7 Tips to Tasty Slow Cooker Meals Every Time

Soups, stews, and chilis are on the minds of many as the fall cooking season rolls around. To cook up these comfort food favorites a lot of us will break out our trusty slow cookers. We all love the ease of having these foods cooking all day, unattended, so they are ready for us to eat and warm up to at dinner time.

Slow cookers are one of those small kitchen appliances that, over the years, I developed a love hate relationship with. I love the concept of them – throw all the ingredients into the crock, turn it on and poof dinner is ready hours later. However, I hate the reality of cooking with a slow cooker. Now this might only be my reality but from my experience most recipes rarely survive cooking all day in the slow cooker. My past results with all day slow cooking is usually super mushy unrecognizable vegetables, dried out stringy meat, and bland tasteless meals. Don’t even get me started with using pasta in slow cooker recipes – think play doh that has been sitting in water for a few days. Yummy!

Slow cooking and I could not find a common ground together. This was unfortunate because as a busy working mom I loved the concept.

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So I gave up on my slow cooker. Even my dear husband begged me to stop using it – you know it is bad if he says that. I didn’t blame him though especially after the number of dried out meals he had to force down. I remember one time the chicken was so dry my dog would not even eat it – now that was pitiful.

After a few years of boycotting my slow cooker I decided to give it another shot. My only reason for this second (or third) chance was that a Skinny Mom’s Kitchen reader contacted me asking if I offered slow cooker recipes on my site. I shared my experiences and then shamefully said no. However, that request got me thinking. Many people use and absolutely love their slow cookers. There is actually quite the slow cooker following with many facebook pages and blogs dedicated to just slow cooking.  Obviously, I was the one doing something wrong.

So I decided to give slow cooking another shot. My husband was scared and rightfully so. But I was determined – which by the way also scares my husband at times.  I just knew that if I could find a way to make this small appliance work for my lifestyle it would be very helpful to me as a busy mom.

Well it has been over a year and I am proud to say that I have made many successful slow cooker recipes. Keep in my mind this was not by chance. I researched many recipes, cookbooks, and articles on slow cooking. I talked to other bloggers and paid attention to all the discussions happening on the facebook pages, forums, and blogs. Of course there still was some trial and error but far less since I was taking the time to learn instead of just dumping a bunch of ingredients in and turning it on.

To help those of you who may be where I was with slow cooking a year ago I put together a list of tips that help me create the tasty slow cooker recipes we eat today.  I hope you find these helpful. If you have further tips to add please do so in the comments. I would love to hear from you.

Most meals cannot cook all day

First and foremost most meals cannot cook all day. In fact, many will dry out and/or start to lose flavor after about 6 or 7 hours. This is especially true for chicken recipes. Chicken (specifically breasts) dry out very fast and a lot of times cook completely in about 4 to 5 hours on low. I have learned to never cook chicken on high. In fact, whenever possible, I always cook slow cooker recipes on low. Also, recipes that call for lots of vegetables will turn very mushy after a full day of slow cooking. So unless you like very mushy vegetables I recommend, if possible, cooking for shorter amount of time or adding them later in the recipe. Some vegetables, like sweet potatoes or heartier root vegetables will hold up better to longer slow cooking time rather than vegetables like zucchini, peppers, or eggplant.

Recipes that can withstand longer cooking times of 8 hours or more are ones that call for dried beans and/or large chunks of beef or pork. I have also successfully slow cooked many red sauces and chilis for 8 hours or more. Therefore, when I want to cook a meal all day in the slow cooker those are the ones I turn to.

Invest in a programmable slow cooker with warm, low, and high settings

In my early slow cooking days the slow cooker I had only cooked on high and turned off manually – meaning I had to actually be home to turn it off.  I am convinced this was one of the main culprits in my slow cooker dinner disasters. Today I own a couple of slow cookers both of which can be programmed to turn off and switch to warm after the recipe cooking time is complete. This is essential, especially if I am not going to be home around the time the recipe will be done.

Prep work makes all the difference 

I know this is not what you want to hear and in a way defeats the concept of just dumping a bunch of ingredients in a slow cooker then setting and forgetting it. But in my experience recipes turn out so much better when prepped a little. For example browning meat or blooming aromatics (ex. cooking the onion, garlic, and spices first) will provide a much richer flavor then just throwing them in raw. Sure, it is your choice to skip this step but I highly recommend taking the extra 10 minutes to prep the ingredients ahead of time.

Of course prepping the ingredients the morning you need to make the meal can be a little cumbersome – especially if you are trying to get your kids out the door. I solve this problem by prepping slow cooker meals the night before and/or on the weekends when I have more time. If I do it on the weekends I will create them into slow cooker freezer kits. Then all I need to do is take the kit out of the freezer to thaw a day or two before it is on my menu plan.  A few of my favorite slow cooker freezer kits are Thai Peanut Pork, Chicken Curry, and Chipotle Turkey.

Layer ingredients correctly

Just like prep work is important so is the way you layer the ingredients in the slow cooker. Foods that take a longer time to cook should go in first and sit on the bottom. Ingredients that tend to cook quicker should be on top. Not every recipe will mention the order you should place in the ingredients. However, in my experience this is what works best.  For example, if you were cooking steak fajitas in the slow cooker you would want to place the peppers on top on the steak. This will prevent them from over cooking and turning into to mush.

Every slow cooker is different

Slow cooker recipes will almost always have a 2-3 hour cooking window time. The reason for this is every slow cooker will cook differently depending on where you live, how big it is, the amount of liquid in the recipe, and the brand you own. So it is hard to write a recipe and say for certain the amount of time it will cook. Sure for my slow cooker it might cook perfectly at 5 hours but you can have that same recipe burn cooking that amount of time in yours. For this reason you need to be cautious when making new recipes. This brings me to my next tip.

Check before cooking time is up

This goes against most of the slow cooking advice out there. We have all been told never to open the lid during the slow cooking process. However, in my experience you have to check at least once maybe twice to see if it is close to being done. Most likely you will not have to do this with recipes you are familiar with. However, a new recipe will need to be checked on. In my experience, the worse thing to do with a new recipe is just let it cook for the full amount of time without checking on it. That is just a recipe for disaster.

Serve pasta on the side

Maybe it is just me but to this day I have never had luck with cooking pasta in the slow cooker. Never! Every time it turns into a big mushy mess. I have learned that it is best to make the sauce in the slow cooker and then the pasta separately on the stove. Yes it is an extra step – one well worth it in my opinion. Mushy pasta never makes for a tempting meal. If this is a problem you never had then please share your secret.

As you can see creating a successful slow cooking recipe takes a little more technique then just dump and go. However, with the right recipes, a little prep work, and some practice this small appliance can serve as wonderful tool for busy parents.

What are some of your slow cooker tips?


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Comments

  1. Thank you for the great slow cooking tips! My kids always tell me that everything tastes the same from the slow cooker. I’m sure it’s because I follow the directions and over cook everything. I am going to follow some of your tips and try again!

    • Yes it is all about trial and error. Try checking the recipe before the minimum cooking time.I always find mine is done much sooner than recommended time. Keep me posted.

  2. With almost any slow cooker recipe, I’ve found I need to take the lowest recommended hours and reduce it even further, usually by at least an hour. My crockpot (which is the same as your bigger one) runs REALLY hot. If I cook things on hot, it boils, which is not the goal. Also, like you, I find it does a better job with big pieces of meat. It is harder than it looks!

  3. I use a small covered casserole dish IN my slow cooker for recipes that don’t fill mine up. Otherwise it burns or dries out

  4. Nice article. I have the same large slow cooker as you and have been trying to use it alot but like you I find that everything ends up overcooked. You mention you should check it before cooking time is up but I am not exactly sure what I am looking for to see if it is done.

  5. I think slow cookers just run ‘hotter’ than the originals did. Unlike you, I set mine to high but I cook for a very short time. I made your Thai Peanut Pork this week – set the crock on high and it was done (and delicious) in about 3 hours. I’ve eaten it twice and the rest is in the freezer now.

  6. I’ve had luck with pasta–just add it in about 30 minutes before you’re ready to eat (and make sure there is some liquid in there to soak it up). I’ve found this works exceedingly well with pasta fagioli and chili type things!

  7. Kevin Jude says:

    Hi, I work long hours and want to start eating fresh home prepared meals so i have my new slow cooker and am researching as much as I can for tips.

    I´m going to use one of those timer plugs in between the plug of the slow cooker and the wall socket… this means on a 12 hour shift, I can set the slow cooker to come on a set amount of hours before I get home and don´t risk leaving it a protracted period of time and just hope it isn´t overcooked.

  8. Slow cooker macaroni and cheese is one of the yummiest (but not healthiest) things to make! Its a crowd-pleaser for potlucks or when you have a mess of kids over. Cook the noodles al’dente and then the slow cooker just essentially warms it all together. Crock-pot lasagna worked well too with uncooked noodles! Both recipes have cheese- I wonder if there is some fat ratio as the magic component that keeps those noodles pleasing. When I’m puttering around the house I do the prep work in the slow-cooker, adding those aromatics/savories like garlic and onions to the butter and letting them get nice and soft before adding the other ingredients. I’m signed up for your weight-loss healthier year challenge too so maybe my slow cooker ways will see improvement! Tonights vegetable beef soup turned out really good (yes browned beef first)!

  9. Joyce Wallace says:

    I have had problems with my last 2 slow cookers.They don’t cook slow. Even though the last one is programable,on keep warm things still boil. Can you recommend one that is more accurate ?

  10. I have found that the right spices are key. One of my roast recipes calls for packets of dry ranch dressing mix and dry Italian dressing mix. Gives great flavor!

  11. I have had the same unfortunate “luck” with my slow cooker in the past….coming home to a icky mess. In the past few months I have been prepping my slow cooker meals, putting them together in a gallon Ziploc and sticking them in the freezer. Each morning I pull the wanted meal out of the freezer and dump the whole thing into the pot….completely frozen. I program my cooker on Low for 8 hrs and when we come home that evening we have a wonderful, delish meal ready to go. No mushy veggies…all nicely cooked and very tasty!

    • Valorie says:

      Sheri, I was going to suggest the same thing… I never bother to thaw! 8hrs on low does the trick. I have also thought about Kevin’s idea too. Especially starting from frozen. That way, you won’t have as much bacteria risk from having the food sit out.

  12. Barbara Germany says:

    Part of my problem is that I’m gone every day at least ten hours. Is there a crock pot out there that has a switch to turn it on at a specific time? My programmable will shut it off, but even on the warm setting the food gets overcooked. Thanks for any advice!

    • I have that exact problem. If I am going to be gone that long I only make recipes like beef or dried beans recipes that can go that long. Or I make the recipe on the weekend and freeze or refrigerate for later in the week.

  13. Today’s slow cookers are anything but slow! Over the years, it seems, the cooking temps have risen to a point that all day cooking could result in a burnt mess.

    I am from the “original” Crock Pot age – meaning, my first Crock Pot was from the era of almost 40 years ago. They cooked low and slow. I still have my original 3 quart Crock Pot, and two other vintage ones. I also have a Hamilton Beach Set and Forget Programmable slow cooker.

    When I worked, I’d fill the cooker the night before and plunk it in the base in the morning. My miracle worker device was an old-fashioned lamp timer! As long as the ingredients are chilled, it is safe to delay cooking start by approximately 2 hours. So, if you leave at 7, you can delay your starting time to 9, and gauge the recipe cooking time from that point. You can also set the timer to shut off the slow cooker. Without a warm setting, it will usually stay warm at least at hour or so. Of course, turning it on to high when you get home helps to heat it further, if need be.

    So, with a lamp (appliance) timer, there is a huge window of cooking times available! Of course, you would need a basic slow cooker, one without the bells and whistles.

  14. I use my slow cooker all of the time and frozen pasta turned out amazing…tortellini OR gnocchi worked great in this soup! It was AMAZING!! https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10200525428817902&set=a.3639568447519.118127.1823542723&type=1&theater

  15. The whole “never open the lid” myth is just bad physics. Yes, you need to cook with the lid on (unless the recipe says otherwise). But taking off the lid to taste or stir for 30 seconds won’t drop the total heat of the system. You can prove this with a thermometer in the food or on the metal frame of the slow cooker. It will stay steady if you remove the lid for a while. That’s because the ceramic bowl and the food have the bulk of the heat. Only a little warm air escapes when you open the lid and it’s replaced by room-temp air. Food isn’t heated by the air below the lid. It’s heated by the massive bowl (which is heated by the electrical element). So don’t worry about lid-lifting and definitely don’t tweak cooking time because you fiddled with the lid a few times.

  16. I cooked blade steak in my slow cooker browning it first, adding onions slowly fried, potatoes, carrots, bay leaves and, meat gravy, and seasoning, soy sauce.
    It was cooked after 3 and a half hours on slow and although the veg tasted good and the Gravy the meat was tasteless and this has happened twice.
    I use good meat from the local butcher.

    The same recipe done in the oven is lovely, takes about approx 2 hours.
    I don’t put potatoes in!

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