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In our home, we adore our crockpots. We’ve got four. Yes, four! There’s always one on the countertop ready to go. The soups and stews are always a big hit, and a really good crockpot recipe book is worth its weight in gold. There’s nothing better than ending a cool winter day with a bowl of something cooked in a crockpot, or coming home from a long day to the amazing, comforting scents of a home-cooked meal.
Lately, we’ve branched out and used our crockpot for more than soup. In doing so, we’ve learned some tricks and tips to take your crockpot meals to the next level.
How to Choose and Care for Your Crockpot
What size should you use? What about the digital ones with all the options? How do you make your crockpot last? These are important questions and we’ll look at each one.
Select the correct size
Slow cookers come in a variety of sizes, usually 1 quart to 8 1/2 quarts. Follow the recipe’s recommended size. This is important because the correct size allows your meal to cook properly, and you won’t have an overflow of mess to clean. Most recipes work best in a 5 to 6-quart slow cooker.
Choose digital options to increase ease of use
Check out the new crockpots! There are so many new options available now. If you need your crockpot to do its cooking while you’re out of the house, look into the programmable models. On these models, when the food is finished cooking, the slow cooker adjusts its temperature. This keeps your food warm, but at a safe temperature until you are ready to dig in.
The latest crockpot in my house has a rubber-lined hole in the top of the lid for a meat thermometer. This is a pretty brilliant combination of the crockpot with an indispensable thermometer. The thermometer fits snugly into the lid so none of the heat escapes out. Perfect for larger cuts of meat.
Give your crockpot some TLC
Any sudden change in temperature can cause the ceramic insert to crack. Place a dishcloth in between the insert and cool countertop if needed. Let the insert come to room temperature before you expose it to a hot or cold element. Plastic liners specifically designed for crockpots are available. I see them used a lot at church potlucks. They make clean-up easy!
Crockpot Food Safety
Slow cookers are simple to use, but we must still understand their limits.
Avoid the food danger zone
Bacteria love to become uninvited guests at temperatures between 40° and 140°F. The best way to avoid the danger zone is to put your prepped food in separate containers in the refrigerator ahead of time. Do not cook large chunks of frozen meat in the crockpot. There’s no guarantee that large pieces of meat will cook all the way through. If you need to double-check your food’s temperature, a good quality digital thermometer provides the information you need without having to lift the lid. It also works great when keeping track of food in the oven, too.
Thaw food before cooking
Putting frozen food in the slow cooker increases your chances of bacteria growth. Remember that danger zone of 40º to 140ºF mentioned above? Prevent bacteria by avoiding all frozen foods. Fully thaw all meats and vegetables before adding them to the cooker. We’ve thawed meat in the fridge or used our microwave to thaw vegetables. The only exception to this rule is the prepackaged crockpot meals sold in the frozen food section in the grocery store. For those, just follow the directions on the back of the package.
Don’t over-fill the slow cooker
Do not put too much in your crockpot. Most manufacturers recommend that you fill your slow cooker no more than two-thirds full. Check what the manufacture recommends for your specific brand and size pot. By following the recommendations, you avoid possible food safety hazards and your meal will be finished on time. Don’t be afraid to cook whole chickens and big meaty roasts. These can be very healthy meals. Just check that the lid has a good snug fit.
Throw away forgotten food
I know, it hurts. But if you rush out the door in the morning with food in an unplugged crockpot, you must toss it since it sat at room temperature all day long. Forgetting to plug or turn the crockpot to low or high means your food could have spent the day in that danger zone. Even uncooked food left on the warm setting needs to go. The warm setting isn’t warm enough to prevent bacteria. It’s hard to throw away food, but it’s easier than being sick. Again, you need a good food/meat thermometer!
How to Get the Most From Your Crockpot Meals
Here are some tips to maximize your crockpot cooking.
Preheat your crockpot
Your crockpot is basically a little oven, so give it about 20 minutes to warm up all the way before you start adding your food. Just like you pre-heat your oven, pre-heat while prepping your food. It also cuts down on cooking time.
Every time you open the lid, heat escapes and the cooking time lengthens by 15 – 20 minutes. The best time to check on your dish is about 45 minutes before it should be done. You’ll be able to tell how much of your cooking time needs to be adjusted.
Choose the right cut of meat for the temperature
For low heat, choose pork shoulders, chuck roasts, short ribs, chicken thighs and drumsticks, and any other tough or fatty meat. They tend to become tender and moist. Avoid cooking chicken breasts, pork loin, and other leaner cuts of meat on low. They often get dried out. Also, trim any excess fat before cooking. You don’t want greasy liquid floating on top of your dish.
Layer your food
To get all of your ingredients cooked at the right temperature and finished at the same time, you must layer. Any root vegetables, like potatoes and carrots, need to be placed at the bottom of the pot. These foods take longer to cook and need to be where most of the heat is. Place the meat on top of the root vegetables. If you are going to cut the meat, cut it into uniform pieces for even cooking. Place any other smaller or delicate foods, such as mushrooms, last. They require a shorter cooking time.
Use freeze-dried foods for a super-fast meal
Freeze-dried ingredients make using the crockpot a cinch because there’s no washing, slicing, or chopping. They’ll also cook much more quickly. We recommend freeze-dried foods from Thrive Life.
Get the best results from pasta and rice
These can both be tricky. When overcooked, they become an inedible blob in your dish. It’s best to add rice during the last 30 minutes of cooking. Cooking the pasta separately and adding it to your food right before serving is a safer bet. My friend makes the ziti dish shared later in this article and swears by its ease and taste. I feel the ziti is a heavier pasta and that’s why it works in this recipe without being cooked on the stovetop.
Salvage overcooked vegetables
If you end up with mushy veggies, scoop them out and puree them. Reduce the puree in a saucepan and make a glaze to pour over the meat or add it to your sauce.
To prevent mushy tomatoes, try sun-dried tomatoes or use whole canned tomatoes and cut them into large pieces. Diced or crushed tomatoes might disintegrate into your dish.
Add dairy last
Stir in milk products, like yogurt, milk, and sour cream during the last 15 minutes of cooking. If added earlier, they tend to break down and you won’t have the desired creamy consistency.
How to Enhance the Flavor of Crockpot Meals
How about some tips for next-level meals? Yes, please!
Brown meat and use deglazed liquid
To maximize the flavor of your meal, brown your meat in a skillet before adding it to the crockpot. Then deglaze the pan with wine or broth. Deglazing gets all of the caramelized pieces of meat from the bottom of the pan. Add the liquid with those yummy bits of meat to your crockpot and you’ll have a richer flavor in your meal.
Add gingerbread. Yes, gingerbread!
Toss in some crumbled gingerbread or crushed ginger snap cookies! Ginger adds a depth of flavor and texture to the liquid. Use them in beef-type dishes like stew and pot roast.
Use a high-quality wine
Look for wines that are dry and have a high alcohol content to add a more complex flavor to your dish. The alcohol doesn’t evaporate out much because the cooker lid is sealed. So remember that a little bit goes a long way.
Buy the best vanilla quality you can afford
I know. Vanilla can get really expensive. But like the wine, use vanilla of the highest quality you can afford. The alcohol in the vanilla doesn’t burn off as fast and leaves a more intense flavor. Use the same amount your recipe recommends.
Wait a day
Some foods are better on the second day. Many soups increase in flavor when they’ve had time to sit. About 24 hours should do it. If your dish has any sinewy tissue, like brisket, it will also have an improved flavor after sitting in the refrigerator for a day.
Other Yummy Dishes For Your Crockpot
The sealed lid allows moisture to stay in the most delicious cakes, breads, and brownies. Even cheesecake! Consider using your slow cooker to make party mixes and roast nuts. Breakfast in a crockpot is an easy way to start the morning. Steel-cut oatmeal or a breakfast casserole can be easily prepared the night before. A crockpot also does a great job with oat groats.
If you are short on fresh fruit, experiment with dehydrated or freeze-dried fruit in your recipe. Combine freeze-dried raspberries with either fresh or freeze-dried apple slices to give an apple cobbler a bit more flavor. Keep in mind that when you use either dehydrated or freeze-dried fruit in the crockpot, you’ll need to add a little more water for rehydration.
Crockpot Baked Ziti (Serves 8)
- 1 lb. box of ziti noodles, uncooked
- 15-ounce container low-fat ricotta cheese
- 1 egg
- 3/4 cup Parmesan cheese, fresh is preferred over the green can kind
- 1½ cup low-fat mozzarella cheese, grated
- ½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
- ¼ teaspoon pepper
- 2 24-ounce jars of marinara sauce, any flavor
- 7-8 fresh, thinly sliced basil leaves or ½ teaspoon dried basil
- Use cooking spray to spray the inside of the crockpot. Rinse the noodles in a colander, and set them aside.
- In a small bowl, combine the ricotta, egg whites, 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, 1/2 cup mozzarella, salt, and pepper. Stir until this is a smooth mixture.
- In the crockpot, layer half of the noodles, about 2 1/2 cups. Pour 2 cups of marinara sauce over the noodles. Use a spoon to smooth the sauce over the noodles so they’re all covered and create an even layer.
- Drop small spoonfuls of the ricotta mix over the sauce/pasta. Use the back of a spoon or a spatula to carefully spread the cheese mixture over the noodles.
- Repeat the 3 layers: noodles, marinara, and cheese. Over the top of everything, pour the remaining marinara sauce.
- Cook on low heat for 4-6 hours. By this time, the ziti will be finished. Sprinkle the remaining cheeses over the top, cover with the crockpot lid, and allow about 10 minutes for the cheese to melt.
- Garnish with the fresh basil and serve.
Notes: For a heartier dish, add a layer of cooked ground beef, sausage, or vegetables, such as mushroom and spinach after the sauce layer and before the cheese layer. This recipe freezes well. The Source of the original recipe is here.
Cooking With Kids / Cooking For Two
It’s never too early to teach kids to cook and knowing how to cook with a slow cooker is a great skill for them to acquire. This crockpot cookbook for kids looks like a good introduction to the easy-to-use appliance.
If it’s only the two of you, perhaps cooking in a crockpot seems like overkill. But all you need is a smaller version suited to the smaller-sized recipe, plus a cookbook with recipes for two. The slow cooker isn’t just for big families!
What crockpot tips would you add to these?
Erin Foster is mom to 5 kids. West Georgia is home where you can find her reading, camping, enjoying a play and on any adventure she can do with her family. Along with a B.A. degree in Emergency and Disaster Management, she has an EKG technician and nursing assistant certificate.