You think set it and forget it means no room for error? Think again.
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Slow cookers are famous for making your cooking practice easier. In the mode of the set-it-and-forget-it style of cooking, we all think of dumping a bunch of ingredients into the bowl and just walking away to return after a long day to a finished meal. But this ease of use doesn’t mean that there aren’t some mistakes to be made with your slow cooker. Here are the top 5 pitfalls to avoid with your slow cooker (plus, my two favorite models if you’re looking to buy one).

Mistake 1: Not browning ingredients

Whether it is searing pieces of meat or caramelizing onions, brown is flavor, and worth the extra step before putting the ingredients in your slow cooker. Get a good deep color on your proteins and aromatics for a much tastier end result.

Mistake 2: Not draining or defatting ingredients

While slow cooking is by definition a moist cooking environment, and fat helps make things delicious, you always want that moisture and fat content to be intentional—not watery or greasy. If you are working with ground meat products, brown them off in a skillet first and strain off the fat before adding to the cooker. If you are working with vegetables that tend to be watery—zucchini, mushrooms, or fresh tomatoes, for example—first salt them and put them in a colander to drain for half an hour before adding to the cooker. You’ll be amazed how much water will come off them in just that short time.

Mistake 3: Cooking too long

While "slow" is right there in the name of the cooker, you can still overcook things in your slow cooker, especially any foods that can really break down like noodles, rice, beans, or potatoes. Keep an eye on texture as you cook, and once everything has the texture you prefer, shift your cooker to the warm setting to keep it warm without overcooking.

Mistake 4: Cooking too short

While certain things can overcook in your slow cooker, certain cuts of meat like pot roast, short ribs, or pork shoulder all need a really long, slow, gentle cook to break down all the fat and collagen in the meat and become tender. These braised-style meats can take up to 12 hours to hit their ideal texture, but once they get there, they cannot overcook, so don’t be afraid to start them much earlier than you think you might need to. Once the meat breaks apart easily with a fork, turn the cooker to warm and hold nearly indefinitely.

Mistake 5: Using frozen or chilled ingredients right out of the freezer or fridge

One of the key dangers with slow cooking is getting to a safe temperature quicky enough to prevent food-borne illness. Fundamentally, you need to get your food up to a safe temperature of 140 degrees within two hours of beginning your cooking. To make sure you get to that safe zone in time, thaw all frozen ingredients thoroughly before adding to your cooker and take all ingredients out of the fridge for a minimum of an hour to come to room temp before starting your recipe.

From there, start all recipes on high heat for the first hour or so, to help get that heat jump started, even if you are going to eventually do a very long slow cook. If you are making a dish ahead and plan to reheat in the slow cooker, do not chill or freeze in the insert; transfer to a different dish so that the insert stays at room temperature. A cold insert can stay cold for a long time with the gentle heat of the cooker, so it counteracts the benefit of that initial high heat cook and increases the potential for food in the “danger zone” between 40-140 degrees.

My favorite slow cookers!

Don’t have a slow cooker? My favorite is the All Clad 6.5 Quart Programmable Slow Cooker. The size is big enough for large batches of soups, stews and chilis, or family-size pot roasts or large format meats. The glass lid lets you keep an eye on things, and you can program it for cooking times up to 20 hours. Have a smaller household? They have a smaller 4-quart version with all the same bells and whistles.

Buy them here:

All-Clad SD700450 Programmable Oval-Shaped Slow Cooker with Black Ceramic Insert and Glass Lid, 6.5-Quart, Silver ($179.95),

All-Clad SD710851 Slow Cooker with Black Ceramic Insert and Glass Lid, 4-Quart, Silver ($199.99),