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Slow cooker newbie needs help!

I just got a slow cooker (this one: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B001...) for the very first time. I have a 10 month old baby and I work full time, and a slow cooker seems ideal--the idea of having dinner ready and waiting for me when I get home from work a couple of times a week sounds like heaven.

I used it for the first time yesterday, making choucroute garni. I used this recipe, adding a couple of spices and trading out the smoked pork chops for boneless country pork spareribs, as seen in another recipe: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/fo.... It says to cook on low for at least 6 and up to 8 hours. At 7 am I set it to low for 8 hours, and I left. I got home at 6 pm and it was set on warm, which is what it goes to after the set time finishes. I don't think there is any way to make it turn off once the time is done.

Everything was hopelessly overcooked. The potatoes and apples were okay, but the sauerkraut was tasteless and the meats were dry and flavorless. A lot of mustard made it go down, but it was still a huge disappointment.

Help me out, Chowhounds! Should I have put this on for only 6 hours? Or even less, since it was going to stay on warm for hours after? Does the "warm" setting on a slow cooker keep cooking? How do I take that into account?

My husband has a somewhat more flexible schedule than I do, and often works from home in the mornings. Would it be better if I had him turn it on so that the dish only cooked for the time listed in the recipe, rather than staying on warm for additional hours?

Are there any items that will turn out well after being in the slow cooker for 11 hours on some combination of cooking and warm?

I'd also love some advice for great slow cooker recipes, or what you love in the slow cooker. Vegetarian recipes, or ones with just a little meat for flavor, are especially welcome, as we don't eat a ton of meat. I'm thinking of trying beans tomorrow -- those sound like they'll do well in the slow cooker.

Finally, any ideas on how to use up my leftovers? I'm thinking ham pie for the pork ribs, as the additional filling will add flavor. The kielbasa may be a lost cause. Ideas for using overcooked sauerkraut?

Thank you! I really want to love my slow cooker, but I need to learn how.

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  1. First, the new slow cookers cook at a higher temperature so I think this makes things more difficult. You might use an old tried and true recipe with cooking times designed for older cookers. For us and a new slow cooker, if it says 6-8 hours on low, 4 seems to be more like it. I usually do a roast either pot roast (add liquid) or pork roast (no additional liquid). What seems to work best for me is fat in the meat. A pork butt for pulled pork works best of all and doesn't seem to over cook even at 6-8 hours.

    Since DH is home a lot (semi-retired). He turns to slow cooker on around 10am or noon depending on what we're cooking.

    Sorry, I haven't been doing any vegetable recipes because of the lengthy cook times. A dried bean, split pea or lentil soup might be a good way to use up the over-cooked items.

    1. I am also relatively new to slow cooking, and have a "newer" style that is hotter than many old recipes allow for. Some successes/tips:

      Polenta: If your husband could stir it occasionally for the first hour on high (maybe every 15 minutes), this can cook on low unattended all night/day. It makes a creamy style while it is warm, but will set up if you put it in a loaf pan and refrigerate it, if you prefer to slice it.

      Chicken stock: I save all my chicken bones and odd vegies like leek tops, carrot peels, etc. in the freezer. When I have a full pot, I add cold water, turn it on low, and simmer it for 24 hours. Strain and either use (for chicken soup) or freeze in 1-2 cup portions. It makes great, concentrated stock with no skimming or fussing.

      I don't usually do beans in the slow cooker (I use the pressure cooker because I don't plan far enough ahead), but there are many recipes out there. I think it was invented for "baked beans".

      To make braises work, you have to brown at least some of the ingredients, so I tend to just stick to using my dutch oven in a conventional oven. I only do these on the weekend and I have better success with my traditional recipes than any I have found in "slow cooker" recipes. But others swear by it.

      Have you looked at some of the threads here like What is in your slow cooker today? Many helpful hints there.

      1. Yeah... slow cookers overcook things. If you can figure out a way to cook things for 6 hours, it would be better. Unfortunately, what everybody wants to be able to do is set them up before leaving for work and have dinner 10 hours later. Wonderful thought but doesn't work. There are 2 or 3 things slow cookers are great for.... stock, pulled pork and beans that you want to cook a long time like boston baked beans.

        6 Replies
        1. re: Hank Hanover

          You may need to check you slow cooker's instructions to see if this will work for you: I have the older Crock Pot, but still find that some things overcook. I plugged the Pot into one of those vacation-lamp-timer thingies, set it to come on, say 10 a.m. (I turned the Pot to "low," then plugged it into the set timer). Worked fine for me.

          However, I' ve never had success with doing dried beans in the Crock Pot.

          1. re: pine time

            I'm not sure I like the idea of something sitting around at room temperature for 3-4 hours but I have thought of doing it.

            1. re: Hank Hanover

              Yeah, I understand. That's why (I neglected to write) I put the meat in at least semi-frozen.

          2. re: Hank Hanover

            Hank is dead on. I'm also a working mother, with a full work day plus commute. I use my slow cooker about every other week for dinner and regularly for stocks and applesauce. The dinners that come out spectacularly are beans, bean soups and anything with a whole pork butt or shoulder roast. It does a great job with short ribs, lamb and beef shanks, too, but only if you can make time to brown the meat before adding, so maybe hold off on those until you're beyond the baby years.

            I've had great luck with country-style spareribs on days that someone can get home to turn the cooker off ~4PM (it happens). If your husband can turn it on at 10 am, you're golden. But avoid chicken in the slow cooker unless someone has a really short day. Four hours on low is about as long as you'll want chicken to cook, and at that point, I don't find a slow cooker helpful.

            I can recommend 3 resources for reliably good slow cooker recipes:
            -Cook's Illustrated on-line
            -America's Test Kitchen Slow Cooker Revolution
            -The Indian Slow Cooker (lots of legume recipes)

            I'm also in the habit of prepping the next night's meal while my husband cleans the kitchen and my daughter does homework -- you might be a few years from this but you'll get there. The occasional quick browning of meat or sauteing of onion gets to be an easy habit, although one to be planned for, not an every night occurence.

            The key thing is to recognize the limitations of the slow cooker and enjoy what it does well. Mixed in with stir-fries, pasta, and leftovers-inspired frittatas, salads, and wraps, it offers some variety in the after-work menu options.

            Good luck!

            1. re: bernalgirl

              Just bought myself the Indian Slow Cooker for Christmas, but haven't tried anything yet, need to do a penzys run to get some basics. Anything you would highly recommend to start out with? Thanks

              1. re: bernalgirl

                also check out:


                the blogger made food in a crock pot for an entire year including holidays.

            2. unfortunately there is a huge difference in the cooking temperatures for various slow cookers. You need to figure out what your particular cooker is doing.

              I just watched an episode of America's Test Kitchen on Slow Cookers. The episode is still available on their web site if you want to watch it. They suggest testing your cooker by filling it with water and turning it to low and coming back in 6 hours and measuring the water temperature.

              They also suggest how to keep things like the meat from overcooking, by wrapping it in foil and placing it gently on top of everything else to cook. Interestingly enough, in a slow cooker, things like vegetables take longer to cook than meat, so you should always put the veggies at the bottom and the meat on top and although it might be counter-intuitive, don't stir it all together.

              Good Luck!

              1 Reply
              1. re: mwk

                Could you send the link for that ATK episode, please? Sounds really useful.

              2. We only use our slow cooker on the weekends because we're out of the house for so many hours during the week.

                I know there are recipes for just about everything using the slow cooker - I don't use it for recipes I think work just as well or better on the stove or in the oven... whole chickens, baking... I do use it for larger hunks of meat, such as pot roasts, soups, beans, or for chicken recipes where I can throw in a few frozen boneless skinless breasts for a few hours.

                1. It's actually the power that differs, not the temperature, as inexpensive slow cookers do not have temperature controls. "Low" and "high" will each bring the contents to boiling, but "low" will take longer. The temperature is limited by the boiling point of water. Even on low, the power must be sufficient to bring the temperature above the danger zone in a reasonable time. One problem with leaving things in too long, even on "warm," is that the water will evaporate, leaving a mess.

                  Slow cookers seem to be designed around an eight hour working day. An automatic "warm" setting allows for an hour or so after cooking, but three hours on "warm" is pushing it, I think.

                  Some things tend to dry out in slow cookers more than others. For example my experience is that chicken breasts always dry out, but thighs hold up pretty well. One of my regular slow cooker dishes is a stew made of chicken thighs (skinless, on the bone), chile peppers, and hominy.

                  Beans also do well, but even there you have to control for type of bean, presoaking time, and cooking time and power. They won't just turn out right — you need to experiment with your cooker and find the formula that works best. Otherwise, a recipe is only approximate. If you are at home and can test the beans by eating one, it doesn't matter, but if you just leave it for an arbitrary time, you will get inconsistent results.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: GH1618

                    i just did black eyed peas for the first time in the slow cooker - without soaking - about 8 hours cook time, they were terrific! previous recipes done with pre-soaked beans made a mushy mess that DH wouldn't eat.

                  2. I will cook things on weekends or even at night, rather than leave it on for the entire work day. Don't cook boneless skinless chicken in a slow cooker -- it dries out. Chicken thighs, pot roast, pulled pork, all do well. Legumes are great. But would I ever bake a cake or a risotto in one? No way.
                    "The Indian Slow Cooker" and "Not your Mother's Slow Cooker" both have some good recipes.

                    1. MIght want to check this old CH thread out.

                      VERY informative and It should clearly explain the wonkiness of new crockpots and how to check for you baseline temps on the one you bought.


                      Once you figure out your pot's cook temps, then you can figure out cooks times and then no more overcooked foods.



                      1. Life is full of priorities and all of us make choices. If you have the time and leisure you can restrict your slow-cooking to the more gourmet exercises. But when I think of a young mother juggling children, a job, commuting, shopping, housework, a marriage, and general management functions, I hope she won't be intimidated by posts suggesting that a slow-cooker is useless without endless braising and browning and timing and fussing. The over-tasked person is ahead of the game if she can get a palatable family dinner on the table at all. Please just go sous-vide something and don't be scaring people.

                          1. re: mwk

                            Very useful instructions on testing the temperature, but I didn't see the part about wrapping the meat in foil, etc. Was that a separate video? I'm definitely interested in keeping the meat from overcooking.

                            1. re: PhillyCook

                              Slow cookers overcook meat almost by definition. So you need to choose types that work with that, like pulled pork.

                              Think beans, chili, soups, stock, etc.

                            2. re: mwk

                              Ah ha! I found the complete episode here: http://www.americastestkitchen.com/vi...

                              Thanks so much for alerting me to this. I've ordered Slow Cooking Revolution now as well.

                              1. re: PhillyCook

                                To be frank CP's have had their day. I'm guessing only one in ten thousand sold is actually being used as I type this b/c they didn't work! The food was always either dry or overcooked and mushy and bland. The whole CP technology was always flawed when it came to making delicious dishes. If you want to know which cooking equipment has turned out to be 'duds' and which one's were genuinely effective look no further than your local thrift store. I could take a twenty dollar bill and go to the local thrift stores and buy four CPs and a fondue set and have change for a Big Mac today. And a book on macrame.

                            3. Look into 'SV' cooking. You can DIY a perfectly fine 'SV' setup with what you've got in your kitchen already. The one thing I would recommend is you purchase a one element induction stove with degree by degree settings. They are only about sixty bucks. You will never look back.

                              1. If you want to leave things on warm for hours and hours they have to be wet. This weekend I did beef stew and it turned out fine. I turned the cooker on to high for 4 hours at 6pm Saturday, at 10pm to warm. When I woke up around 6:30 Sunday, I checked it and all was well, gave things one stir and left it till i checked on it at noon. Stirred things again and did more errands. Got home at 4pm, turned it onto low and served hot stew to 6 people at 6pm that evening. If I had wanted my vegs to be crispy I would have added them either at noon on Sunday or when I turned it back to high. Turning back to high wasn't necessary but I knew one of my guests has a thing about piping hot food.

                                I have had sucess with spaghetti sauce, chili, corned beef, and pot roast with long 'warm' times as well. I made the spaghetti sauce wetter than I normally would, and on occasion have added more liquid if it looked like it was starting to dry out too much.

                                I know some people use the tinfoil trick. putting a layer of foil between the pot and the lid keeps in more moisture than just the lid. I've never really understood it, but I know my grandmother did the same thing with her dutch oven back in the day.

                                Oh, and i have a simple Rival Crockpot that I got about 2 years ago (replaced one that got ruined in an oven snafu - never tell someone its ok to put the crock in the oven without telling them to remove the crock from the cooker, long story.)

                                1. One tip that I found helpful is to put your crockpot dish on when you go to bed, and it will be done in the morning in less time than it would be on all day. Turn it off when you get up and allow to cool until you go to work, then put it in the fridge and reheat when you get home. It helps in some situations, especially if you want to skim the fat before eating.

                                  1. I love the convenience of using a slow cooker, but do not like chicken that is shredded because it has been cooking for over 8 hours. Here's what has worked for me when using chicken parts that are not frozen: I set the timer for 4 hours of low cooking in the morning and then let it stay in the crockpot on warm (NOT at room temperature) for the remainder of the day. An hour before I'm ready to serve, (i.e., when I get home from work), I check the chicken for doneness. If it isn't quite done to my liking, it gets another thirty minutes to an hour either on low or high. ( Almost always the chicken will be at the right texture for me.) It's also a great time to adjust the seasonings or thicken the sauce.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: honu2

                                      yeah, thats what i wanted to say

                                    2. "I got home at 6 pm and it was set on warm, which is what it goes to after the set time finishes. I don't think there is any way to make it turn off once the time is done."

                                      Couldn't you attach it to a plug-in timer, like the kind you'd use on a lamp? My friend used to use one with his rice cooker, to save on energy.

                                      7 Replies
                                      1. re: pdxgastro

                                        The reason they don't turn off automatically is for safety.

                                        1. re: pdxgastro

                                          No no no !! You don't want to turn it off!!!

                                          You need it to hold at over 140 for how long you hold it. If it goes below that you risk food poisoning

                                          1. re: C. Hamster

                                            140 is well above the threshold for food safety. Bacteria dying is a function of time AND temperature; you can go lower in temp if you are holding it for a longer period of time.

                                            How many hours do you think it takes a slow cooker crock, heating element, several pounds of meat and veggies, to go from 190/200, to 120?

                                            It is not a concern to use a timer that will shut it off.

                                            1. re: jaykayen

                                              "It is not a concern to use a timer that will shut it off."

                                              This advice contradicts the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service recommendation that hot food be held at 140 ºF or above until served, or cooled quickly to refrigeration temperature. It is reckless.

                                              1. re: GH1618

                                                Absolutely not. I passed ServSafe.

                                                Please read more about it here, and especially note the temperature vs time chart which visualizes USDA data, which I assume only goes to 135 because the data was on chicken http://www.seriouseats.com/2010/04/so...

                                                Chicken would have an off-putting texture cooked below 135 degrees. Data: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/OPPDE/rdad/F...

                                                The graph is also strictly the holding time needed to kill the bacteria. In a slow cooker, you are taking it WELL past 165 degrees, the temperature of instantaneous sterilization. Unless someone opens the lid on that slow cooker and dumps in live E Coli, no one will get sick. If they do get sick, they would have gotten sick regardless of using a timer or not.

                                          2. re: pdxgastro

                                            Rice cookers turned off like you say can cause a really, really unpleasant type of food poisoning.

                                            Rice bacteria is very common and quite horrifying and stressful

                                            1. re: C. Hamster

                                              There was a whole thread once about leaving rice out at room temperature. I'm not going to rehash it.

                                          3. Okay, I'm trying again. This time: beans. I started with this recipe for Slow Baked Beans with Kale http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/02/hea....

                                            I doubled the recipe and sauteed the onions, carrots, celery, and garlic last night. I soaked baby lima beans overnight. This morning I combined the drained beans, the onion mixture, the herbs, and the tomato paste and water (I used about half the water) in the slow cooker. DH will put it on for 5 hours on low before he leaves the house today. It will still be on warm for a few hours before I get home.

                                            We'll see! I'm hoping at worst for over cooked beans -- I can work with that. I don't think there's any chance of hard beans, at least, which was a complaint I saw others made about this recipe when made as directed. What I really want is for the flavor to be good, rich and delicious.

                                            For bread crumbs I plan to brown some panko in butter, then sprinkle them over each plate at serving.

                                            Wish me luck. I'll report back tomorrow.

                                            11 Replies
                                            1. re: PhillyCook

                                              Will be interested in your results. As I wrote above, my old C.P. doesnt do dry beans well at all.

                                              1. re: pine time

                                                What goes wrong when you try to do beans in your cooker? If I try beans a couple of times and they don't work out, mine may go back to the store. My goal to eat more bean-based dishes (healthy, cheap, and delicious -- but they take so long to cook!) is a good part of the reason I bought the thing.

                                              2. re: PhillyCook

                                                I hope it works out for you, but I think you are going to have a problem getting the beans to be cooked properly. By adding the tomato paste along with the soaked (but not cooked) beans, you will toughen them and you may find that some of them are soft and others are hard and mealy.

                                                Let us know how it turns out.

                                                1. re: mwk

                                                  Yep. Although tomaot paste is probably less acidic than tomatoes, acid prevents beans from softening no matter how they are cooked

                                                  1. re: mwk

                                                    Hi PhillyCook, I agree with mwk here: adding acidic ingredients (tomato sauce, vinegar, lemon juice) to beans can result in them never softening (ask me about the time I had to pick ALL the black beans out of a chili!). That recipe does surprise me with that early addition; I'm hoping yours turns out anyway, it sounds tasty.

                                                    Please do give your cooker a chance. My first cooker 20 yrs ago was a 4-qt, and was way too big for the two of us at that time; plus I didn't know how/what to cook in it. Now I have 6 (actually 8 if you count all in the 3-in-1) cookers of various sizes, and I use 1 or 2 pretty much daily.

                                                    Here's an example of how I might suggest using your large pot: on Sat. morning, toss a bag of naked beans in with enough water, cook 8-10 hours until done; portion and freeze in pot liquor. Sunday, lots of greens and chicken broth and seasonings, cook till done, portion and freeze. Grill or panfry some sausage on Sunday evening; portion and freeze. Repeat the next weekend with chicken thighs on Saturday, and different beans on Sunday. And so on; one Sat., caramelize a whole crock of onions; another day, pull a pork roast. If you have enough freezer space you can have a number of modular elements that can be combined to make 30-minute meals in a pot on the stove with seasonings and some fresh additives.

                                                    1. re: DuchessNukem

                                                      I've made this recipe before using the traditional method and the beans softened all right, so I'm hopeful. We'll see!

                                                      1. re: PhillyCook

                                                        When I got home the beans were still underdone -- all that acid I guess. But I put them on High for about another hour and a half, and they were pretty good. Not amazing, but good. I'm going to try the Mole Chicken Chili from Slow Cooker Revolution this weekend. I trust the recipes from America's Test Kitchen -- they may be a pain, but they are always delicious, at least in my experience. I think I need to cook from some really solid recipes until I get a feel for my new piece of equipment.

                                                        And now I have a *ton* of lima beans to eat up. Not the worst thing in the world. I'm thinking bruscetta, with a little sauteed garlic and rosemarry to perk it up, or soup. Any other suggestions?

                                                        1. re: PhillyCook

                                                          Puree them with some olive oil, garlic and lemon juice and make a spread for your bruscetta or with pita chips

                                                          1. re: PhillyCook

                                                            Ton of lima beans?? Here's a suggestion: It's a regional Indian Curry.
                                                            1 cup of cooked lima beans, 1 cup of coconut milk, 1/2 a cup or so of water to thin it out a little, 1/2 tsp turmeric powder, 1 tsp or so of your tolerence level of cayene pepper, 1/2 tsp paprika (for color), 2 tsp tamarind paste, 3 to 4 crushed Schezuan peppers (optional), salt to your taste.

                                                            Simmer the beans in the water to reheat beans. Add all the powders, tamarind paste & the schezuan peppers (if using), stir well, cook to a boil. Lower the heat, add coconut milk, simmer for 5 minutes. Turn heat off, drizzle a tsp of unflavored coconut oil, cover. Let it sit for atleast 30 minutes. Remove & discard the Schezuan peppers. Serve over steaming hot rice with pappads on the side. Enjoy!!
                                                            Thank me later :-)

                                                        2. re: DuchessNukem

                                                          I like this idea of "modular elements" very much. It makes a lot of sense to me, and is a bit the direction I've been moving anyway -- freezing leftovers, buying more frozen vegetables. I'm going to have to reorganize the freezer soon and start making some hard decisions about what goes in there.

                                                    2. I'm going to need to cook turkey for about 30 people next weekend -- our annual Thanksgiving-for-Valentine's-Day party. I've seen people say that they just dump a turkey breast in the slow cooker and it comes out juicy and lovely. Anyone had luck with this? Instructions?

                                                      I'm going to have to do at least two turkeys anyway, so one was going to get done a day in advance, carved, refrigerated, and reheated, so it wouldn't be a big deal to me to cook several pieces in advance. Thoughts on whether this is a good idea?

                                                      2 Replies
                                                      1. re: PhillyCook

                                                        In this thread, jw615 mentions her turkey breast prep, sounds tasty:

                                                        I'm overcautious a bit, I hesitate to try a new prep if perfect results are critical for guests. My husband is my lab rat. :)

                                                        1. re: PhillyCook

                                                          Salt at least overnight, preferably 3 days ahead of time.

                                                          Oven, low at 225. Start early, it takes hours. Bring it to 145/150. Done.

                                                        2. Rick Rogers has some very good slow cooker cookbooks out there but you really don't need a book. Search the internet for recipes and articles. You will learn plenty. Do a search right here at Chowhound for slow cooker tips. There are several.