Kitchn’s Ultimate Guide to the Thanksgiving Slow Cooker

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

You already know the wonders your slow cooker can do for busy weeknight meals and make-ahead breakfasts, so it should come as no surprise that this appliance is just as invaluable come Thanksgiving. It can tackle everything from the main course to drinks, clearing room on the stovetop and keeping food warm until it’s time to eat. Here are all the best ways to use your slow cooker to make Thanksgiving dinner and what you need to know.

7 Tips for Using Your Slow Cooker at Thanksgiving

Before we dive into all of the delicious holiday recipes that can be made in this handy appliance, here are the most helpful tips for getting the most out of your slow cooker when preparing your holiday feast.

1. Thaw turkey completely before adding it to the slow cooker.

Unlike roasting, where you can get away with cooking a partially or fully frozen bird, the meat must be completely thawed before you put it in the slow cooker. Cooking frozen meat in the slow cooker simply is not safe. Because it’s such a low-temperature environment, frozen meat spends too much time in the temperature danger zone, which is where harmful bacteria are prone to grow.

2. Get a head start by preheating your slow cooker.

Preheat your slow cooker when adding hot ingredients, like sautéed vegetables. When hot ingredients are added to a cold slow cooker, everything has to heat back up again, which can tack on an extra 15 to 20 minutes of cooking time.

Here’s why: Why You Should Always Preheat Your Slow Cooker

3. Add only a tiny bit of alcohol.

Alcohol doesn’t reduce in the slow cooker the same way it does on the stovetop. So if you’re planning on pouring anything boozy into your slow cooker recipe, just a splash will do.

4. Use a baking dish in the slow cooker to scale down a recipe.

Slow cookers give you the best results when they’re two-thirds to three-quarters of the way full. So when scaling down big-batch recipes or making a small-yield recipe in a large slow cooker, add the ingredients to an oven-safe baking dish placed inside the slow cooker.

5. Make slow cooker recipes pop with fresh herbs or something acidic.

Brighten any slow cooker dish by adding a splash of acid (like lemon juice or apple cider vinegar) or fresh herbs at the end of cooking. When added too soon, these otherwise brightening ingredients lose their luster.

6. Keep big-batch drinks warm.

Planning to include a warm drink like spiced cider, mulled wine, hot toddies, or red wine hot chocolate as part of your holiday celebration? The simplest way to keep them warm is in the slow cooker, set to the warm setting.

7. Divide your slow cooker in half to heat two things at once.

This is such an ingenious slow cooker hack! Use heavy-duty foil and a large (or two small) slow cooker liner to divide your slow cooker in half, and you instantly have the ability to keep two foods (like dips, side dishes, soups, or drinks) warm at the same time.

Essential Thanksgiving Slow Cooker Recipes

Your slow cooker is capable of doing as little or as much as you need it to on Thanksgiving. Whether you simply use it as a vessel to keep the mulled cider or mashed potatoes warm or you rely on it to free up precious oven space, it can be put to work in a bunch of different ways.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

The Turkey (and Beyond)

Whether you’d prefer to skip roasting a whole bird entirely, or you want to add on to the main course, there’s no easier way than the slow cooker. It saves you space in the oven, and a six-quart slow cooker is just the right size for a ham or lean turkey breast. Just be sure to follow a few dos and don’ts for cooking turkey (and all meats) in the slow cooker.

  • How To Make Tender, Juicy Turkey Breast in the Slow Cooker: Your slow cooker is just the right size for a turkey breast, and the results are the most delicious you’ve ever tasted. Rubbed with a rich herb butter, this lean cut cooks up tender and juicy. A quick flash under the broiler is all it takes to crisp the skin.
  • Slow Cooker Smoky BBQ Turkey Breast: If your goal this Thanksgiving is to step away from the traditional turkey and sides for a simple meal with a bold, flavor-packed twist, you’re going to want to pull out your slow cooker and your favorite BBQ sauce.
  • How To Make Honey-Glazed Ham in the Slow Cooker: Whether you’re not a fan of turkey or you want to expand your Thanksgiving spread, honey-glazed ham is a great addition. And since most holiday hams come fully baked, all you have to do is load it into the slow cooker in the morning to have it ready in time for dinner.

The Side Dishes

Thanksgiving dinner usually means you’re cooking side dishes for a crowd, and this is where your slow cooker really excels. Not only is it an easy way to make this lineup of beloved sides, but it also frees up space on the stovetop and oven, and keeps everything warm until it’s time to eat.

  • How To Make Thanksgiving Stuffing in a Slow Cooker: When space on the stovetop is tight, turn to your slow cooker to get this Thanksgiving essential on the table. Made in the slow cooker, this classic onion and sage stuffing has plenty of those irresistible crisp, toasty edges with a center that’s soft and tender.
  • How To Make Mashed Potatoes in the Slow Cooker: When the slow cooker is involved, an ultra-comforting batch of mashed potatoes does not get any easier. It helps every step of the way, from simmering the potatoes until they’re tender to keeping the mash warm before dinner.
  • Slow Cooker Cranberry Sauce: While cranberry sauce isn’t tricky or too time-consuming to prepare, I love making it in the slow cooker because it takes one thing off my to-do list, and for that I am grateful. It’s a dump-and-go recipe that couldn’t be easier to make.
  • Slow Cooker Corn Pudding: Here is how to use your slow cooker to bring a side of corn to the table that everyone will love. This version of corn pudding is creamy, soft, and tender. It’s also a lighter option among a sea of heavier sides.
  • How To Make Creamed Corn in the Slow Cooker: There are two things I love about making this classic dish in the slow cooker for Thanksgiving. Not only does it free up a burner on the stovetop, but the longer cook time also means those sweet kernels have more time to simmer in their buttery bath.
  • Slow Cooker Maple-Glazed Squash: Sweet and savory glazed winter squash might be the new side your holiday table needs. You can use almost any kind of winter squash for this recipe, although a round squash like kabocha is easiest to work with, since you don’t have to remove the skin and the pieces fit nicely in the flat bottom of the cooker.
  • How To Cook Collard Greens in the Slow Cooker: Last year I learned for the first time just what a lovely addition smoky braised collard greens make to a Thanksgiving spread. Now, they’re a regular addition to my traditional menu. These sturdy greens benefit from the gentle low, slow cooking the slow cooker is apt at providing.

Appetizers and Drinks

Let the slow cooker manage the appetizer or a warm drink while you keep your attention focused on the main course.

  • Slow Cooker Spinach-Artichoke Dip: Warm spinach-artichoke dip is always a party favorite, and when the slow cooker is involved it’s a stir-and-heat affair that comes together in a snap.
  • Thanksgiving Chex Mix: For a festive spin on the classic party mix, this version has some warming spices, pumpkin seeds, and sweet cranberries.
  • Slow Cooker Spiked Mulled Cider: Warm spiced cider is right at home in any Thanksgiving spread. Make it family friendly or spike it with your choice of bourbon, brandy, or dark rum.