In general, here are the basic guidelines we follow when using our slow cooker:
1. Clear Some Counter Space - It's safe to walk away and leave your slow cooker unattended while it does it's job, but a few precautions never hurt. The sides generate some moderate heat, so we position the cooker six inches or so away from any walls or other appliances so the heat can dissipate. The bottom is made to be safe on any counter, but you can set it on a cooling rack if you're concerned.
2. Prepare the Recipe - A good many slow-cooker recipes require only some basic prep work like cutting vegetables or trimming meat before everything gets dumped into the slow cooker. If you have time, you'll get better flavor in your final dish if you also brown the meat and sear the vegetables.
3. Put the Ingredients in the Slow Cooker - The slow cooker should be between halfway and three-quarters full for best cooking. If your recipe uses liquid, it should come about halfway up the ingredients (or less). Very little liquid will evaporate during cooking, so you generally don't need a lot of it!
4. Put the Lid On - The lid should fit snugly over the slow cooker with no gaps for steam to escape. Slow cookers depend on bringing your food up to a stable temperature (usually around 210°) and keeping it there. If the lid isn't snug, the cooker won't work as efficiently. If your lid has been dropped on the floor one too many times and has some gaps, wrap a sheet of aluminum foil over the top of the cooker to seal everything in.
5. Set the Cooking Time - The cooking temperature is the same on all settings (again, about 210°), so the setting you choose merely dictates how quickly the slow cooker gets to that temperature. The lower settings (usually 8 hour and 10 hour cooking times) heat food gently, whereas the higher settings (4 hour and 6 hour cooking times) will heat it more quickly. Modern slow cookers are designed to bring food to temperature within a safe window of time and hold it there.
6. Walk Away and Let It Cook! - This is the true luxury of the slow cooker: being able to walk away and not think about it for hours. You don't need to stir the contents or check it's progress - in fact, this will let heat escape and can disrupt the cooking process. Some recipes will have you add quick-cooking ingredients (like tender vegetables, pasta, or seafood) in the last hour of cooking, but other than that, nothing further is needed.
7. The End of Cooking - Like any other dish, slow cooker dishes need to be eaten, cooled, and stored within a safe time period, so make sure you're around when the cooking cycle ends. Most modern models will automatically switch over to a "warming" cycle at the end of cooking if you're not right there. This should keep food hot enough to prevent it from spoiling, but it can overcook your food if used for too long.
What other tips (or questions) do you have on using a slow cooker?
Related: How to Braise in a Slow Cooker
(Image: Faith Durand)