13 Slow Cooker Recipes for Fall + Slow Cooker Tips!
Fall is the season for slow cooker meals! The weather is cooling down and there’s nothing better than a warm, hearty meal on a cold day. But, Fall time also means we’ve got busy schedules, friends and family coming to visit, and there’s not always time to cook those meals. That’s why a slow cooker or a crockpot can be your BFF this time of year. To help you make the most out of your slow cooker, I’ve got 15 easy healthy slow cooker recipes that are perfect for Fall!
Some of these are freezer meals that you can prep to have on hand and toss in the slow cooker, some only need 2 or 3 ingredients, and I even have a few vegan slow cooker meals to share. They’re all simple, convenient, and loaded with slow-cooked flavor. Plus, I’ve got some tips to help you master the art of slow cooking—so you can turn your favorite recipes into slow cooker meals, or craft your own slow cooker recipes!
Just like all ovens are different, all slow cookers are a bit different! Most slow cookers have a “low” setting (around 170°F, or 77°C) that’s similar to medium-low on a stove, and a “high” setting (around 280°F, or 138°C) that’s similar to medium-high on a stove. Cooking on low generally takes about twice as long as cooking on high. But, some slow cookers run hotter than others, some take longer to heat up, and there are different sizes of slow cookers, so the temperature and time given in a recipe can vary slightly. These guidelines can help you navigate the uncertainty:
When trying a new recipe, stick with the suggested time and temperature at first. Around 30 minutes before the end of that cook time, monitor the food a bit. Does it need more time, or is it properly cooked? Then, make adjustments the next time around with that recipe!
Many slow cooker recipes offer a time range, and it’s best to start with the lower end of that time range. You can always set the food to cook longer, but you can’t recover a meal that’s burned!
If you’re slow cooking at high altitude, it’srecommended that you add 30 minutes of cook time for each hour specified in the recipe.
For most foods, cooking on the low setting is the best option. Even though cooking on low takes longer, that time allows more of the flavors to come out in the dish! The high setting is really best for reheating food, or if you’re in a time crunch.
As you cook different kinds of meals, pay attention to how long each takes to cook so you can better gauge in the future. You can slow cook dishes with meats, poultry, tofu, beans, veggies, or a combination—and you might find that the optimum cooking time for each is different.
Plan backward from when you want your slow cooker meal ready and account for the hours of cook time needed. If you want to come home to a warm meal that’s ready for you in your slow cooker, you’ve still got to put the food in there and start the slow cooker at some point! You can prep your ingredients right before putting them in the slow cooker, or you can prep the night before if you want to turn your slow cooker on first thing in the morning Cut and trim any meat, chop any veggies, measure out any other ingredients, and store them in separate containers* so they’re ready to go in the morning.
*Do NOT add all ingredients to your slow cooker insert the night before and store in the fridge! Many people suggest this and it seems like a savvy idea, but it can be problematic. Taking the slow cooker insert out of the fridge and putting it straight into the cooker means it will take longer to heat up—keeping your food in the “danger zone” (40°F – 140°F, or 4°C – 60°C) for a longer time, where bacteria thrive.
Plus, many slow cooker inserts are ceramic and don’t do well with temperature change. Going from cold to hot temperature (or vice versa) too rapidly can cause the ceramic to crack! If you do choose to do this, take the insert out of the fridge and let it come to room temperature (for at least 20 minutes), BEFORE placing it in the cooker and turning on the heat. Also, after cooking finishes, I don’t recommend placing a hot slow cooker insert directly on a cold countertop!
After the set cook time finishes, many slow cookers have a “warm” setting that they switch to automatically. The warm setting does exactly that—keep the food warm—but at a low temperature so the food stops cooking. If you won’t be home when your slow cook finishes, make sure to find out if your slow cooker can turn to that warm setting once it’s done! If your slow cooker won’t allow you to set a cook time, or if it doesn’t have a “warm” setting, you’ll have to plan to be at home in time to turn it off manually.
Take Care of Your Cooker & Make it Last
Once you’ve started using a slow cooker, more than likely, you’ll want to keep using it. Make your slow cooker last by taking good care of it! I mentioned earlier that dramatic temperature changes can crack a ceramic slow cooker insert. But, it also helps to deep clean your slow cooker insert to remove any stains or caked-on food bits:
Fill your slow cooker with water. The water line should be just above the ring of food bits stuck around the edges.
Add distilled white vinegar. For a 6-quart slow cooker, add 1 cup of vinegar. For a 3-quart slow cooker, add ½ cup of vinegar.
Gradually add in baking soda, about a spoonful at a time. Add 1 cup of baking soda for a 6-quart cooker and ½ cup for a 3-quart cooker. Be sure to add the baking soda slowly, letting the bubbles die down before you add more!
Cover your slow cooker, turn it on low heat, and let it run for 4 hours. Or, you can leave it overnight.
When time is up, turn the slow cooker off, remove the lid, and let it cool. After letting it cool for about an hour, dump the liquid into the sink. Give your slow cooker insert a good scrub with some warm water and soap.
Frozen foods will take much longer to heat up in the slow cooker. During that time, the food is also in that “danger zone” and at risk of bacteria developing. Whether you’re using frozen veggies or a freezer meal that you’ve prepped, thaw those frozen items before adding them to the slow cooker. It’s best to place those frozen items in the fridge to thaw for at least 24 hours before you plan to use them. Thawing them out on the counter also puts them in the danger zone!
In general, fattier meats like chuck roast, short rib, pork shoulder, lamb shanks, or dark meat chicken stay juicier in a slow cooker. But, leaner meats like chicken breast can still be delicious in a slow cooker when flavored well and cooked properly.
If you are using fattier meats, be sure to trim the fat before slow cooking. Otherwise, your meal will turn out greasy and oily.
When cooking poultry, take off the skin before adding it to the slow cooker. The skin becomes rubbery and gelatinous during slow cooking.
But, you can and should leave the bones in poultry meats, because they will help the meat stay tender!
Prep to Help Food Cook Evenly
Cut your veggies into pieces of a similar size. When items are close to the same size, they tend to cook at the same rate.
Place firmer veggies at bottom of your slow cooker. Tougher veggies like carrots, potatoes, and Brussels sprouts will be slower to cook, so place them closer to the heat source.
Place your meat or tofu at the top of the slow cooker. These proteins take less time to cook, and will turn out juicier at the top of the pile where the steam and heat can circulate.
To slow cook large cuts of meat or a whole chicken, build a platform at the bottom of the slow cooker. These large cuts of meat or poultry need the heat to circulate so they cook evenly. You can build a platform of vegetables, like a layer of onion wedges, that will hold your meat and leave room for aeration on all sides of it.
Don’t add too much liquid to the slow cooker. If a slow cooker recipe calls for very little liquid or none at all, or don’t add any! Excess moisture won’t boil off in a slow cooker like it will on the stove top. The slow cooker is a wet heat environment that circulates water as it steams and produces condensation. Some of that water falls back into the dish, and moisture is also released from meat and veggies. A slow cooker meal doesn’t need the same amount of liquid as a traditional recipe!
When adapting a traditional stovetop recipe for the slow cooker, reduce the amount of liquid. In this case, you’re taking a recipe designed for dry heat into a wet heat environment. So, you’ll only need about ⅓ of the liquid that a recipe calls for—just enough to almost cover the meat and vegetables.
Turn the heat to high and take off the lid to remove excess moisture. This is useful if, near the end of your cook time, a dish has too much liquid or the sauce is too thin. Much like an open pan on the stovetop, this creates a dry heat environment, which allows liquid to evaporate and can help sauces thicken.
Your slow cooker should be ½ full to ⅔ full—never more than ¾ full! Filling the slow cooker with too much food means the heat can’t circulate and that food won’t cook evenly. The lid needs to fit tightly on top, to seal the slow cooker’s wet heat environment.
If you put too little food in the slow cooker, it may boil or burn instead of simmer. Most slow cookers have fixed temperature settings, so filling it with too little food means that the temperature inside the cooker will rise too high.
Keep a Lid On It!
A slow cooker traps heat inside of it, in order to cook food over a long period of time. But, when you remove the lid, some of the heat is lost and it can add to your cooking time. Taking a really quick peek for a few seconds might only add 1-2 minutes. But, taking the lid off for a few minutes to check on things or stir the pot can add 20-30 minutes to the cook time!
Unless a recipe specifically says that you should stir your dish while it’s cooking, you don’t need to stir it. Of course, near the end of the cook time, you may want to check on your food—especially if you’re trying a new recipe. Or, if you find the dish has too much liquid, take the lid off during the last 30 minutes of cooking to help boil some off.
Most slow cookers take some time to heat up, which means your cook time will be a bit longer. The rationale here is that we rarely (if ever) start cooking food in a cold pot or pan, so it makes sense to preheat your slow cooker, too. To do so, just place your insert into the slow cooker base, cover with the lid, and turn it on high for 15 to 20 minutes. When you put your food into the slow cooker, turn it down to the temperature called for in the recipe.
Putting your ingredients into a warm slow cooker means the flavors can start developing sooner, making for a more flavorful meal overall. This step isn’t necessary, but it helps your ingredients get a head-start on cooking. I’d recommend reading your slow cooker’s user manual to see if there’s any mention of preheating. Some slow cookers heat up really fast and may not need preheating!
Again, this is another step that isn’t necessary, but it can pack more flavor into your slow cooker meal:
By taking just a few minutes to sear and brown your meat BEFORE adding it to the slow cooker, the meat starts to caramelize and develop its flavors. This means your entire meal will have bigger, deeper flavors. It’s an especially helpful practice if you’re using ground meat.
But, DON’T brown your poultry before slow cooking. It will likely be overcooked if you do.
Amplify the flavors of your vegetables, too, by giving them a quick sauté before they go into the slow cooker. Both meat and veggies can leach out water during the steamy slow cooking process, and that water can dilute the flavors in your dish a bit.
In particular, sautéing onions and garlic—even for just a short time—before putting them in the cooker can add serious flavor. Getting the onions to caramelize with some garlic concentrates their flavorful juices and brings out the natural sugars.
If you do choose to brown your meat before it goes into the slow cooker, it’s smart to preheat your slow cooker. If your meat is warm, you want it going into a warm pot.
But, remember, you can also put all of your meat and veggies into the slow cooker raw and it’ll turn out just fine!
Some Ingredients Are Best Saved for Last
Dairy will break down in the slow cooker and curdle, so add items like cream, milk, cheese, or yogurt during the last 15 minutes of cooking.
Pasta and grains will turn to mush after hours of cooking, so cook them separately or add them into the slow cooker during the last 10 minutes or so.
Soft vegetables like mushrooms and zucchini will also turn to mush if cooked too long, so add them in closer to the end of cooking—anywhere from 1 hour to 30 minutes before cooking is done, depending on how you like your veggies.
Fresh elements, like fresh herbs and lemon juice or zest, should be added at the very end when simmering is done. These items can brighten the flavors developed over hours of cooking, but they’ll go unnoticed if you add them too early.
There are plenty of traditional oven and stovetop recipes that you can turn into slow cooker recipes, it may just take a bit of experimenting. We’ve talked about how a slow cooker recipe only needs about ⅓ of the liquid that a traditional recipe calls for. Depending on the size of your slow cooker, you may also need to adjust the ingredient amounts to fit inside your slow cooker.
In terms of cooking time, if an oven or stovetop recipe says to cook for:
15-30 minutes—slow cook 4-6 hours on low, or 1-2 hours on high
30-60 minutes—slow cook 5-7 hours on low, or 2-3 hours on high
1-2 hours—slow cook 6-8 hours on low, or 3-4 hours on high
2-4 hours—slow cook 8-12 hours on low, or 4-6 hours on high
You can also use these guidelines to help you come up with your own slow cooker recipes on the fly! Once you’ve gotten familiar with your slow cooker or crockpot, the sky’s the limit. There are SO many ways to use a slow cooker—even beyond lunch and dinner recipes. You can learn to make oatmeal, grits, or even granola in your slow cooker! The slow cooker is also a great place to make a broth, cook dried beans, or cook a whole spaghetti squash. It’s an amazing kitchen tool that can make life so much easier (and tastier), so make the most of it!