11 mistakes everyone makes when using the slow cooker

There are plenty of slow cooker-haters in the world, but there doesn't have to be. If you use it correctly, your slow cooker can be your very best friend. Throw everything in there in the morning, then go on with your day and forget about it until it's time for dinner. There's nothing better than coming home from a busy day to a hot meal that's ready to eat, right?

But as easy as slow cookers are, they do come with rules (doesn't everything?). Not following them can ruin dinner — and your relationship with what should be your favorite small kitchen appliance. I've rounded up the mistakes everyone seems to make when they use slow cookers, so you can be sure not to make them yourself. Take note, and then break out your slow cooker and give it another chance.

Taking a peek

I get it. Whatever's cooking in the slow cooker has your whole house smelling delicious. It's pretty much impossible to let it cook all day without ever taking a peek to see how it's coming together. Gather up your willpower, though — you need to resist. It took your slow cooker longer than you might think to work its way up to the target temperature, and lifting the lid for even a second lets out most of that hot air. Too much peeking means a reduced temp inside the slow cooker, and more time needed for your dish to finish cooking. In fact, each time you lift that lid, you add 30 minutes to the time you need to cook your food.

Using expensive cuts

Those fancy cuts of meat can certainly have their place at your dinner table, but there's no need to spring for the good stuff when you're shopping for a slow cooker meal. Since slow cookers cook low and slow, they make even the toughest (and cheapest) meats tender and juicy. So grab a low-cost cut and let it cook all day. The resulting dish will be so fall-apart tender and full of flavor, no one will guess you bought the bargain meat.

Not searing meat first

It's time to be honest. If your recipe says to sear your meat before you place it in the slow cooker, do you do that … or do you skip it? It seems reasonable to skip it — it's going to cook all the way through in the slow cooker, right? Well, technically, yes. You can skip it and you'll still end up with a fully cooked meal. Still, skipping the searing step does change the flavor of your dish, and not necessarily for the better.

According to Kitchn, searing your meat before slow cooking it caramelizes the outside of each piece of meat, adding texture and an extra layer of flavor. If you've never seared your meat before slow cooking it, you won't know what you're missing. But after you've tried it once, you'll never skip that step again.

Cooking skin-on chicken

Chicken cooked skin-on in an oven or pan usually ends up with a gorgeous, crispy skin. When you're cooking in a slow cooker, you're probably going to end up with a soft, rubbery outside that's anything but appetizing. If you want to be able to serve dinner straight from your slow cooker with no extra steps, use skinless chicken when you slow cook.

If you don't mind an extra step (and another dish to wash), transfer the cooked meat from the slow cooker to a broiler pan and cook it under your oven's broiler for just a few minutes, until the skin is golden-brown and crispy.

Adding fresh herbs too early

With all the props given to fresh herbs, it's kind of refreshing to know that dried herbs are actually the go-to seasoning in slow cooker meals. Since they do their best when cooked over long periods of time, dried herbs are the easy winners when it comes to your favorite slow-cooked recipes. That's not to say you can't use fresh herbs in a slow cooker recipe — just don't add them at the beginning. There won't be anything left when it's time to serve. Instead, toss those in toward the end of the cooking time, so they're still fresh and full of flavor when you sit down to eat.

Using the wrong size of slow cooker

One slow cooker does not fit every slow cooker recipe. The cooking time on each recipe counts on the fact that you're using the same size slow cooker as the recipe directs — meaning it's filled to the appropriate level. Your slow cooker should be filled halfway to three-quarters of the way full. If it's not full enough, your food will end up overcooked. If it's too full, it may not cook completely, or you may end up with an overflow — and a big mess on your kitchen counter.

Adding dairy products too soon

Dairy products don't do well warm, and the slow cooker is no exception. If you add ingredients like milk, cheese, cream, sour cream, or cream cheese too early in the cooking process, you'll have a curdled, disgusting mess at the end of your cooking time. To save your dish without sacrificing the creamy flavor you love, cook it without any dairy and then add those ingredients in during the last half hour — cooking them just long enough for them to melt and blend properly into the dish.

Using too much alcohol

Its not that big of a deal to use a heavy hand when cooking with wine on the stovetop. It all cooks off, right? That's not the case with a slow cooker because the lid stays on tight and nothing really evaporates. In fact, when you add wine to a slow cooker recipe, you'll taste more of the wine than you would in a stove-cooked dish. For that reason, its best to skip the wine — or add it sparingly — unless you're really after that tang.

Cooking frozen food

Pinterest is full of recipes touting the wonders of freezer-to-slow cooker meals. As fabulous as it sounds, it's not a good idea to put frozen food — especially meat — in your slow cooker. If your slow cooker is full of frozen food, it'll take way too long to reach a safe temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning your food will spend longer than it should at temps that are less than safe. That sounds like a great way to get food poisoning, if you ask me. Go ahead and thaw your food completely before adding it to your slow cooker.

Not layering correctly

You might think that since you keep the lid shut tight on your slow cooker all day (you do that, right?), everything inside cooks at the same pace., but you'd be wrong. Believe it or not, your slow cooker doesn't cook evenly all the way through. The heat element is at the bottom, so foods placed there will heat up first and cook a lot faster. This is where you want to put foods that need longer cooking times. Root vegetables like potatoes and carrots should be layered in first, along with tougher cuts of meat.

Following that same reasoning, the faster-cooking, more delicate ingredients — or those that don't need much cooking at all, like canned veggies — should be layered at the top. Keeping this in mind will help ensure that all of your ingredients finish cooking at about the same time, because no one wants a slow cooker dinner that's partly overcooked and partly raw.

Not greasing your slow cooker

Slow cookers may make cooking a breeze, but they can also make cleanup a pain. They usually end up soaking in your sink just as long as they spent cooking on your counter — and even then you still need an awful lot of elbow grease to get them clean. Save yourself some time and use a cooking spray or a slow cooker liner to make cleanup much more simple. It might make the inside surface of your slow cooker last a bit longer, too