The humble slow cooker may never be the showstopping star of the culinary appliance show, but for many busy cooks, it is the behind-the-scenes workhorse of the home kitchen: cooking and keeping meals warm for family members or roommates with wildly divergent schedules who work outside the home (or would just rather not cook at the end of a long day), but still want a hot, home-cooked meal.
The secret to successful slow cooking is using it for what it does best — braises, stews and soups — and not for cooking delicate foods like pasta, low-fat meats and seafood (with the exception of one smart shrimp recipe below). The recipes we’ve chosen here are just that sort, and they don’t require a ton of prep.
A tip: Many of these recipes have Instant Pot or stovetop versions. If they do, we’ve included links. For those that don’t, skim through the comments section of the recipes; many readers have come up with their own Instant Pot or stovetop variations that might serve as inspiration.
Sam Sifton was on the fence about slow cookers until he tried the original version of this recipe that’s made with a packet of Ranch dressing mix, a packet of au jus mix, a stick of butter and a handful of pepperoncini peppers. He came up with a crazy-good no-powder-packet version that works just as well with beef, pork, venison, and as recently confirmed by one Colorado reader, moose.
Recipe: Mississippi Roast
Everyone’s favorite slow cooker recipes are those that are truly “fix-it and forget it,” and Sarah DiGregorio’s chipotle-honey chicken tacos fit the bill. Combine boneless chicken thighs, honey, onion and garlic powders, cumin, salt and chipotle chiles and adobo sauce in the crock, and cook on low for three to five hours. Shred, then tuck into tortillas and top as you wish. Chipotle peppers can be very spicy, so scale back considerably if you or someone at the table has sensitive taste buds.
Here’s a clever way to have a hot breakfast ready the minute you wake up. Sarah DiGregorio makes use of the auto-warm setting, a feature that appears on most newer slow cookers. After the cook time finishes, the machine automatically switches to warm. Here, steel-cut oats are cooked on low for two hours, then held on warm for six more, yielding a perfectly cooked, yet textural and satisfying porridge that will keep you full until lunch.
As far as we’re concerned, any recipe that calls for a can of Dr Pepper deserves a second look. This slow cooker barbecue pulled pork, which was adapted from a three-ingredient recipe found on Pinterest and food blogs everywhere, is practically effortless and lends itself to improvisation. Sub in root beer, cola, birch beer, actual beer, coffee or even Mountain Dew for the Dr Pepper, but nothing with artificial sweeteners, please. Those can leave an unpleasant bitter aftertaste.
This savory Thai-inspired sweet-potato soup from Sarah DiGregorio is rich with curry paste, peanut butter and coconut milk, so it makes for a very stick-to-your-ribs vegan main if you are using a shrimp-free curry paste. If you can find them at your market, scatter the top with chile-lime flavored peanuts. If you can’t, standard roasted peanuts will do just as well. Serve this soup solo or over rice and alongside a cold, crisp salad.
“Who knew you could do ribs in a slow cooker, and they could be this succulent and luscious with a comical lack of effort?” wrote one reader. No liquid is needed to make these tender hot-honey ribs from Sarah DiGregorio because they cook in their own juices as they braise. A lively hot honey made with honey, red chiles, lime juice and peel, and apple cider vinegar doubles as a broiling glaze and serving sauce.
This white bean and chicken chili from Sarah DiGregorio is a nice break from the traditional brick-red beef version. Two types of chiles — canned and fresh — provide plenty of pep, and fresh or frozen corn adds crunch. Top it with cubed avocado, sour cream and shredded Cheddar or Monterey Jack, then serve it alongside Melissa Clark’s brown butter skillet cornbread for a meal you’ll want to make again and again.
Recipe: Slow Cooker White Chicken Chili
Shrimp isn’t a common slow cooker ingredient, but here, a briny, caper-laden tomato sauce (inspired by eggs in purgatory) simmers for several hours, then shrimp are dropped in just a few minutes before you’re ready to eat, so they are just cooked through, but not overdone. Serve it over pearl couscous or with a hunk of craggy bread to sop up the mouthwatering sauce.
Sarah DiGregorio’s riff on the classic Italian vegetable soup is an excellent way to use up vegetables that are on the verge and bread that has seen better days. This recipe calls for dried cannellini beans (no need to soak!), but you can also use two 15-ounce cans. Just be sure to cut back on the salt considerably, as canned beans are already salted.
Traditional red beans and rice calls for sausage and ham hock, but in this vegan recipe, Sarah DiGregorio uses smoked paprika, miso and soy to provide the same satisfying smoky-spicy flavor. They won’t come out quite as creamy as the richer pork version, so smash a few ladlefuls against the side of the pot to help thicken things up. Serve with rice, hot sauce and maybe a little Professor Longhair for background music.
This clever recipe from Sarah DiGregorio was developed with Thanksgiving in mind, but it’s perfect for any meal where stove and oven space are in high demand. The entire thing is done in the slow cooker: Toss peeled potatoes, melted butter, salt and black pepper into the crock, then cook on high until the potatoes are fork tender (about four hours). Add sour cream and a bit more butter, then mash until smooth and creamy.
What is fall without pot roast? Not worth living, we say. This classic red wine version from Sarah DiGregorio features fall-apart meat and tender, sweet vegetables. To avoid too-soft vegetables, she recommends adding the vegetables about 4 hours before dinner time, but if that doesn’t work for you, one reader suggested this tip she got from Cooks Illustrated magazine: “Make a packet out of aluminum foil. Put in the vegetables and a bit of the wine mixture and a bit of the herbs, salt and pepper. Seal up the foil packet and place it on top of the meat in the slow cooker. Cover and cook as normal. When done, just open the packet and mix in with the meat. Perfect veggies every time!”
“If one could eat the smell of Christmas, this is what it would taste like. Pure MAGIC,” wrote one reader. Well, that’s an endorsement. This sticky sweet treat, from Sarah DiGregorio, is redolent with cinnamon and cardamom, and is a pudding in the British sense of the word: a dense and moist steamed date cake that is perfectly suited to being made in the slow cooker. You can also make it in the oven (instructions are included in the recipe), but it will have the texture of a moist, sliceable quick bread.
One big complaint about slow cookers is that you can’t simmer soups and stews with the lid off to reduce and thicken. Sarah DiGregorio has a fix for that when it comes to creamy soups: Make a simple flour and butter roux in the microwave, then whisk it into the stock in the slow cooker before adding the other ingredients. Ta-da! A thick and creamy soup. This one is loaded with fresh mushrooms, carrots, herbs and wild rice, making it the perfect sweater weather vegetarian soup.
This soup is here to collect all of the Parmesan rinds hanging out in your freezer. (And if you’re not saving them, please start!) Here, the rind infuses the soup with a complex flavor that is really something special. Wheat berries are called for because they hold their shape and take a long time to become tender, but you can also use farro or spelt. Just keep in mind that they will cook faster, so they will end up a bit softer.