Avoid These 5 Common Slow Cooker Mistakes

updated Oct 15, 2019
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

From all-day soups and stews to no-prep drop dinners, meaty meals, and even desserts, there’s no denying that the slow cooker is one of most leaned on kitchen appliances. Sometimes it seems like there’s nothing it can’t do. And while that’s largely true, there are a few important rules to make sure you’re really getting the most out of it. That’s why we’re focusing on the five most common slow cooker mistakes and our best tips on how to avoid them.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

1. Don’t overfill or underfill the slow cooker.

Perhaps second to a Dutch oven and a just-hot-enough oven, slow cookers are the ultimate braising machines. They cook up perfect pot roasts and brisket so tender you could eat it with a spoon. The key to getting that kind of result out of the machine is filling it with the right amount of food and liquid.

Follow this tip: Well-designed recipes will never fill the machine more than three-quarters full. That’s enough food to allow for circulation of heat for thorough cooking but also for maintaining a steady temperature inside the pot so things braise or simmer instead of boil or burn.

2. Never start with frozen meat.

While you can start with frozen meat when using an Instant Pot or pressure cooker, the same doesn’t go for your slow cooker. Even the USDA feels strongly that frozen meat should never be cooked in the slow cooker. Because slow cookers operate at a lower temperature, food is likely to be in the temperature danger zone (temperature range between 40 and 140°F) for too long when starting with frozen meat, which increases the risk of harmful bacteria.

Follow this tip: As a rule of thumb, to ensure your food is cooked safely, it’s always best to start with meat that’s been fully thawed in the refrigerator.

(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

3. Don’t open the lid during cooking!

It’s mighty tempting to lift the lid to see what’s going on inside, or even to take a taste, but try to avoid this. Slow cookers work by trapping heat and cooking food over a long period of time. Every time you remove the lid, the slow cooker loses heat, and it takes a while to heat back up.

Follow this tip: Unless it’s noted in the recipe, there’s no need to remove the lid. And if you do open the lid, keep it as brief as possible and maybe tack on a minute or two of extra cooking time.

(Image credit: Christine Han)

4. Don’t add too much wine or liquor.

Unlike cooking on the stovetop or oven, where the heat is much higher and food often simmers without a lid, wine and liquor don’t boil down and reduce in a slow cooker. So instead of subtle wine undertones, you may end up with the harsh flavor of “raw” alcohol, which is far from appetizing.

Follow this tip: If a recipe calls for wine or liquor, just use the given amount. Otherwise, use wine or liquor to deglaze the pan after browning meat, then add it to the slow cooker.

(Image credit: Brie Passano)

5. Don’t add dairy products too soon.

Adding dairy products like milk, cheese, or sour cream too soon will cause them to curdle.

Follow this tip: Wait until the very end of cooking to add any dairy products to the slow cooker. And don’t forget a splash of something acidic or some fresh herbs too!

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What are your best tips for using a slow cooker?