Slow cookers are a great tool that can make meal prepping effortless. I’m a huge fan of slow cookers. So much so that I use mine at least once a week. Why? It makes for an easy dinner towards the end of the week when I’m more likely to say “lets order take out.” Slow cookers are also great for meal prepping because for most recipes you can set it and forget it, allowing for multitasking. For example, if you don’t have time to spend two hours in the kitchen, but need to meal prep you can throw in some chicken thighs with some sauce (five minute prep) and come back to buffalo chicken in eight hours. Toss the chicken into containers and combine it with a salad for a couple of days and you’ve got a really easy but still flavorful meal prep for a couple of days.
There are a lot of options when it comes to slow cookers. I’ve always had Crockpot brand so that's what I continue to use. Use whatever you have! Personally, I have the 6 quart Crockpot Express which is both an electric pressure cooker and slow cooker. AKA it’s basically the same thing as an Instant Pot, but cheaper and less confusing (in my opinion at least). My 6 quart standard Crockpot finally died after nine years of use (and many many college moves) so I decided to upgrade to a Crockpot that can multitask. I love it because I can make shredded buffalo chicken thighs in 20ish minutes. However, it is definitely different than just a slow cooker. It’s easy to use once you understand that it isn’t going to explode.
For this particular post, I’m going to go over tips for using the slow cooker for meal prep. Most of the following concepts work similarly for pressure cooking, but the times will be a lot different.
Cuts of meat to use
One of the best things about a slow cooker is that the best types of meat to use are the inexpensive cuts. They typically have a lot of fat and connective tissue. Most of the fat will render but be sure to cut off any really big pieces.
- Boneless skinless chicken thighs are a personal favorite. They are less likely to dry out in the slow cooker, which is why I use them for so many things. Boneless and skinless is important because the skin gets rubbery and I hate picking out bones. Chicken breasts will work but may dry out.
- Pork shoulder/pork butt is ideal for pulled pork. Pork shoulder and butt are very similar cuts so if a recipes calls for pork shoulder and you can only find pork butt, it will work. They both have a good amount of marbled fat, which is flavorful and keeps things juicy. Be sure to cut off any large hunks of fat that you notice. I prefer boneless because it’s quicker to cook, but bone in will add a bit more flavor. You can use pork tenderloin, pork loin or pork chops in a slow cooker, but you have to be careful as these are leaner cuts of meat.
- Beef chuck/beef brisket/beef short ribs are all fattier cuts of beef, which is ideal for slow cooking.These are good for beef stew, pot roast or any Asian inspired slow cooker recipe. These cuts are cheap, typically easy to find and after eight hours in the slow cooker become pull apart tender. Be sure to cut off any large hunks of fat that you notice.
If you’re not sure about how something is labeled, I usually google it in the store or ask the butcher “can I use this for beef stew.”
There are a ton of other options for cuts of meat, but these are the ones I see most often and use most often. When in doubt, google “can I cook [cut of meat] in the slow cooker?”
Don’t open it too much
Now this doesn’t mean you CAN’T ever open the slow cooker to stir it and make sure everything is evenly covered in the sauce/liquid. Typically, you can check on the food when it is closer to the end of the cooking time. For example if the recipe says six hours, you can check it in the four or five hour mark, but don’t check it every 30 minutes. Check it once, but it’s probably fine.
Make sure there is plenty of liquid The best way to ensure that your meal doesn’t dry out for the eight hours it’s cooking is to make sure you have plenty of sauce/liquid in the slow cooker. I typically make sure the liquid is at least ¾ of the way covering the meat. Then ensures that the flavor is penetrating all of the meat and nothing will dry out.
A lot of recipes calls for searing the meat first. Is this an extra step? Absolutely. Do you have to do it? No. Should you do it? Yes, if you have time. This step develops a fantastic texture and flavor profile.I can taste the difference, but you meat will still cook and taste delicious if you skip this step. I do it when I have the time.
I’m someone who has no problem leaving their slow cooker going while I’m at work all day. However, I know that a lot of people don’t like the idea of leaving it on when no one is home. A solution to this is that you can cook things overnight while you’re sleeping! This is also great for weekend brunches or lunch the next day.
Another way to prep at night is to do all the prep work a recipe calls for and store t it in the fridge. In the morning before you leave for work, you can just toss it all into the slow cooker without having to make a giant mess. I do this all the time so that I only add a couple of extra minutes to my morning routine.
Dried herbs are best
Dried herbs are preferred because they have a more concentrated flavor. They also bloom better in the slow cooker environment. If you want to add fresh herbs, rosemary is very hearty and can stand up to the long cooking times. To use more delicate fresh herbs, add them at the end of cooking so their flavors aren’t lost.
ALWAYS add dairy towards the end
Dairy (milk, cream, cheese, sour cream etc) doesn’t hold up to an extended period of cooking. It will curdle and ruin your dish. It is best to add these towards the end of cooking.For example, when I’m adding cheese to a dish, I usually add it in the last 30 minutes of cooking so that it gets melty but doesn’t break.
Don’t use a lot of booze, it won’t cook off
Wine is common in a lot of recipes to help build another layer of flavor. However, in a slow cooker, the alcohol won’t get cooked off because of the low temperatures. You can add wine to your sauce and it won’t get you drunk, but it may have a boozier flavor than you’re looking for.
Thaw meat before use
This is mostly a best practice for any time you’re cooking meat. You should thaw it to ensure the meat is never at an unsafe temperature. Also if your chunk of meat is half defrosted it won’t cook evenly resulting in some overcooking or some under cooking.
Layering is important
If you’re making a pasta sauce, layering isn’t as important. If you’re cooking a bunch of root vegetable (carrots/potatoes) that take a long time to cook, you want them to be on the bottom. The bottom gets hotter because it is closer to the heating element. Towards the end of cooking (about the last hour) you can definitely give the whole thing a stir to make sure that the flavors meld together.
Don’t expect crispy and crunchy
Slow cooking is a moist cooking application. You will not get crispy chicken skin like you do in the oven, which is a dry cooking application. If you want a crispy skin or to caramelize a sauce, stick it under the broiler of the oven for a few minutes.
Finishing the dish
You should definitely add salt to the dish at the end of cooking. If you add it at the beginning, you could be over-salting the dish.Typically the sauce will concentrate and reduce down. However, if you’re salting meat and then searing it, that will be fine to do in the beginning.
Another way to finish the dish is to add some acid to it. This will often brighten a recipe and make it taste as good as it smells. You don’t need to add so much that it TASTES like lemon (unless you’re into that) but a squeeze of lemon can definitely help out a boring or bland tasting sauce. Pickle juice is great with BBQ flavors and rice wine vinegar is great for Asian dishes. Use an acid that makes sense with the dish.
At the end of cooking is the perfect time to add garnishes like fresh herbs. This can add a freshness to the dish.
Once you’ve made a big batch of chicken, pulled pork, soup or pasta sauce, you’ve got to store it properly. Be sure to store everything in usable portions. If you make six quarts of sauce, you want to portion it out into either individual portions for pizza or divide it in two or three for pasta night. After your meal is portioned out, you can freeze the rest for an even easier meal prep option.
If you want to start meal prepping but you’re not very confident in multitasking multiple recipes at once, the slow cooker is a great place to start. It is the perfect tool to cook a large batch of one particular protein all at once. Another use for slow cookers is to simmer soup or sauce all day to develop a deeper flavor. I’m always finding new ways to use my slow cooker to make my life easier. If you need some inspiration, check out my Slow Cooker Pinterest Board. Another good resource is the Reddit subreddit (I use it a lot).
Meal Prep Series
Was this helpful? You can check out the rest of the series below!
Part 1: How to Get Started Meal Prepping
Part 2: Meal Prep: The Tips, The Tools and The Execution
Part 4: How to Meal Prep Without Getting Bored
Part 5: How to Solve Common Meal Prep Problems
Part 6: How to Meal Prep Like a Pro