It's useful for so much more than soup.

Whether it is getting some seriously easy soups on my winter menu, reheating chili for a fall football gathering, or even helping manage a buffet for a crowd, I am not shy about how much I love my slow cooker. But it’s useful for more than just composed dishes. Here are some of my favorite tips and tricks of how to use slow cookers in some less obvious ways.

Melt Chocolate

Melting chocolate can be a pain. You either have to set up a double boiler, pop it in and out of a microwave in ten second increments, or take the risk on a low burner. Chocolate melts at such low temperatures it is super easy to have it burn on you, which also means you have to watch it like a hawk. Enter your slow cooker. If I have a lot of chocolate to melt, I toss it right into the pot, but for smaller amounts, I use a canning jar.

If you are melting right in the pot, just dump your chocolate in and turn the cooker on low, and lay a clean lint-free tea towel over the top. The lid will get condensation, and any water that gets into your chocolate can make it seize. Check it every 30 minutes and give it a stir until it is melted. For smaller amounts, put the chocolate into a canning jar and fill the cooker about two inches high with water and turn on low. Check the chocolate every 30 minutes.

Rendering Fat

Anyone who has made homemade chicharrons, or cooked potatoes in goose or duck fat, or even wanted to make traditional matzo balls with schmaltz instead of vegetable oil knows the power of animal fat. But getting that fat into the proper shape for cooking with isn’t necessarily intuitive. A few years ago, a farmer pal was raising ducks, and I jokingly said he should save me some skin and fat from the prepping. Two weeks later I got a gift of about ten pounds of raw duck skin. The idea of trying to manage that much fat rendering on my stovetop was daunting to say the least. And then it occurred to me that I could use my slow cooker. After all, what you need for good rendering is low and slow and steady heat.

I cut the skin up into strips with my kitchen shears, plopped the mess into my largest slow cooker and set the temp for 8 hours on low. Then I went to bed. In the morning, I had a tub full of clear duck fat that I could strain into containers and freeze. You can do this with any sort of fat you want to be able to cook with. Often your butcher has a lot of chicken skin leftover, all those skinless breasts and thighs to prepare, and mine hands them off to me for free if I am purchasing something else.

Keep Sauces and Gravies Warm Without Having Them Separate

Having a brunch and want to serve hollandaise with your eggs or a dinner with a delicate red wine reduction sauce? Your slow cooker to the rescue. Put your finished sauces into canning jars or other heat-proof containers and fill your slow cooker about halfway up the sides of the container with warm water. Don’t add cold water or your sauces can seize or separate. Hold the sauces in the covered cooker on low until you need them, they will usually stay stable for up to two hours. Be sure to have your sauces covered with foil or plastic wrap so that no condensation gets in.

Reheat Leftovers

Leftovers like mashed potatoes, rare beef, casseroles and the like can easily get overcooked or rubbery when trying to reheat in microwaves or toaster ovens. But the gentle heat of your slow cooker is just the ticket for getting them back up to heat for a second go-around without risk of overcooking. Place your leftovers in a bowl or baking dish that fits inside your cooker, and cover with a lid or foil. Add about an inch of water to the bottom of the cooker and set on high for about an hour or so until your leftovers have reheated fully, then reduce heat to warm to hold them before you need to serve.

Warm Plates

Everyone I know who has a warming drawer in their kitchen uses it to warm plates before meals. Being able to serve dinner on a warm plate feels like an everyday luxury, and for dinner parties, it really makes a world of difference. So, when it comes to entertaining, I love to offer warm plates. And you don’t need a warming drawer. I can stack about 12-16 plates inside my slow cooker. I place a water-soaked kitchen towel in the bottom and stack my plates or bowls on top. Put the lid on and set the cooker for low for about 30-40 minutes until your plates are warm but not too hot to handle.