Read on for my top tips for getting the most out of your slow cooker. When you have a busy household the last thing you want is to be cooking dinner from scratch when you finish work, when the children are starving or when you need to be out of the house again soon after for family activities.
Step in the slow cooker, by moving your food prep to earlier in the day and leaving it to cook all day, you’ll come home to a main meal which is ready to serve.
If you are at home then it will free you up to do jobs at home, go out shopping or for a socially-distant coffee with a friend, safe in the knowledge that dinner is already sorted.
If you choose a one pot dish like lasagne or cottage pie you’ll only need to prepare some vegetables to have on the side just before serving.
If you have made a dish like a curry or stew which needs a starchy side, you’ll just need to boil up some rice or pasta then serve.
When you first start using a slow cooker you need to know some basic pointers to get the best results.
I’ve gathered together everything I’ve learnt from over ten years of using a slow cooker at home to cook for my family to provide this guide for you.
I’m also very active in some of the largest slow cooker groups on Facebook so am very familiar with the questions that come up time and time again, putting me in a great position to put my experience into use to provide my answers to all those slow cooker questions!
1. Choose the right size slow cooker for your needs
If you have a large family, grownup children with big appetites, or are feeding a household of adults, you’ll need your slow cooker to have more capacity than a couple with a small baby or single person would need.
Choose the right size slow cooker so you can make enough portions of your dish, and think about whether you will want to freeze additional batches regularly.
As a general rule, a small 1.5 litre slow cooker will work well for a single person or couple with small appetites, with no extras left over for freezing.
A medium 3.5 litre slow cooker is a good starter size for a couple who want to freeze leftovers, and will also suit a family with young children.
A large 6.5 litre will work well for a family with large appetites or for freezing several batches of leftovers for future meals.
Some of my favourite slow cooker models in different sizes, click the images for more info (affiliate links):
2. Choose a slow cooker with the features you need
Your basic slow cooker normally comes with no timer, just an on off switch and low, high, warm and auto settings.
Low is used for cooking all day, high for when you need your dish sooner, in around 4-5 hours.
Some slow cookers also have a medium setting.
Auto typically cooks on high for a set period (check your slow cooker specifications) and then changes to low.
Keep warm is used for keeping your cooked dish hot safely once cooking is finished, and normally can be used for around 2 hours.
Digital slow cookers have a built-in timer, which switch to the warm setting once the timed cooking period is up. This is invaluable for busy families.
You can also now even buy slow cookers which can be adjusted via WIFI or an app, great if you are out and delayed and need to turn your dish down to warm so it doesn’t burn.
Some slow cookers have a metal inner pot instead of a ceramic one, and can be used for browning off your meat on the stovetop, saving on dishes.
You can also get slow cookers with extra functions like self-stirring, hinged lids, lockable lids, programmed functions, additional functions on top of slow cooking etc.
Make sure you look at what options are available when buying your first slow cooker and choose those you think will be most important for you.
Round vs oval slow cookers – if you want to cook large joints of meat like a leg of lamb or turkey crown, then choose an oval slow cooker instead of a round one, so they will fit in. If you want to make cakes, choose a round slow cooker if you prefer a round cake (though oval cakes taste lovely too!).
Some of the specialised slow cookers on offer – click the images for more info (affiliate links):
3. Use a slow cooker recipe
It is important to use a slow cooker recipe (ie. rather than a recipe for cooking in a saucepan or in the oven) when you are a beginner, because cooking in a slow cooker is very different to cooking in a casserole dish or saucepan, though it might seem similar at first glance.
For a start, water does not evaporate from slow cookers like it does when you are reducing a sauce on the hob. So slow cooker recipes are generally devised to use less water than a standard oven or stovetop recipe.
Over the long cooking time soft fresh herbs lose their potency so if you add something like fresh basil leaves to a slow cooked recipe at the start, the flavour could be lost.
Other flavours like chilli powder, Indian spices used in curries, Moroccan spices used in tagines and so on deepen and become more intense during slow cooking.
So, if you are starting out, look for a recipe (online such as on this website, or in a recipe book) that was originally devised for a slow cooker for the best results.
My favourite slow cooker recipe books include these, click the images for more info (affiliate links):
4. Jarred sauces can be too watery for the slow cooker
In the same way you need to use a slow cooker recipe, remember that jarred sauces like curry sauces, pasta sauces and the like have been devised to use on the hob.
While they cook, water evaporates from the pan. But as meat and vegetables cook slowly in a slow cooker, liquid comes out of them, thinning out pre-bought sauces.
If you don’t mind thickening the sauce using one of the options listed below under ‘Thickening sauces‘ you can still use them of course. Just bear in mind that you might need to thicken the sauce before serving.
5. Packet mixes can be used in a slow cooker, with less water
If you like to use the pre-made casserole packet mixes which consist of herbs and spices and usually a thickener like flour, these can be used in the slow cooker.
Generally though you will need to reduce the water specified on the packet for standard cooking by a third to compensate for the water not evaporating.
Remember though that those spice mixes are expensive for what they actually contain.
It can taste better and be more economical to use individual spices instead (follow a good recipe like mine on this site which show you what you’ll need to make your sauces from scratch).
Some of the packet mixes now do provide instructions for the slow cooker, which can be very handy.
6. Browning meat first
If you are cooking a cut of meat that is low in fat like chicken breast, diced chicken, diced turkey, a whole chicken and so on, you generally do not need to brown the meat before slow cooking.
However if you are cooking a cut of meat that is higher in fat like a roast beef joint, lamb shoulder, beef brisket, sausages or minced beef (ground beef) and so on then I do recommend browning these in a pan before slow cooking.
When you seal the meat by browning it on all sides then this helps to remove excess fat and the caramelisation of the surface of the meat gives your dish a deeper flavour.
For minced beef (ground beef) it improves on the texture, without browning I find minced beef in a sauce can go very mushy.
For a dish like sausages and roast beef, it gives the meat a much better colour and improves how they look after slow cooking. Pale floppy sausages? No thanks!
7. Put your ingredients in the pot in the right order
It does matter which ingredients go in first and last, because some ingredients take longer to cook so ideally need to be at the bottom of your slow cooker pot when you start cooking.
Otherwise you could find that potatoes, carrots and other root vegetables are still hard even after 8 hours on low.
Potatoes and root vegetables should go in the pot first, so they are right at the bottom.
Next add other vegetables like peppers, courgettes, mushrooms, which don’t need long cooking, and finally the meat goes on top.
Your sauce ingredients go over the top of all of the other ingredients.
It doesn’t matter if ingredients are not covered in liquid in a slow cooker, once it starts cooking, the liquid content will increase and the ingredients will be covered.
So don’t fall in the trap of adding more water thinking the pot looks too empty!
Often new slow cooker users add too much liquid at the start and then they have problems with runny tasteless dishes at the end of cooking.
8. Slow cooking times: 8 hours on low or 4-5 hours on high
The general cooking times when you are using a slow cooker are 7-8 hours on low or 4-5 hours on high.
You would use the low setting if you are putting the slow cooker on in the morning and want the dish when you get home or finish work in the evening.
Whereas if you are putting the slow cooker on later in the day, for example around lunchtime, and need it for dinner time, you would use the high setting so it is ready in time.
Chicken breast is one exception – it can dry out and become stringy if cooked for that long. I prefer to cook chicken breast dishes for a maximum of 6 hours on low or 3-4 on high.
Large joints of meat – if you are cooking a large piece of meat like a large gammon, large piece of roast beef or pork, etc, the time required for cooking can be longer simply due to the size of the meat, just as they would need longer for oven cooking. In this case you can cook for up to ten hours on low or even longer.
Baking cakes or bread – For cakes and bread the hours are typically 1.5 to 2 hours on high but this can vary depending on your slow cooker.
Some slow cookers run hotter than others so you need to get to know if you slow cooker is a hot one or a slower one!
Make sure you check out my guide to baking in a slow cooker for loads more tips and information!
9. How to tell if your dish is cooked
Since the cooking times are a rough guide and if you are cooking a joint of meat like roast beef or a whole chicken, then to check it is fully cooked before serving you can look out for a few indicators which shows if it is ready:
- Any juices that run out if you insert a skewer or knife are clear and not bloody/red.
- The centre of the meat looks cooked without pink or red parts when you check it with a knife.
- Meat has shrunk away from the bone and may fall clean off the bone when you lift it out.
- Food is steaming hot all the way through.
- A food thermometer reaches the required temperature when you check the centre of the meat.
- If cooking a stew or casserole or similar dish, check if the casserole sauce is bubbling, has the meat shrunk in size and changed texture to a cooked consistency.
10. Thickening sauces
If you unfortunately end up with a thin sauce after slow cooking (this could be because you used too much liquid, used a jarred sauce and so on) then there are some great ways to thicken up the sauce before serving.
I’ve also included some options that work to prevent a thin sauce from the start of cooking which you could use the next time you cook the same dish.
Turn to high and remove the lid
At the end of cooking, if your sauce looks a little too thin, switch to high and remove the lid and cook for a further hour. This lets some of the liquid evaporate off, therefore reducing down the sauce.
To thicken using cornflour, put a tablespoon of cornflour in a small bowl and add 1-2 tablespoons of cold water and mix to a thick paste. Pour this into your slow cooker, stir, then cook for a further 30 mins to 1 hour on high.
Use gravy granules
For stews and casseroles, adding a couple of tablespoons of gravy granules is a really simple quick way to thicken the sauce.
Use ground almonds
A great way to thicken slow cooker curries is to stir through a few tablespoons of ground almonds.
Use tomato puree
Dishes with a tomato-based sauce such as chilli con carne, spaghetti bolognese and so on can be thickened by adding a few tablespoons of tomato puree.
Coat meat in flour
Though not an option you can use before serving, if you coat your meat in flour after browning as I do in my lamb casserole, this naturally thickens the sauce as it cooks.
Use sweet potato or butternut squash
Including vegetables that become really soft and melt into the sauce during cooking is a brilliant way to get a thick sauce. Sweet potato chunks work really well, as used in my vegetable curry, as do frozen butternut squash chunks, as used in my beef curry.
Add a handful of lentils
Red lentils are a very useful ingredient for thickening sauces, as they disappear into the sauce during cooking, absorbing some of the liquid, without affecting the flavour. Drop in a handful at the start of cooking for best results.
You do not need to cover a joint of meat (or a roast for my US readers) in water when cooking it in a slow cooker. Often you can cook large cuts of meat with no added water, as liquid comes out of the meat as it cooks. You also must not put water in the metal slow cooker base in modern slow cookers.
Yes, the slow cooker will cook it for you. It is best to brown off sausages, diced beef, minced beef, lamb leg roasts and other fatty meats before slow cooking. There is no need to brown chicken.
I have never preheated my slow cooker and all my dishes have always worked very well. You do not generally need to heat up the slow cooker before slow cooking.
Aways fill your slow cooker at least two thirds full. If you underfill the food could burn. If you overfill the food could spill over the top since more liquid will be produced during cooking. It is useful to have more than one slow cooker size so you can choose the right one for your dish and how many people you are cooking for.
Slow cookers are very economical to use, compared to the cost of using an electric oven. Typically slow cookers cost around 3p an hour to use, compared to an oven which can cost up to 30p an hour to run, depending on your oven’s efficiency.
It is best not to keep opening the lid of your slow cooker to check and stir your food, because the built-up heat escapes every time you lift the lid, meaning it can take time to come up to temperature again. This will make your dish take longer to finish cooking. You could stir once halfway through cooking to mix the ingredients through, then leave it until the end of the cooking time.
No, as a slow cooker takes a long time to come to temperature it is not suitable for reheating ready-cooked food. Instead, reheat your slow cooked food in the microwave or in a saucepan until piping hot all the way through.
It is not recommended to use frozen meat in a slow cooker because the meat will be in the danger zone (between 5 and 60 degrees centigrade) for a long period of time, which can lead to bacteria and toxin growth that may not be completely killed when your food reaches its cooked temperature. I recommend always defrosting your meat first to keep your family safe.
I hope this has been useful. Do you have any other burning questions I can help with relating to using your slow cooker? Let me know in the comments!