Ah, the crockpot. This cooking device has made it possible to have a homecooked meal when your schedule doesn’t afford you the time to prepare it. This meal, often with only a few ingredients, cooks for hours, and you don’t even have to be home.

I’ll admit I was skeptical of the crockpot when I received it as a Christmas gift a few years ago. While it sat in a corner of my apartment and collected dust (for a year), I wondered how it could possibly be safe to leave something cooking in your home for hours. Though I’d never heard of a crockpot catching on fire, it sounded too similar to leaving the house with the oven or the stovetop burner on. People panicked and rushed home when they discovered they’d done one of those things, so it seemed odd that they’d willingly leave their homes with a heated crockpot on.

I also couldn’t understand how ingredients could be thrown together, literally dumped into a pot, and left alone for hours, to later result in an incredibly flavorful, balanced meal. But as I started cooking more, I realized that people did this for many recipes, with a crockpot and without: tomato sauce, chili, and pot roast, to name a few.

My first crockpot meal was shredded roast beef. It was tender, delicious and an easy lunch for the 7 family members who were visiting me that day. I’d set the timer for 8 hours on low the night before, pressed Start, and the next morning, I had a meal that was ready to go. Worth the fire hazard, I decided.

Since then, my fiancée and I have made it a weekly ritual to make a crockpot meal. We’ve cooked turkey meatballs, teriyaki chicken, green curry, chicken fajitas, sweet potato chili, and even a few desserts and mulled wine (yes – mulled wine!). We’ve found our staple dishes, and learned a few things about how to perfect these as well as anything we make in the crockpot.

Here are our top 3 learnings from our adventures in crockpot cookin

1). Slow cooker liners are worth the cost

When I first started using the crockpot, I didn’t even know that these existed. I just assumed that having to clean the heavy pot by hand and find space for it to dry on the counter was part of the process. Then, someone told me about Reynolds Slow Cooker Liners. These little plastic bags fit snugly around the edges of the crockpot, creating a barrier between your food and the ceramic of the pot, meaning that cleanup is simply just picking up the bag and throwing it in the trash. They are about $0.50 each, but worth it.

2). Low to high does not mean high to low

 Most crockpot recipes will provide an alternative to the heat and time instructions, i.e. “cook on low for 8 hours or high for 4 hours.” But if the recipe does not provide an alternative, don’t create one unless you’ve tested it before. I made this mistake with green curry chicken. The recipe called for 4 hours on high, but I had more than enough time before dinner, so I set the crockpot for 8 hours on low. The result? A bland chicken with overcooked vegetables. My food had cooked for too long, sabotaging the spicy green curry flavor. For more information on crockpot settings, check out this blog post.

3). If you wouldn’t add it on the stovetop, don’t add it in the crockpot

The final of my favorite slow cooker learnings is to careful when experimenting with new ingredients, especially those you wouldn’t experiment with when using the stovetop or oven. I once ambitiously added broccoli to chili, thinking that the crockpot would “make it work.” Crunchy, grainy broccoli is not supposed to be in chili. The crockpot is not going to change that.

Have ideas for how to improve the crockpot experience? Post a comment below!