A crockpot (or slow cooker) is a must-have small appliance. Allowing you to slowly prepare a meal over the course of several hours, the device is remarkable at cooking classic recipes like chili, soup, several kinds of meat, and more. From KitchenAid and Hamilton Beach to the world-famous Crockpot brand, there are hundreds of models to choose from, each with its own suite of impressive features.

When most people think of slow cooker recipes, they think of easy instructions that allow you to toss ingredients in a pot and walk away for up to eight hours. While this is partly true, your food may not come out right if you don’t follow best practices when using your crockpot. If you use your slow cooker incorrectly, your meal may turn out unappetizing, you could start a fire in your home, or you could make someone sick.

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Check out our collection of slow cooker dos and don’ts, which will help make your slow cooking safer and your recipes better.

Do …

Cut up large meats and brown them beforehand

If you want a roast that’s so tender it falls apart, you probably won’t get it by tossing a large 5- or 10-pound hunk of meat into your slow cooker. If you cut your meat into smaller pieces, this will help ensure you get that tender, stringy texture you want with foods such as pot roast, pulled beef, or pulled pork. Cutting up your meat also helps it reach safe temperatures faster. A large hunk of meat has a greater risk of sitting in the danger zone.

A slow cooker can make your meat tender, but unless you sear it beforehand, your meat may turn out one dimensional. If you take a moment to sear your roast before you place it in your slow cooker, however, this will enhance its flavor and help give it a better texture.

Submerge your meats completely, if you want them to fall apart

Hamilton Beach slow cooker

Submerge your meat in liquid completely if you want to achieve the kind of texture that falls apart with ease. If you don’t want a lot of liquid in your end product, you can drain out the excess liquid when you’re finished cooking, or you can take out the meat and shred it with a fork. Either way, it should break apart easily.

Use broth instead of water

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If you use beef or chicken broth instead of water in your soups, stews, and roasts, your meat will be more flavorful than if you were to just use water. You can even use your crockpot to whip up your own batches of stock. To do so, combine leftover chicken (carcass, bones, etc.), your choice of veggies (carrots, onion, celery, etc.), and spices with a full crockpot of water. Set the cooker to its lowest setting and let it sit for eight to ten hours. Once the broth is done, you can even freeze it for later eating (or other crockpot recipes).

Clean your pot with a non-abrasive cleaner or vinegar

Cleaning a slow cooker can be a pain. Baked-on sauce often sticks to the sides, and it’s really difficult to remove. However, tempted as you may be to take a Brillo pad to your slow cooker, try to resist the temptation. A Brillo pad will certainly remove the caked-on gunk from your pot but there’s a chance it will also scratch the protective coating on the inside of the pot. For the toughest residue, go with some Bar Keeper’s Friend. These are products specifically designed for tackling difficult stains on delicate appliances.

To properly clean your crock, soak it in hot soap and water, and then use soap or vinegar and a sponge to remove any leftover residue.

Put food safety first

Follow all safety guidelines and thaw meats properly. When you’re slow-cooking foods, you have to be especially careful to avoid food poisoning. To kill bacteria, it’s a good idea to start with your slow cooker on the highest setting for an hour, then reduce it to the setting the recipe calls for. This will help your slow cooker reach a high enough temperature faster. Also, if you’re unsure whether your food is done, use a thermometer. Poultry needs to reach at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit, while beef, pork, veal, and lamb need to reach temperatures of at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit.

Don’t …

Add raw ground beef, raw eggs, raw seafood, or certain other raw meats

You may notice how slow cooker recipes using ground beef typically instruct you to brown the ground beef beforehand. This is because certain raw foods — such as raw eggs, raw shrimp, and raw ground beef — don’t agree with your slow cooker. They won’t cook properly, and you run the risk of some of these foods coming out undercooked or sitting at dangerous temperatures for prolonged periods of time.

You should also avoid adding uncooked rice or pasta to your slow cooker. Even if your slow cooker cooks them fully, they’re likely to come out mushy and unappetizing. Instead, use a rice cooker to perfect your rice dishes.

Add dairy at the beginning

Dairy products

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Many recipes call for dairy products, such as heavy cream, sour cream, or cream cheese. It’s best to add these ingredients at the end (during the last hour) because if you let them sit in your Crock-Pot for several hours, they may curdle or separate.

Start with frozen foods

While you can toss a frozen chicken in your Instant Pot, you don’t want to do the same with a slow cooker. According to the USDA, slow cookers start at too low of a temperature when cook cycles begin. This allows harmful bacteria to take root and remain in meats, fish, and other food items. When using your slow cooker, it’s best to make sure your meats are completely thawed out before you throw them in the pot.

Taste test during cooking

As hard as it may be, avoid opening the pot and tasting your creation halfway through cooking. When meats are covered in sauce or seasoned broth, it can be difficult to tell whether or not they’re fully cooked, so you may end up tasting undercooked meat. Also, opening the pot lets precious heat escape, and it takes time to restore that heat each time you open the lid. This can mess up the recipe you worked so hard on.

Use the pot for storage or as another type of cooking vessel

For food safety purposes, don’t store leftover foods in your crock, as they may not cool properly. You should also avoid reheating leftovers in your pot.

If you want to prepare a recipe like chili in advance and then heat it in your slow cooker at a later time, feel free to do so. That said, you should never use your pot insert as a storage receptacle. You should only use the pot inside your slow cooker to cook foods that it’s designed for. Avoid putting the vessel in the oven, on the stovetop, or in the refrigerator.

Use a slow cooker that’s cracked or damaged

If you use a slow cooker that’s cracked or damaged, you run the risk of ruining, drying out, or burning its contents at best, and at worst, seepage that comes into contact with the heating pad could spark an electrical fire.

Leave your slow cooker unattended near electrical outlets

Slow cookers typically heat your food to 209 degrees Fahrenheit or higher in a few hours (after three to four hours on high and after six to eight hours on low). Your pot may release steam or droplets of water from the top, especially after your food has been cooking for a decent amount of time. This water can damage surfaces (like countertops), get into electrical sockets, toasters, surge protectors, and other places that may pose a hazard. You’re probably not going to have your eye on the slow cooker the entire time either, so it’s wise to ensure there is a foots-worth of space between the pot and other electrical hardware or connections. Also, follow your manufacturer’s instructions regarding safety and handling procedures.

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