Your slow cooker is so much more than a stew maker! You can make flavourful and delicious hands-off meals in your slow cooker, with little to no effort. I'm here to teach you how to use your slow cooker to make meals the whole family will love. Slow cooker family meals are the best!
What is a slow cooker?
Also known as a crockpot, a slow cooker is a benchtop electrical appliance made up of a removable heatproof bowl inside an outer casing that houses a heating element.
It generally has a lid and two or more temperature settings.
When you cook on the lowest setting, food maintains a very low temperature and cooks gently and slowly. The heat generally comes from the sides, so you need to fill the pot between halfway and ¾ full to have good results.
It can also be used to keep food warm until serving. Because it cooks at such a low temperature, food won't overcook, dry up or get stuck to the sides of the cooking pot.
Why you need a slow cooker
- prep in the morning, have a delicious dinner ready at dinner time
- flavours improve during slow cooking, meaning meals are more delicious
- quick and easy recipes
- hands-off cooking
- easy to double up quantities so that you can put a meal in the freezer for another night
- perfect for busy families
- use cheaper cuts of meat
Choosing a slow cooker
When it comes to choosing a slow cooker it really depends on your:
- bench space
- style of cooking
- what appliances you already have
- how many people you need to feed
I have two:
- a Cuisinart 6.5 L slow cooker- it has a ceramic insert bowl. The advantages: it is just a slow cooker, I do all browning on the stove, and the ceramic bowl is massive
- an Instant Pot Duo Crisp- stainless steel bowl, and you can do all the browning in it. It can also be used as a pressure cooker, meaning you save bench/cupboard space.
There are key things to look for when purchasing a slow cooker:
- the size of the bowl (make sure you get one big enough to feed the family plus leftovers!). Do you want to cook large pieces of meat like a whole chicken or lamb shanks? If so consider both the shape and size of the bowl.
- a keep warm function (meaning you won't come home to a cold dinner)
- different temp modes (you need a low and a high as a minimum)
- a tight fitting lid (tempered glass lids are ideal so that you can watch the food cooking- without opening the lid)
- whether the inner bowl is dishwasher safe
- ease of removing the inner bowl from the cooker when hot- does it have cool touch handles?
Converting family favourites
When you first buy a slow cooker, you will probably make the beginner mistake of thinking everything can be cooked just the same as you have always done. But this isn't the case.
Often people complain that everything tastes the same, it's all brown muck, but that means they probably aren't using slow cooker specific recipes, or that they haven't gotten the hang of their slow cooker yet.
As a general rule, when cooking in the slow cooker, you need a third less liquid than if you were to cook the same meal on the stove.
Slow cooking meat
Tougher cuts of meat are perfect for slow cooking, as the process of long slow cooking breaks down the connective tissues and fibres, making tender, succulent meat.
Meat on the bone will help to give dishes more flavour.
- lamb shoulder- is cut from the forequarter of lamb. It can be fatty, but the excess fat is easy to remove. You can buy it presut into chops, or cubes, or cut it yourself.
- lamb shanks- ask the butcher to cut off the knob on the end to make them fit better in the slow cooker.
- chicken- thighs, thigh cutlets and drumsticks are all great cuts for use in the slow cooker. Bone in chicken is awesome when cooked low and slow.
- pork- becomes super tender when slow cooked. Trim of excess fat from pork belly, forequarter chops or shoulder, as otherwise it will render a lot during cooking and can make the cooking liquid quite fatty.
- beef- slow cooking needs stewing steak or other tougher meat cuts, because they will cook to tender. It is a waste of money to use prime cuts in a slow cooker dish.
Slow cooking vegetables
Veggies are your friend in slow cooker meals. They add flavour, and help to thicken up sauces during cooking.
- garlic and onion- are awesome when used in any slow cooker meal. Make sure they are cut small before adding to the slow cooker as they will then cook down and becme part of the sauce.
- root vegetables- root veggies such as carrots, sweet potatoes, potatoes and parsnips are great additions to clow cooker meals as they need a long cook time. Make sure you cut them into small, unifrom pieces so they can cook in the liquid and maintain their shape during cooking. if you must use whole or large veggies, consider par cooking before putting into the crockpot and be sure to put them at the bottom, fully submerged in sauce.
- fast cooking veggies- like broccoli, beans, peas, zucchini and snow peas can be added towards the end of cooking. This will stop them going brown and becoming mushy.
Freshening up slow cooker meals
Part of the issue with slow cooker meals is they don't taste "fresh". This is why at the end of most of my recipes, you'll be stirring through fresh herbs, or green veggies, to give that extra freshness.
- add extra herbs, like parsley, dill, coriander at the end of cooking
- stir through fresh rocket
- add frozen peas, or fresh green beans for the last 10 minutes
Another great way to do this is making protein filled meals that pair with fresh ingredients, to make a whole meal. For example shredded Mexican chicken, used in tacos tastes amazing!
Avoiding soggy slow cooker meals
The best way to avoid everything being soggy, or wet in the slow cooker is to use a slow cooker recipe. Another tip is to put a tea towel under the lid of the slow cooker for the last hour of cooking.
If your meal is still too wet here are some options:
- dissolve 1 teaspoon of cornflour in 1 tablespoon of water and stir through
- add red split lentils for the last ½ hour of cooking
- remove a cup full of liquid, put it in a sauce pan and bring to the boil, cooking until thickened, then add back to the pot
Slow Cooker Dinner Ideas
There are so many options for making a delicious slow cooker dinner! Make sure to check out the rest of the slow cooker recipes on my site.
You can even make dessert in the slow cooker, I make this apple and cinnamon slow cooker rice pudding and the kids love it.
Expert Tips and FAQs
Personally, I have a standalone slow cooker- the Cuisinart 6.5l and an Instant Pot Duo Crisp. The Instant Pot is super handy because it also allows you to pressure cook and can be used as an air fryer as well.
Keep warm function.
More than one temperature mode.
A size that suits your family.
Most of the recipes I have made in the slow cooker at some time or another I have just thrown in rather than browning but the browning makes a big difference to the flavour.
I wouldn't tell you to do it unless I thought it was necessary!
If your meal is too wet here are some options:
dissolve 1 teaspoon of cornflour in 1 tablespoon of water and stir through
add red split lentils for the last ½ hour of cooking
remove a cup full of liquid, put it in a sauce pan and bring to the boil, cooking until thickened, then add back to the pot
More slow cooker resources
Slow cooker recipes are kind of my thing, so I have written an ebook that is available for purchase here.