Learning to cook with a slow cooker is exciting, and you’re probably full of ideas of fragrant curries, hearty casseroles, and warming soups for winter. But getting to grips with the appliance can be challenging, and recipes don’t always give you enough guidelines on which settings to use. Is it better to slow cook on low or high?
It is best to cook on low in a slow cooker to soften the food and allow flavors to develop, especially for a meaty stew or soup. Cooking on high is suitable for lean meats or vegetables. To swap a recipe from high to low setting, double the cooking time. Avoid swapping from low to high settings.
Most slow cookers, like this best-selling Crockpot, have three or four settings: high, low, warm, and automatic. It’s hard to know which setting to use for which foods and whether you can shorten or extend the cooking time for an existing recipe. Learning about these settings can transform how you use your slow cooker and broaden the range of delicious meals you can make in this convenient appliance.
Let’s look at some tips that I researched for this article.
The Difference Between Slow Cooking On High And Low
The difference between cooking on a high or a low setting on your slow cooker or crockpot is the amount of time it will take for the food to reach a simmer. It takes longer for the slow cooker to reach a simmer on the low setting, so the food cooks for longer at a lower temperature. Once the food is simmering, the slow cooker stabilizes and continues cooking at that temperature, whether on a high or low setting.
In other words, the “high” and “low” settings on your crockpot or slow cooker aren’t like the settings on a conventional stove – they don’t refer to high or low temperatures, but to time.
The automatic setting begins cooking on high and, after an hour or so, reduces to a low setting to allow the food to simmer. You’ll find this setting on some slow cookers, but older ones don’t have it. To mimic the automatic setting, start your meal on high and, after 2 hours, turn it down to low. This process does shorten the cooking time, but your food will not have the same benefits as a long, slow cook on low.
If you have a warm setting, this means that the slow cooker will stop cooking and keep the food warm for a couple of hours before serving. “Warm” is not a suitable setting for heating food – it does not warm the food enough to be safe to consume.
The Benefits Of Cooking Low And Slow
Slow cookers are called slow cookers for a good reason – the appliance is intended to cook food slowly and gently over a long period, up to five times longer to cook a meal than it would on a stovetop. The low setting allows the slow cooker to do just that.
Slow cooking is convenient
The low setting allows you to leave a dish to cook for 8 hours or even overnight without any intervention needed, so it’s really convenient. You can potter around the house, go to work, or even go to bed and come back to a wholesome, cooked meal. If you have a warm setting, you can set the slow cooker to turn to this setting once the food is cooked.
Slow cooking transforms meat
Slow cooking on a low setting lends itself to the traditionally cheaper, slightly fattier cuts of meat, like chuck roast, beef shin, lamb shanks, or pork shoulder. Most of us don’t have time to spend the afternoon prepping and cooking these cuts of meat, even if they are budget-friendly. But a slow cooker set on low softens these meats and makes them melt in your mouth.
Slow cooking develops flavors
Another benefit of slow cooking a dish is how flavors develop and different ingredients blend and soak together. For example, in a slow-cooked chili, the beans soak up plenty of spicy, meaty flavor, and the strong flavors get balanced out. These are the same reasons that many dishes taste better the day after they’ve been cooked.
Save energy and money
Gas is expensive and inefficient when cooking on a traditional oven. A slow cooker uses small amounts of energy efficiently, so the cost of using it for long periods is low.
When Should You Use A Slow Cooker On High?
Although the low setting is convenient, especially for dishes that benefit from long cooking, some recipes should be cooked on high.
The benefit of cooking on high is that the food cooks more quickly, but even on high, a slow cooker will take at least 3 to 4 hours to cook.
However, if you do choose the high setting, take care that your food does not overcook. It is easy to overcook food on a high setting, especially if you have swapped the timing from low to high.
Cook lean meat on high
If you want to cook leaner cuts of meat in your slow cooker, rather cook them on high. Long, low cooking will dry these cuts of meat out and make them leathery.
You can also use the high setting for cooking dishes with ground beef but always brown it first as it looks grey and unappetizing.
Cook chicken on high
Any recipe that includes chicken should be cooked on high, or else the chicken will overcook. Avoid cooking chicken breasts or anything with chicken skin in the slow cooker – stick to thighs and drumsticks.
Cook potatoes on high
A slow cooker is extremely useful for making different types of potato dishes. Even whole potatoes will be thoroughly cooked after 4 hours in the slow cooker. If your potatoes are coming out hard, then see my post on why potatoes and carrots are hard after the slow cooker.
Is 4 Hours On High The Same As 8 Hours On Low?
In most recipes, you can swap the slow cooker settings from low to high and use a shorter cooking time, but the recipe might not be as good. Cooking for longer has the benefits of breaking down tougher cuts of meat, so the texture and flavor will be compromised when cooking for shorter times.
Generally, try to avoid swapping from low to high – recipes recommend cooking on low to benefit from the long, gentle simmer. So, if you cook a meal on high, you may well lose depth of flavor and texture. However, if you’re running out of time and need to cook on high for a shorter period, your food will be cooked and fit to eat.
Obviously don’t go too short a time for the size of meal you are cooking – a loose guide is usually around twice as long on high as the traditional (non-slow cooker) recipe, and 3 times as long on low.
It is simpler to extend the cooking time of a dish than shorten it in a slow cooker. For most recipes, cooking for longer on low will have the same effect as cooking on high for a shorter period. Generally, you double the time needed on high to find out how long to cook on low. For example, if a dish needs to cook for 3 hours on high, cook it for 6 hours on low. If it needs to cook for 4 hours on high, cook it for 8 hours on low.
This calculation does not work for dishes that need to cook for 2 hours on high – cooking meat in particular for less than 4 hours is dangerous as it may not have reached a simmering point and cooked through. Use a specialized meat thermometer so that you can check the internal temperature of the meat if you are going to cook it for such a short time.
Whether you cook on high or low, remember that each time you open the lid of the slow cooker, the temperature drops, and it will take additional time for the slow cooker to heat up again. Opening the lid means that you need to add around 15 minutes to your cooking time.
The main difference between cooking on low and high in your slow cooker is how long the food will take to reach a simmer. Choose the low setting for long-simmered dishes, like a spicy chili, exotic curry, or tougher cuts of meat. If you want to cook lean meat, chicken, or potatoes, stick to the high setting. To swap from a high to a low setting, double the cooking time.