We get questions about this all the time, and we’re here to tell you a fundamental truth of successful slow cooking: You cannot cook on High heat when a recipe calls for Low heat, and vice versa. It’s so tempting to try and speed up (or slow down) dinner by switching the heat setting, but slow cookers’ heat levels and cook times are not an either/or proposition.
Let’s back up for a second and revisit how slow cookers work. Think of them as plug-in Dutch ovens. They’re heated from the bottom (just by coils, instead of a burner), and heat is controlled by Low or High settings (rather than by an exact temperature). The main difference is that heat is lower in the slow cooker than it is on the stove, which is why slow cookers are so wonderfully convenient—you can’t leave your Dutch oven unattended, but you can leave your slow cooker. That low heat builds over time to cook the food; as long as you leave the lid on and keep that slow-building heat contained. The time needed to build enough heat to cook your food properly will depend on the size of your slow cooker (smaller cookers will heat up quicker), the amount of food inside (the more food, the more time) and the heat setting (see below for more on the difference between High and Low settings.) So you see, it’s not as simple as 4 hours on High or 8 hours on Low.
Here’s what you need to know about slow cooker heat levels to ensure your meal turns out:
- As a general rule of thumb, meat will turn out better when cooked on Low. This is particularly true of foods like meatballs and chicken thighs, which need gentle heat to turn out tender.
- Cook recipes on High when they need high heat to achieve a certain texture or finish. For example, our Slow-Cooker Deep-Dish Pizza needs high heat, mimicking that of an oven, to cook the crust to crunchy perfection.
- Switching from Low to High means bad—or even unsafe—results. Let’s say you want to slow cook a pork roast recipe that calls for 8 hours on Low, but you need it done in much less than 8 hours. Switching to High for the sake of time savings can leave you with a roast that’s dried out or even burned on the exterior, but undercooked and not at a food-safe temperature in the center. You’ll have cooked a pork roast, but not one you’ll want to eat.
- Switching from High to Low means mucky or dry results. There’s a good reason you don’t often see chicken recipes for the slow cooker clocking in at 6 or more hours. Such a lean mean doesn’t have much to give in terms of fat, and if a long cook renders out what’s there, you’re on the road to overcooked, dry meat. And you definitely don’t want anything involving dough or pasta cooking long and low—you’ll end up with slimy mush.