​Slow Cooker 411: Your Biggest Questions Answered!

No doubt about it: When it comes to delivering convenient, homemade meals, slow cookers rock. Come through the door at 6pm and dinner is done—and you only have a vague memory of pushing a button many hours ago while you were still in your PJs.

But there’s a right way and a wrong way to use a slow cooker. And when you want the inside scoop, you go right to the top. So I asked the experts in the Hamilton Beach test kitchen to answer the most vexing questions people have when it comes to slow cookers:

Don’t make the common mistake of using chicken breasts and boneless skinless varieties in the slow cooker. According to the test kitchen pros, those tend to dry out fast. Cooking drumsticks or thighs on LOW is a much better bet. The exception: Using boneless, skinless breasts is fine if you’re cooking up a batch of chicken to shred for recipes.

Is it okay to lift the lid during cooking?

You can, but each peek inside will lengthen the cooking time a bit—in the same way that opening the oven door does.

How long can food stay on the “warm” function and still be safe to eat?

What do you do when your recipe says it takes only five hours but you’re at work for nine? Food is safe to eat if it’s kept at 135F or higher. That also happens to be the temperature of Hamilton Beach slow cookers’ WARM setting. The company’s Intellitime Slow Cookers are designed to accommodate extended cooking times, allowing you to set the number of hours you want to cook instead of recipe cooking time. (The heat cycle adjusts based on the hours programmed.) Also, keep in mind that you should never reheat food on the WARM setting. Make sure food is heated thoroughly first, and then it can be held on WARM.

Is there a secret to making pasta in the slow cooker that isn’t mushy?

Pasta is simply not something that can cook all day. In fact, it’s typically added in the last 30 minutes (or less) of cooking.

Browning meat isn’t necessary, but it provides a lovely caramelized appearance and adds extra flavor too. Just don’t brown meat ahead of time if prepping a recipe the day before and refrigerating it to cook later.

Can I start with frozen meat/poultry?

Though it sounds like an easy shortcut, it’s not recommended for food safety reasons.