The Benefits of Slow Cooker Meals

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With things opening up again, it seems schedules are filling up! This makes for more dinners out or eating dinner at home later than we’d like. Cue our trusty friend we often forget about, the slow cooker. I often use the slow cooker to feed our 4-H youth during summer camps since it allows me to provide education for the kids while lunch makes itself! I found this excellent article from Dori Owczarzak of Penn State Extension on the many benefits of using the slow cooker, as well as tips for easy clean-up and safe meals.

Benefits of Using a Slow Cooker

  • Having a meal at home in the slow cooker eliminates the temptation to order take-out which is often less nutritious and more expensive.
  • Slow cookers usually allow one-step preparation. Placing all the ingredients in the slow cooker saves preparation time and cuts down on cleanup.
  • Slow cookers are useful throughout the year. Coming in from a cold winter day, the aroma of hot soup is welcoming. Slow cookers also work well for summertime use; they do not heat the kitchen the way an oven might.
  • As a result of the long, low-temperature cooking, slow cookers help tenderize less-expensive cuts of meat.
  • A slow cooker brings out the flavor in foods. A wide variety of foods can be cooked in a slow cooker, including one pot meals, soups, stews and casseroles.
  • A slow cooker uses less electricity than an oven.

Know Your Slow Cooker

Most slow cookers have two or three settings. When using the low setting, food will cook in 6 to 10 hours. Using the high setting allows food to cook in 4 to 6 hours. If possible, turn the slow cooker on the high setting for the first hour of cooking time and then use the setting that fits your needs. One hour on high is about equal to two hours on low. One hour in the oven at 350 degrees F is equivalent to about 4 hours on high, or 8 hours on low. Similarly, 3 hours in the oven is equivalent to 4-6 hours on high and 8-16 hours on low.

Slow cookers vary in size from 1 to 7 quarts. Smaller slow cookers are good for dips or sauces and larger cookers are great for large cuts of meats and soups. A 3.5-4 quart size slow cooker is best if you’ll be cooking for four or fewer people. A 5-7 quart size or larger slow cooker is best if you’ll be cooking for five or more people or you want leftovers.

Slow Cooker Tips and Safety

If you are hesitant to have your slow cooker on and cooking while you are away throughout the day, consider cooking foods during alternate hours that you are home, even while you sleep. Cool down the foods when they are finished cooking, storing it in the refrigerator prior to reheating it in the stove or oven for a meal later.

Here are some basic tips and safety rules to follow when using a slow cooker:

  • For easy cleanup and care of your slow cooker, rub the inside of the stoneware with oil or spray it with nonstick cooking spray before using it. Slow cooker liners also ease cleanup.
  • Always thaw frozen meat and poultry in the refrigerator before cooking it in the slow cooker. To ensure complete cooking, do not put frozen meat in your slow cooker.
  • Fill the slow cooker no less than half full and no more than two-thirds full. Cooking too little or too much food in the slow cooker can affect cooking time, quality and the safety.
  • Because vegetables cook slower than meat and poultry, place the vegetables in the slow cooker first. Place the meat on top of the vegetables and top with liquid, such as broth, water or a sauce.
  • Add the liquid, such as broth, water or barbecue sauce, suggested in the recipe. Because liquids do not boil away in a slow cooker, in most cases, you can reduce liquids by one-third to one-half when converting a non-slow cooker recipe for slow cooker use.
  • If possible, set your slow cooker on high for the first hour, and then turn the heat setting to low to finish cooking.
  • Keep the lid in place during cooking. Removing the lid slows cooking time. Every time the lid is lifted, about 15-20 minutes of cooking time is lost.
  • Add grains such as pasta at the end of the cooking process or it will become mushy. You may want to cook pasta or another grain such as rice separately and add it just before serving.
  • Add milk, cheese and cream during the last hour to prevent curdling.
  • Very soft vegetables such as tomatoes, mushrooms, and zucchini may be added during the last 45 minutes of cooking time.