also caramelizes the sugars in the meat, adding to appearance and flavor.
  • Trim off any visible fat from cuts of meat. Fat will make the dishes cook faster.

For Your Health

  • Studies have shown that the low, constant heat crockpots cook by may help prevent disease! Some compounds called "advanced glycation end products" are formed when sugars, fats, and proteins are heated at high temperatures, as when food is grilled, broiled, or microwaved.
  • These AGE's irritate cells and may be a factor in the formation of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Since slow cookers only heat between 200 and 300 degrees, fewer of these compounds form in crockpot cooked meals, so slow-cooked meals are healthier.

General Tips

  • Most crockpot recipes don't need to be stirred during cooking, especially if cooked on low heat. When you lift the lid, the crockpot loses so much heat that the cooking time should be increased by 20 minutes each time.
  • Use whole leaf herbs and spices instead of ground for better flavor. Some spices, especially pepper, can become bitter over a long cooking time. Add those in the last hour of cooking for best flavor.
  • Some of the newer crockpots seem to cook at a hotter temperature, probably because manufacturers are concerned about food safety. You can check the temperature of your crockpot this way:
    • Place 2 quarts of water in your crockpot
    • Cover and heat on low for 8 hours
    • Lift the lid and immediately check the water temperature with an accurate thermometer
    • The temperature of the water should be 185 degrees Fahrenheit. If the temperature is higher foods may overcook and you should reduce the overall cooking time. If the temperature is lower your foods will probably not reach a safe temperature quickly enough, and the crockpot should be discarded.
  • Pasta and rice can be cooked in the crockpot. Pasta needs lots of liquid to cook properly, and should be added during the last hour of cooking time, depending on the consistency of doneness you prefer. Rice can be more difficult to cook. I prefer using brown or wild rice for better results. Make sure you have enough liquid in the recipe so the rice becomes tender.
  • You can make cakes and desserts in the crockpot! Use a small round rack or vegetable steamer to lift the cake pan off the bottom of the crockpot so heat circulates evenly around the pan. You do need a larger crockpot for 'baking' cakes and other desserts. A 5 quart slow cooker will hold an 8" or 9" cake pan or springform pan. You may need to increase cooking times if you live at a high altitude, usually by 40-50%.

Cleaning the Crockpot

  • Fill the appliance with hot soapy water when the cooker has cooled. Let soak for 15-20 minutes, then scrub with a cloth, nylon net pad or a plastic sponge. Do not use a harsh abrasive cleaner, SOS pad or metal pad. Rinse well in hot water and dry.
  • To remove mineral stains, fill crockpot 3/4 full with hot water and 1 cup white vinegar. Cover and cook on high for 2 hours. Then let the crockpot cool and soak and clean as directed above.
  • To remove water marks from glazed crockery, rub the surface with vegetable oil and let stand for 2-3 hours. Then fill with hot soapy water, rub the surface, and scrub with a nylon net pad. Rinse and dry well.

Food Safety

  • Many people cook frozen foods in the crockpot. And others like to reheat foods in the crockpot. Most food experts do not recommend these practices, as foods need to reach a temperature of 140 degrees within 1-1/2 hours to prevent bacteria growth.
  • Even if the foods do eventually reach a safe temperature and cook thoroughly, bacteria in the food can produce toxins that aren't destroyed by heat and that can make you sick.
  • Many people have experienced food poisoning and don't even know it. They may have some digestive discomfort or feel ill for a day or two and then recover. Unfortunately, a person in a high risk group (elderly, persons with compromised immune systems, small children, and pregnant women) can suffer serious consequences from food poisoning.
  • More than 5,000 people die each year in the U.S. as a result of food poisoning. If you decide to cook frozen foods or reheat foods in the crockpot, do so at your own risk.
  • One thing you can do is to warm the liquid used in the recipe and add it along with the frozen foods, to help raise the temperature more quickly.
  • Taking a calculated risk may be acceptable to you as long as you know the consequences AND as long as no member of your family is in a high risk group.

Learning to safely use your crockpot will help maintain your family's health. And once you become an expert at using this appliance, the time you spend in the kitchen will be greatly reduced.

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