Here's the thing about peeking inside: Every time you take the top off to sniff or stir, the temperature inside the pot drops 10 to 15 degrees, and you extend the overall cooking time by 30 minutes
. If you can wait until you're within an hour, or so, of the finish time, though, you're probably not going to do any damage by opening the lid. Stephanie O'Dea
, who has written four slow-cooker cookbooks, says that if, for instance, a recipe suggests a six-hour cooking time, you're likely okay checking the dish after five hours; since, by that point, the majority of the cooking is done, and the flavors are just deepening and melding.
We've seen this advice in countless slow-cooker recipes, and O'Dea explains why: The cooking time is partially determined by how much food is in the pot. A standard slow cooker holds six quarts, so if you're only making enough food for two people, the ingredients will probably only fill one-third of the pot—and they'll cook a lot faster than they would if you had more in there. So, it's not a problem to turn the appliance on with a small amount of food in it; just adjust the cooking time. Or, O'Dea suggests, put the ingredients in a smaller, one- to two-quart oven-safe casserole dish (such as CorningWare
) and set that inside the slow cooker.
The idea that you can throw a bunch of raw ingredients into the pot, clamp the lid on, set it and, yes, forget it (at least for six hours) is awfully appealing—which is why we sometimes shy away from recipes that tell us to brown the pot roast or chicken thighs on the stove first. Can you get away with skipping this step? Yes, says O'Dea, especially if you're just trying to get dinner on the table on a Wednesday night. In side-by-side comparisons, she can tell the difference between meat that was browned first and meat that wasn't (the browned meat has a deeper flavor and a crisper exterior). But for everyday cooking, it really isn't a deal breaker.
Here's one instance where a tiny bit of fussiness actually does pay off. O'Dea says you should put harder root vegetables (such as potatoes or parsnips), as well as tougher cuts of meat, in first. That way, they'll be closer to the heating element, which they need to be to fully cook. If you've got broccoli, asparagus or other more delicate ingredients, lay those on top. Then, pour the liquid over and around the ingredients.
We were thrilled to learn that aside from the usual pot roast
and pulled pork
, Crock Pots can also turn out perfectly gooey brownies
and even pizza
. There are limits to the craziness, though. O'Dea once tried making hard-boiled eggs in the cooker and wound up with stinky, greenish orbs that had to be triple-bagged before going into the trash. Bacon-wrapped scallops were another mistake. But, in general, if you can make it in the oven, you can make it in a slow cooker.