A Crock Pot -- or any type of slow cooker, for that matter -- is one of those appliances that seems to take up residence in most kitchens. Ask the average home cook, however, what to do with it, and you might get some uninspired answers. Get the most out of your slow cooker by spending a little time up front on preparation and planning around your recipe's recommended cooking time.
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Read through your recipe carefully before you begin to cook. Most slow cooker recipes call for either a four- to eight-hour cook time, so plan accordingly. Some also call for ingredients to be added late in the cooking time. This means that you may not be able to walk in the door and sit down to dinner immediately.
If your recipe calls for meat, browning it in a skillet before putting it in your slow cooker will add an extra layer of flavor to the final dish. You won't fully cook the meat at this point. The goal is only to sear it, adding a layer of flavor and complexity to the dish. Aromatic vegetables such as onions and garlic also benefit from a quick sauté before going into the slow cooker.
If you're pressed for time, skip the initial searing. While it adds to the flavor of the dish, it's not absolutely essential.
Most Crock Pots and slow cookers operate at two settings: high and low. Both bring food to around 210 degrees Fahrenheit. The difference is in the time it takes to reach that final temperature. On the low setting, the Crock Pot heats the food gently and keeps it at 210 degrees F for about 8 to 10 hours depending on the model. Set to high, a slow cooker will heat the food more quickly and hold it at the final temperature for four to six hours as it slowly cooks.
While food is cooking, avoid lifting the lid unnecessarily. Slow cookers are designed to trap condensation and hold in heat. Removing the lid to stir or check the food every few minutes can interfere with those goals. The one exception to this rule comes at the end of cooking. If you want to thicken the sauce, let the food cook uncovered for the last 15 to 20 minutes.
A Crock Pot is designed for long slow cooking methods such as braising, but it's far from a one-dish appliance. Consider these recipe ideas the next time you wonder what to do with your Crock Pot.
- Spiced Apple Cider: Pour a gallon of apple cider into the bowl of your slow cooker. Add two to four cinnamon sticks, three to five whole cloves and a quartered orange. Cook on high for four hours. Serve straight from the Crock Pot -- it will keep the cider warm.
- Pulled Pork: Try this recipe for pulled pork with a Bourbon-Peach Barbecue Sauce from Cooking Light for a twist on a classic summer dish, or go simple and put pork ribs and onions in the bowl of your slow cooker. Cover with your favorite bottled barbecue sauce and cook on low for eight hours.
- Steel-Cut Oatmeal: The hearty cousin to instant oats, the only drawback to steel-cut oats is time. It takes a while to cook them on the stove, but you can set them up to cook in the Crock Pot overnight and have a filling breakfast ready when you wake up. Try this recipe for Slow-Cooker Oatmeal with Mango and Coconut from Fine Cooking as inspiration.