If you shop for a slow cooker today, you’ll see a lot of fancy models that have several heat settings, timers and even built-in meat thermometers. Those are all great extras, but for most recipes you just need the two heat settings that come on every model—low and high. (Many recipes give a choice of those temperatures, so you can adapt the timing to your schedule. And some recipes switch temperatures part way through cooking, so read carefully.) You can confidently leave the house while the cooker is on, but unless your cooker has a timer that automatically switches to a “keep warm” mode, you need to be home to turn it off. Also keep in mind that rates of cooking vary between slow-cooker brands, models or even model years; that’s why most recipes give a time range.
It’s pretty easy to improvise a slow-cooker meal, but here are a few rules of thumb: For safety, always thaw meat in the fridge before cooking. Cut veggies the same size for even cooking. Put firmer root vegetables toward the bottom and edges of the crock (closer to heating elements). Season generously, and always taste before serving; you may want to add fresh herbs, lemon juice or cracked black pepper to wake up the flavor.
Disposable slow-cooker liners are the ultimate in easy cleanup. They go right in the crock and fold over the edges. After dinner, just remove the liner and toss it. At most, your slow cooker will just need a quick rinse before storing.
Slow cookers come in a variety of sizes, from petite hot pots to hulking 8-quart models. For most dinner recipes, a 5-quart slow cooker should work fine. If you plan to use a different size slow cooker than what’s indicated in a recipe, remember that food should reach halfway to two-thirds up the side of the crock for proper cooking.
Be patient. Every time you lift the lid to check the food inside, you let precious heat out and add 20 to 30 minutes to the meal’s cooking time.
If you’ve ever shuffled along a potluck table, you know the juggling act of holding a slow-cooker lid while dishing out dinner. Hello, Lid Pocket. It hangs on the cooker to hold the lid and catch condensation. When not in use, the pocket stows inside the crock. $9.99. (888) 667-3988;
If you often tote your cooker to parties or tailgates, consider buying Crock-Pot’s insulated travel bag. It fits most 4- to 7-quart models, and straps inside help keep the lid in place. $15.
Solve the size dilemma with Hamilton Beach’s nifty 3-in-1 model. It comes with 2-, 4- and 6-quart crocks that all fit the same cooker and nest for storage. $70. (800) 851-8900;