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Slow Cookers 101: How a Slow Cooker Works

How does my slow cooker work? At what temperature does my slow cooker cook? How do I convert my favorite recipe to the slow cooker? How much energy does my slow cooker use? These are just a few of the many questions our experts manning the phones receive regularly about slow cooking. This post will tell you what a slow cooker is, how it works and what you can do with it to make cooking at home simple, convenient and delicious.

What is a slow cooker?

A slow cooker allows unattended home cooking for long periods of time at relatively low cooking temperatures. It’s made up of three main components: the base (this contains the heating element which is attached to a liner), the vessel and the lid. The base of the slow cooker is the part you see the most. It has handles, a temperature knob or control panel, and feet that keep it slightly raised off the surface of your counter. The liner is a thin metal insert melded onto the inside of the slow cooker base. You can’t see or access the electrical workings between the liner and the base, but this houses heater bands that conduct heat around the bottom of the slow cooker. The bands create heat that transfers to the cooking vessel and rises across the the bottom and up the sides, uniformly cooking your food. There is a small gap between the liner and the outer wrap of the base for airflow, which keeps the outside from overheating.

The cooking vessel is where you put the food you cook. It’s usually made from heavy stoneware, which helps keep the heat constant, stabilized and evenly distributed. Some slow cookers have clips to hold the lid in place for easy, no-spill traveling. The lid is important because you can’t reach the appropriate cooking temperatures without it. Imagine trying to bring pasta water to a boil with a lid and then without it. The lid to your slow cooker works the same way.

Some slow cookers have steam vent holes in their lids; the Set & Forget® Programmable Slow Cooker has a probe hole. If you’re not inserting the probe for use in PROBE mode, leave the hole open and don’t plug it up. Vent holes allow steam to escape and the wattage of the unit has been adjusted to compensate for any heat loss.

How Does My Slow Cooker Work?

Cooking with a slow cooker is most similar to cooking with a Dutch oven on a stovetop. On a stovetop, a pot is heated from the bottom and the heat rises up the sides of the pot to heat the food within. Similarly, a slow cooker creates heat toward the base, which transfers up the sides of the vessel to heat the food within. In addition, setting the temperature for both cooking methods is very similar. Instead of cooking something at a specific temperature on the stovetop, you set the temperature to low or high. Your slow cooker works in the same manner.

When you set the temperature to low on your slow cooker, your heating element will put out less heat. When you set the temperature to high, the heating element will put out more heat. Cooking something on low takes more time than cooking something on high. Because the temperature settings work most like stovetop cooking, it is hard to give an actual temperature for the various heat levels.

How Do I Convert a Stovetop or Oven Recipe to the Slow Cooker?

Slow cooking is relatively forgiving and is adaptable to a wide variety of recipes. Slow cookers use low cooking temperatures and retain moisture during the cooking process. If your recipe calls for using the oven to dry food, it probably won’t work in the slow cooker. Likewise, if your recipe calls for very high temperatures of oil to fry things quickly, a slow cooker will not be an option. However, if your recipe calls for cooking something “low and slow,” the slow cooker will work excellently.

Many recipes for sauces and dips call for cooking on the slow cooker’s HIGH setting or for only 1-2 hours. Long cooking times of 6-7+ hours or using the LOW setting is best for roasts and large or tough cuts of meat, like a pulled pork shoulder. The majority of slow cooker-friendly recipes can be adapted to cook somewhere in the middle; stews and soups fall into this category.

You can convert your favorite recipes to slow cooker recipes if you learn these important differences first:

  • Liquids do not evaporate in a slow cooker. Unless you are cooking rice, pasta, or beans, reduce the amount of liquid to about half the amount called for in your recipe.
  • Fresh vegetables produce the most desirable results. Potatoes, carrots, onions and garlic should be washed and cut in uniform pieces, then placed in the bottom of the crock. Canned and frozen vegetables take less time to cook and can result in overcooked dishes.
  • Ground beef should be browned and drained before slow cooking to remove grease.
  • Tender foods such as pasta, squash, asparagus or peas should be added in the last hour of cooking.
  • Seafood such as shrimp, scallops and fish should be added in the last 15-30 minutes of cooking.
  • Dairy products such as cheese, milk and sour cream should be added at the end of cooking.

Is My Slow Cooker Energy Efficient?

We like to say slow cooking is energy efficient for you AND your home. Slow cooking gives you the ability to cook while you are away, saving you time and energy. It’s great to have a home-cooked meal ready for your family when you arrive home from work, isn’t it?

The slow cooker is not just efficient for you, it’s efficient for your home. A small slow cooker uses approximately the same power as one and a half 100 watt light bulbs. Because it cooks with contained heat, it uses less energy. And since it’s an appliance that’s intended to be used unattended, there’s no need to worry about it while you’re gone.

Research Hamilton Beach Slow Cookers here.

We hope this helped answer some of your questions about slow cooking. What others do you have? Leave your follow-up questions and comments in the “Comments” section below.

Now get cooking!

Try these Slow Cooker Recipes or learn how to easily convert “low and slow” recipes for use in a slow cooker.



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  1. I wish you would have talked about safety. I have a friend that is afraid of slow cookers.
    I am not an appliance engineer, but I would have a thermistor and/or a sacrificial fuse in line, so that in the event of catastrophic failure, it would disable itself.

    Would you please post an article about the safety of a slow cooker

  2. I really like the list of conversions for when to add ingredients – that will help me try to adapt regular recipes to slow cooking.

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