For decades busy moms have turned to their beloved slow cookers for a dependable, easy way to make hearty meals for their families. These handy-dandy kitchen tools are a no-brainer when it comes to one-pot wonders, but that’s not all they’re good for.

You can use a crock pot for sweets, sides, hot beverages and more. Big batch leftovers typically freeze beautifully or you can get a smaller slow cookers for hands off cooking for two. What’s really great is that you get mouthwateringly tender results from cheaper (often tougher) meats.

Here’s a list of 15 ways you can get the most out of your slow cooker for weeknight dinners and beyond, all year long.

  1. Know your cooker. Some run warmer or cooler in temp, so be sure to adjust cook time accordingly. If there’s a hot spot in your crock pot, just rotate the insert halfway through to avoid burning.
  2. For super easy cleanup, line your slow cooker with an oven bag and cook as usual.
  3. Select the right meat cuts. Brisket, pork or lamb shoulder, short ribs, lamb shanks, chuck roasts, or chicken thighs work best. Leaner cuts like chicken breasts and pork tenderloin dry out too fast.
  4. Trim fat and remove chicken skin to avoid too much grease.
  5. Don’t put frozen foods directly into the cooker. They won’t heat to temperature fast enough and could enable bacteria growth.
  6. Besides ground meat, you don’t need to brown your meat before you put it in your cooker, but you should. Same goes for onions. You’ll get a richer, more flavorful meal that way!
  7. Layer your ingredients in the correct order with veggies on the bottom and meat on top of that. Be sure your veggies are cut uniformly so they cook evenly. Fill the crock pot 1/2 to 2/3 full for best results – less could burn, more won’t cook evenly.
  8. Read your recipes and use only the amount of liquid they require — which may be less than you think they need. Thing is, any liquid you put in won’t evaporate and more liquid will be created as you cook.
  9. Speed morning prep time by preparing all the ingredients the night before. Go ahead and layer them in the insert and store them in the fridge overnight. In the morning, bring the ingredients to room temp or heat them up a little in the microwave before dropping them in the crock pot. Note, this allows you to skip any of those “start on high and reduce to low” steps.
  10. When schedules allow, stick with slow and low. Most dishes come out best on the low setting – 1 hr on high is equivalent to 2 hrs on low if you need to convert.
  11. Keep a lid on it! Every time you take a peek inside, it takes your ingredients at least 20 minutes to heat back up to cooking temp. Take advantage of the glass top – just spin it a little to get rid of the condensation for a clearer view.
  12. Soft veggies like mushrooms, zucchini and tomatoes, quick-cooking seafood, pasta or rice, work better when added towards the end of the cooking process.
  13. Get saucy! Simply remove the lid (and meat, if it’s ready) and increase heat high to reduce liquid. Season to taste and brighten flavor using fresh herbs plus a bit of lemon or lime juice, wine or vinegar.
  14. For your earlier slow cooker experiments, try out with braises, stews, soups and roasts. The general way it goes is: cook for 8 hours on low, reduce the liquid by 1/3 then do some spice control. Your hot ones will get hotter, if you’re using dried they’ll loose some of their oomph. Try adding all spices toward the end for better results.
  15. Party it up! You can use your crock pot to serve anything from soup to chili to spiced cider. Just set the cooker on the buffet and keep the heat on low. Make sure to warm ingredients up before adding them to the cooker to stay food safe.

How about that? Now you’ve got lots of reasons to pull your cooker down from the cabinet and put it to good use. Have a blast and be sure to let me know how it goes in the comments below!

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