As the weather gets colder, there’s nothing like coming home to a hot meal. A slow cooker, also known as a crockpot, can be an economical, timesaving way to feed your family, said Susan Mills-Gray, University of Missouri Extension nutrition and health education specialist.

“Most households have a slow cooker, but most rarely use it for more than the Super Bowl nacho dip or a big pot of chili,” she said.

If you find crockpot cooking daunting, Mills-Gray offers some tips to make your slow cooker easier to use and clean:

• Have an older slow cooker with a nonremovable crock? To make cleaning easier, use a removable cooking bag to line pot.

• For easier cleanup, use a nonstick cooking spray before adding food and liquid.

• Crockpots work the best when they are 1/2 to 3/4 full. If you fill the pot to the brim, the slow cooker can’t correctly regulate the heating of the food. If it is less than half full, foods will overcook.

• One hour on the high setting equals two hours on the low setting. The high setting is approximately 300 degrees Fahrenheit, while the low setting is 200 degrees.

• Resist the temptation to peek. You add 20 minutes to the cooking time every time you lift the lid. Instead, spin the lid around until the condensation falls off so you can see the food better.

• Use the high setting the first hour that your food is cooking. This reduces the risk of bacterial contamination.

• Start with thawed food. Frozen foods take too long to get to 140 degrees. (The bacterial danger zone is 40 to 140 degrees.) The extreme temperature difference between frozen food and the slow cooker can cause breakage. If you choose to use frozen food, pour a cup of warm water into the pot before adding your food.

• Root vegetables such as potatoes and carrots take longer to cook. Place them on the bottom or side of the cooker so they are closest to the heat source. Cut in pieces smaller than 1 inch. Tender vegetables such as tomatoes, mushrooms, zucchini and squash overcook easily. Add them during the last two hours of cooking. High-fat foods cook quickly, so place meats on top of vegetables when loading the cooker.

• Brown meat before placing in the slow cooker. This adds color and flavor and reduces fat.

• Fish and seafood cook quickly. Add them late in the process.

• Soak dried beans overnight before cooking in a slow cooker.

• Milk curdles during long cooking periods. Add sour cream or cream late in the cooking process. Condensed cream soups are a good substitute.

• Ground herbs and spices tend to lose their flavor during long cooking times, while cayenne pepper and hot sauce tend to get bitter; add these late in the cooking process.

• Don’t leave cooked food to cool in the slow cooker. The insulated liner won’t let the food cool down quickly enough to prevent bacterial growth. Move to another container to refrigerate. Do not use your slow cooker to reheat leftovers.

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