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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:

                http://crockpot365.blogspot.com

                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.