8 new ways to get the most out of your slow cooker

Chefs and food pros share their best, most unexpected recipes for your favorite countertop appliance.
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By Lauren Salkeld

The slow cooker is practically synonymous with hearty soups and stews, but if you limit yourself to chilis and chicken noodle, you’re missing out. This handy, countertop appliance can be used to cook a wide range of dishes for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert. And as with those soups and stews, they’re low on effort and high on satisfaction. So, when you’re ready to step up your slow cooker game, try one of these unexpected ideas from chefs and food pros, including Giada De Laurentiis, Martha Stewart, Chungah Rhee, Jennifer Iserloh and Kelly Senyei. Their recipes — think irresistible cinnamon buns, a quinoa casserole, brownies and even spaghetti and meatballs — will change the way you think about the slow cooker and make it that much easier to enjoy better meals and snacks.

SLOW COOKER SPAGHETTI AND MEATBALLS

Slow Cooker Spaghetti and MeatballsChungah Rhee/Damn Delicious

“I love the ease and simplicity of this dish, especially because the pasta gets cooked right in the slow cooker!” says Chungah Rhee, the blogger behind Damn Delicious and author of “Damn Delicious Meal Prep: 115 Easy Recipes for Low-Calorie, High-Energy Living". You brown the meatballs on the stove then make the sauce and cook pasta in the slow cooker, which cuts prep time down to a mere 20 minutes. Plus, you have the option to use low heat for 7 to 8 hours or high heat for 3 to 4 hours. “Does it get any easier?” asks Rhee, adding that this is also a great way to use up leftover meatballs you might have in the fridge.

SLOW COOKER QUINOA ENCHILADA CASSEROLE

Slow Cooker Quinoa Enchilada CasseroleChungah Rhee/Damn Delicious

Rhee created this quinoa casserole as a spinoff of one of the most popular dishes on her blog. “What I really love about this slow cooker version,” she explains, “is how everything comes together in essentially one pot, including the quinoa!” Plus, cooking quinoa low and slow allows it to absorb all the flavors, says Rhee. What’s even better is that this slow cooker casserole is a lighter take on Mexican enchiladas, so while it seems indulgent, you can enjoy it without the guilt.

SLOW COOKER CINNAMON BUNS

Slow Cooker Cinnamon BunsStephen Kent Johnson/Martha Stewart / Stephen Kent Johnson/Martha Stewart

“A lot of people don’t realize you can bake in a slow cooker,” says cooking and entertaining guru Martha Stewart. These irresistible cinnamon buns will quickly convince you it’s a very good idea. “When baking cinnamon buns, the slow cooker seals in moisture, making these breakfast treats from my book ‘Slow Cooker’ even more delicious,” explains Stewart. Once you make the dough and assemble the rolls, they go in the slow cooker for an hour and half. The finishing touch is a super easy glaze combining confectioners’ sugar, lemon juice, vanilla and milk.

SLOW COOKER CHICKEN TERIYAKI

Slow Cooker Chicken TeriyakiKelly Senyei/Just a Taste

“I'm always looking for new spins on poultry, and slow cooking chicken breasts with the bone ensures the meat will remain extra juicy and tender,” says Kelly Senyei, the blogger behind Just a Taste. “The sauce is the perfect balance of sweet and savory, with the unbeatable combo of pineapple juice, soy sauce, fresh garlic and ginger.” Pair this flavor-packed chicken with rice or noodles for a dynamite dinner and be sure to take advantage of the leftovers later in the week. If you have hungry little ones around, they’ll gobble this up in no time, reports Senyei.

ORANGE CHIPOTLE SHRIMP IN BUTTER LETTUCE CUPS

Orange-Chipotle Shrimp in Butter Lettuce Cups RecipeAlice Gao

We tend to think of slow cooker meals as hearty or even heavy, but these zesty shrimp lettuce cups are just the opposite. “Seafood works beautifully in the slow cooker because it’s low, moist heat,” explains Jennifer Iserloh, a chef, certified health coach and author of “The Healing Slow Cooker.” The shrimp come out tender and will remind you of shrimp cocktail, says Iserloh. Combined with asparagus, tomato, chipotles and red pepper flakes and piled onto lettuce with avocado and orange, they make for a light and bright supper. For even more convenience, use frozen shrimp and add 20 minutes to the cook time.

TWICE SLOW-COOKED CINNAMON-BALSAMIC SWEET POTATO

Twice Slow-Cooked Cinnamon-Balsamic Sweet PotatoAlice Gao

The slow cooker is also a great option for meatless meals like Iserloh’s cinnamon and balsamic infused sweet potatoes. “Root veggies come out super tender and moist in the slow cooker,” says Iserloh. And unlike when you bake potatoes, using the slow cooker means you can run out while they’re cooking and don’t need to worry about them drying out. This recipe works with white potatoes, but it won’t be quite as nutritious, explains Iserloh.

SLOW COOKER OATMEAL

Slow Cooker OatmealElizabeth Newman/Giadzy

“A hot breakfast doesn't get much easier than scoop and serve,” says TV personality, cookbook author and restaurateur Giada De Laurentiis of this effortless A.M. treat. Instead of standing by the stove for 20 minutes stirring steel cut oats, De Laurentiis’ recipe is hands off. “Just set the slow cooker the night before and get ready for a comforting breakfast the whole family will love in the morning.” Bring maple syrup, brown sugar, yogurt, berries, nuts or your favorite toppings to the table and let everyone make their own perfect bowl.

SLOW COOKER BROWNIES

Slow Cooker BrowniesElizabeth Newman/Giadzy

Using a slow cooker is “the most simple, foolproof way to serve warm brownies,” says De Laurentiis. “Throw everything in the slow cooker while getting ready for dinner and by the time you are done eating, you have ooey, gooey brownies.” These decadent treats get extra oomph from bittersweet chocolate chips and chopped walnuts, but for an added layer of indulgence, De Laurentiis’ favorite way to serve them is topped with vanilla gelato.

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