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How to Use Your Slow Cooker Like a Champ

You probably know at least one person in your life who swears by her slow cooker. And really, what's not to love about layering in a few ingredients, hitting the "start" button, and going about your day only to...

You probably know at least one person in your life who swears by her slow cooker. And really, what's not to love about layering in a few ingredients, hitting the "start" button, and going about your day only to return home later to a delicious and ready-to-go meal?

But while using a slow cooker just might be one of the easiest ways for home cooks to save time and money, there are a few tips and tricks which can help you get even more out of these mighty machines. Let's count them down.

Slow cooker
Crockpots go from meatballs to so much more.

1. Size Does Matter

You probably don't give much thought to the size of your slow cooker when choosing recipes, but the truth is that using a crock pot that's too large can be just as problematic as one that's too small. Why? Because if your crockpot is either under- or overfilled, the ingredients may not cook properly.

The ideal filling point, according to most manufacturers? The two-thirds point, although check with your owner's manual as it can vary from machine to machine.

2. Don't Peek

Who hasn't had the temptation to lift the lid and check out how the evening's meal is coming along? Unfortunately, doing so can slow the cooking process by letting heat escape. One check about 30 minutes before your timer goes off can help you evaluate for doneness. Otherwise, keep the lid on and admire your handiwork later.

3. Pack in the Flavor

Most crock pot recipes are designed to minimize prep time so browning is often omitted. While that's fine, if you do happen to have a few extra minutes, browning your ingredients before putting them in the crock pot yields a richer flavor along with a more appetizing color of your meal.

Just don't forget to deglaze the saute pan afterward to be added to the crock pot mix to imbue your meal with even more richness and depth.

Another way to brighten up the flavors in a slow cooker dish? Finishing touches like fresh herbs, a spritz of citrus, grated Parmesan, or hot sauce.

4. Safety First

Bacteria thrives in the "Danger Zone" between 40° and 140°F. Avoid unintentionally creating a hazard by keeping all pre-prepped ingredients in the refrigerator and warming liquids to a simmer before adding, if you're cooking on the lowest setting.

And while it's tempting to throw a whole chicken or roast in your slow cooker, experts caution against this as larger pieces of meat may not adequately cook through.

5. Plan Ahead

While crockpots are one of a kitchen's best time-saving devices, planning ahead can help you further maximize your time. Prepping ingredients in advance is one simple way.

Another beloved technique of many working moms and dads everywhere? Crockpot freezer meals. Set aside an afternoon to prep your meals to the week (or month!), load into freezer bags, and your post-soccer game plans no longer need to include a drive-thru window.

Slow cooker
Ready-made meals for the week give new meaning to the word "easy."

6. Be Creative

While most people think of crockpots for pot roast and Sunday gravy, they're much more versatile than that. Did you know you can make cheesecake in a crockpot? Or an amazing assortment of slow cooker breakfasts?

And the words "slow cooker" and "gourmet" aren't mutually exclusive, either, thanks to plenty of unexpectedly sophisticated options, too.

7. Take Care

Your slow cooker can be your best friend in the kitchen for years to come, if you care for it properly. While crock pots are relatively maintenance-free, variations in temperature can cause ceramic inserts to crack. Avoid placing the insert on cold countertops or moving it directly from the fridge to the base. Instead, bring it to room temperature first.

If you've always wondered what all the slow cooker fuss was about, isn't it time you experienced it for yourself? Browse slow cookers, cookware, and so much more at Cilantro The Cooks Shop: the home gourmet's one-stop-shop for all things kitchen and cooking.