My Top 10 Tips for Slow Cooking in the Fast Lane

I call this slow cooking in the fast lane, because I use my slow cooker to cope with the fast pace of my life. I frequently find myself running from work to appointment, picking up kids, wondering when I am going to have time to cook. Well here is the answer.

My crockpot cooks for me, while I run. When dinner time comes, or when I finally have time to collapse, there is a hot, tasty meal waiting for me.

These 10 tips are the essentials for successful crock pot cooking.

1. Cooking Times and Temperatures: Cooking time on high is about 1/2 the time on low. Some recipes require a specific cooking temperature and time to be successful, so follow instructions closely until you have a feel for the recipe. For recipes that give both times, I will often start the recipe on High to get it started, then turn to low after about an hour. Start large chunks of meat such as a roast or whole chicken on high for about an hour when-ever possible. This gets the food up to a safe cooking temperature quickly. An extra large roast should be cut into half, to help get the temperature up quickly.

2. You can line the crockpot with an oven cooking bag before placing the food in. This makes clean up a snap. The cooking times are not affected, but the mess stays in the bag rather than on the pot. I usually find these bags on clearance after Thanksgiving or Christmas and stock up then.

3. Whenever possible, don’t lift the lid. Slow cooker temperatures are low and a lot of heat can be lost, possibly lowering the cooking temperature below the safe point. Use the lid provided with the cooker. A layer of aluminum foil will not suffice.

4. Fill the slow cooker between 1/2 to 2/3 full of food. Too full may not allow the food to heat up quickly enough. Likewise a cooker that is not full enough will not heat properly either. Use the correct size crockpot for the recipe.

5. Follow the recipe, adding ingredients in the order listed. Foods that take longer to cook usually go on the bottom. Also, for some recipes, vegetables or other foods on the bottom may act as a rack, keeping top foods out of the juices.

6. Food does not need to be swimming in liquid to be successful in the crockpot. Many people find crockpot roasts lacking in flavor because they have covered them in water to cook. For most roasts, 1 cup or less liquid is all that is needed. The meat will give up some of its own juices as it cooks.

7. Tenderness of the meat is directly related to the cooking time. A longer cooking time at low will yield a more tender roast, as long as it is cooked beyond done to the falling apart stage. The difference between a tough piece of meat and a tender one is about 1 hour. When you check your meat for doneness, if it isn’t tender, let it cook for another hour and check again.

8. Do not refrigerate food in the crockery, the heat retained in the crock will delay cooling and keep food at an unsafe temperature for too long. Transfer the food to storage containers and refrigerate as soon as possible after the meal.

9. Some recipes require browning or some amount of cooking before being put into the slow cooker. Completely read through the recipe so that you know what is required while planning the meal. Look for recipes that require little to no pre-cooking for those busy mornings. Many recipes that require browning can be successful without browning, but may loose a little flavor from the caramelization of the meat.

10. You can sometimes assemble the recipe the night before, putting the food and liner into the refrigerator. Next morning, place into the cooker and plug-n-go. In this situation, you should never use recipes that require pre-cooking. Keep all ingredients cold until you are ready to plug in the pot. This works well for roasts, etc. I will often place the roast and its flavorings into the pot the night before. In the morning, I plug it in and add the liquid (although I could probably get away with adding the liquid the night before as well). This method is particularly handy when I am relying on a husband or son to start the cooking.