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14 Unexpected Foods You Should Be Making In Your Slow Cooker

slow cooker on counter
slow cooker on counter - Powerofforever/Getty Images

If your slow cooker is gathering dust on a long-forgotten shelf in your kitchen cabinet, you're surely not alone. This appliance -- usually referred to as a Crock-Pot, thanks to the popular brand of the same name -- can sometimes be overlooked when it comes to everyday cooking and food prep. But with a little bit of advanced planning, the slow cooker can become an invaluable daily staple in any busy cook's life.

The slow cooker's best-known use is for long-simmering stews and soups, but it's capable of so much more. Once you get the hang of planning, setting, and forgetting, this tool can take most of the work out of countless recipes, from breakfast to baked goods to beverages. The best part of slow cooking is letting the appliance cook for you overnight or throughout the day, so you have a fresh, hot meal the moment you need it. If you're looking to get creative with your Crock-Pot cooking, check out these unexpected foods you can make with this underappreciated device, and add them to your regular repertoire to save yourself plenty of time and energy.

Read more: 7 Ingredients That Will Kick Boxed Broth And Stock Up A Notch

Oatmeal

oatmeal with berries and almonds
oatmeal with berries and almonds - Arx0nt/Getty Images

A hearty bowl of oatmeal in the morning can be one of the most filling and satisfying ways to start the day. Sure, you can buy instant oats, but they tend to be more processed, thinner in texture, and can sometimes contain added preservatives. Traditional oatmeal, though, takes much longer to prepare, and that's often the last thing anyone wants to do in the morning before the first coffee has kicked in. Thankfully, the slow cooker is ready to come to the rescue.

The best thing about this oatmeal method is that you can add your oats, liquid, and flavorings to the slow cooker, turn it on the low setting, and leave it overnight. In the morning, you'll have breakfast fully cooked and ready for you to enjoy -- all you have to do is spoon it into a bowl, and add any toppings if you'd like. Keep things simple with just oats and water, or try something more flavorful, like slow cooker apple-spice oatmeal.

Bread

sliced bread and knife
sliced bread and knife - Tatiana Vorona/Shutterstock

Homemade bread is one of those things that's so good, that it would be great to make it every day -- if only it didn't take so much work. Enter the slow cooker. Baking is most likely not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of this appliance, but believe it or not, it's an incredibly effective tool when it comes to making many different kinds of bread, whether sweet or savory in style. Letting the slow cooker do its thing takes a lot of the guesswork out of time and temperature adjustments when baking in an oven.

Even yeasted types of bread, like cinnamon rolls and these whole wheat and spelt Idaho potato rolls, can be made using a slow cooker. You can even try making a simpler no-knead, no-yeast item like banana bread.

Keep in mind that condensation will form under the slow cooker lid, which can make your bread soggy, so you'll want to put a towel underneath the lid to catch the moisture. Alternatively, you can prop the lid open with a utensil while the bread cooks. Bread made in the slow cooker won't have the same crispy, golden-brown crust that you'll get from an oven, but you can throw it under the broiler at the end of the cooking process to achieve the same effect.

Baked Potatoes

baked potato with toppings
baked potato with toppings - Cislander/Getty Images

The slow cooker is a great vessel for potatoes of all kinds -- mashed potatoes, hash brown potatoes, or potato soup. But one often-overlooked preparation that works surprisingly well in the appliance is the baked potato. When making baked potatoes the traditional way, it can be a challenge to get the perfect combination of crispy skin and tender, fluffy interior, but the slow cooker's gentle and consistent cooking temperature ensures that you'll get a fully and evenly cooked potato with minimal fuss.

Thoroughly clean and dry your potatoes first, coat them with oil and a sprinkle of salt, and they're ready to go. Be sure they're kept separated and in a single layer inside the slow cooker. You don't want them to be crowded together, or they'll steam, leaving the skin mushy.

Depending on the quantity and size of your potatoes, and whether you use a high or low temperature setting, cooking time will vary, typically taking from 4 to 8 hours. Once they're done, you can leave the cooker on the warm setting and the baked potatoes will stay ready to eat. You won't need to reheat them if you want seconds.

Yogurt

jars of homemade yogurt
jars of homemade yogurt - Irina Rostokina/Shutterstock

If you go through a ton of yogurt and always seem to be buying more, you'll be thrilled to learn that you can actually make your own using a slow cooker. It takes time, but you can make it in big batches, and in the end, it'll save you both time and money. You can even customize the yogurt's texture and flavor to your liking.

It helps to understand a little bit of how yogurt is formed. Meet Lactobacillus acidophilus, a type of bacteria known as a probiotic, which is beneficial to digestion and immunity, according to a study. This bacteria, when given the right conditions, converts lactose, a sugar found in dairy, into lactic acid. This is what gives yogurt its thick texture and tangy flavor. To make your own yogurt, all you need is some leftover yogurt (as it contains the probiotic), as well as some dairy (like milk or cream) that contains lactose, and the little organisms will do the rest.

In order to cultivate the growth of this bacteria, the mixture needs to be kept at the right temperature. A slow cooker is perfect for this. Give it a try by following this homemade Crock-Pot yogurt recipe, and you'll be amazed at how simple and hands-off the process is.

Stock

stock with ingredients
stock with ingredients - MaraZe/Shutterstock

Making stock from scratch can seem like one of those cooking projects that's worthwhile, but also daunting. Having a massive stock pot simmering on the stovetop for hours means you have to constantly be monitoring it, and you can't use the stove for anything else as long as it's going. The result is superior to store-bought stock, but it's hard to beat the convenience of just grabbing it off the shelf when you need it. That's where the slow cooker comes in.

With the slow cooker, you can have your stock simmering away for hours, even days, if you want to see how rich you can get it. It takes almost no effort: you throw in your vegetables, aromatics, and bones (if you're making a meat-based stock), add water, turn the cooker on, and that's that.

Unlike having the stove on all day, it won't heat up your kitchen, and there's no need to worry about the temperature fluctuating. You can also leave it simmering overnight without the safety concerns of using an unattended stove. The gentle heat extracts flavors delicately, leaving you with a silky and elegant stock.

Flavored Butter

butter with garlic and herbs
butter with garlic and herbs - Mutie/Shutterstock

Flavored butters can take a dull, drab dish and amp it up immediately with an instant boost of fat and flavor. A great way to make a deliciously complex, decadently flavored butter with very little effort is by using a slow cooker. This works best for ingredients that react well to heat, like woody or dried spices, ginger, or garlic. Some fresh herbs, such as basil or dill, will become unpleasant or lose their flavor with too much cooking.

All you have to do is add butter and your flavorings to the slow cooker, turn it on low, and let everything melt and meld together. Before long, the butter will be infused with the herbs and spices. At this point, you can strain out the solids, let the butter solidify, and keep it refrigerated or frozen until you need it. A little dab on top of proteins or pasta can easily elevate a dish. You can also use the flavored butters in baking, to add extra oomph to cookies, crusts, and cakes.

Risotto

bowl of risotto
bowl of risotto - Adventure_photo/Getty Images

Making risotto is a labor of love. All of the ingredients have to be at the right temperature, there is a very specific order that must be followed, and constant vigilance is required to ensure the liquid is properly absorbed into the rice. One wrong step or one moment of distraction is all it takes to end up with a gummy blob or a soupy mess. You're more than forgiven if you've always thought that making risotto at home is not worth it.

The slow cooker doesn't take all of the effort away, but it does make risotto significantly easier to get right at home. Unlike the easiest slow cooker recipes, you'll need to start on the stovetop, in order to sauté the aromatics and vegetables, properly toast the rice, and cook off any wine you might be adding. But once that's all done, you simply throw everything in the slow cooker, add your stock, broth, or water, and let the dish simmer away. Instead of having to hover over the stove and stir until your arm goes numb, you can relax while the slow cooker effortlessly brings your risotto together. Give risotto Milanese a try with your slow cooker the next time you have a craving.

Brownies

pile of brownies
pile of brownies - Edenexposed/Getty Images

Imagine finishing the last bites of a home-cooked meal, and then with no additional effort at all, walking into your kitchen and having a piping hot batch of brownies just waiting for you. Thanks to the slow cooker, this isn't a fantasy. You can put your mix together, set the cooker, and have it timed out so your brownies are ready at the exact moment you want them, no reheating is required.

Because of the low and slow heating, slow cooker brownies will tend to be a little gooier than traditional oven-baked brownies -- which are typically more crispy and bread-like. If you're a fan of fudge and lava cakes, this is all the more reason to make them this way. For the ultimate convenience, use store-bought brownie mix instead of trying to make your own from scratch, like with this hot fudge slow-cooker brownies recipe. Top these rich, molten chocolatey squares with a scoop of ice cream for the ultimate hot and cold treat.

Meatballs

plate of meatballs and sauces
plate of meatballs and sauces - Lauripatterson/Getty Images

Meatballs are great to have on hand. Throw them on a roll to make a sandwich, cook up some pasta or rice to make a hearty meal, or simply load them on a plate and eat them on their own, with or without a dipping sauce. Making the meat mixture and forming the balls is always going to take a bit of time and effort, but you can make the actual cooking part as easy as possible by using a slow cooker.

Layering meatballs and sauce in the slow cooker and letting them simmer together over a few hours ensures that both elements of the dish come out super rich and flavorful. You can brown the meatballs in a pan before adding them to the slow cooker if you want a crispier exterior, but it's not necessary. Classic Italian-inspired meatballs marinara is satisfying and simple, especially if you opt for a good quality jarred sauce instead of making your own. On the other hand, you can try these porcupine meatballs in tangy barbecue sauce.

Chicken Wings

plate of hot chicken wings
plate of hot chicken wings - Lauripatterson/Getty Images

Wings are a great game day snack, but they can be fussy to prepare, especially in large quantities. Deep frying is labor intensive and makes a mess, and baking them in the oven heats up the whole house and risks overcooked, dried-out meat. With a slow cooker, you can avoid all of these problems and churn out a batch of saucy, savory wings while barely lifting a finger.

Buying the wings pre-cut saves you even more time. Then all you need to do is decide on your sauce. Classic Buffalo wings are always a hit, especially if you like spicy heat. You could also try honey garlic chicken wings for a sweeter kick. If you miss the crunchy exterior you get from frying chicken, you can put the wings in the oven or broiler after the slow cooking is done to let them crisp up, then add them back into the sauce. Either way, you'll have the perfect game day (or any day) snack with minimal effort.

Lasagna

serving of lasagna on plate
serving of lasagna on plate - Rickszczechowski/Getty Images

There are a few nice things about slow cooker lasagna compared to lasagna made in the oven. First, you avoid having to keep the hot oven on while it bakes. Also, you can use either regular or no-boil noodles -- the long, slow cooking process will give you tender pasta either way. Of course, you can set it early in the day and forget it, allowing you to have a rich, gooey, sizzling lasagna ready for you right at dinner time.

If you just want to make a cheesy lasagna with store-bought sauce, or something simple like fresh veggie lasagna, your workload is basically zero. All you have to do is layer the ingredients, turn on the slow cooker, and forget about it until it's time to eat. Adding meat takes a little more work, as you'll want to brown it in on the stovetop first. Either way, there's no easier method to have lasagna ready to eat on your schedule.

Caramelized Onions

close up of caramelized onions
close up of caramelized onions - Adefinlay/Getty Images

The act of caramelizing takes pungent, sharp onions and turns them into buttery, rich, nutty deliciousness. Caramelized onions are what makes French onion soup so special, and they can easily upgrade any burger, salad, or even pizza, with their deep and complex flavor. But the process of caramelizing onions is fraught with peril. It's all too easy to burn them or cook them unevenly. Luckily, with a slow cooker, you don't have to worry about that happening.

When making caramelized onions on the stovetop, you have to be diligent about keeping the heat level just right and constantly moving them around so they aren't sticking or burning at the bottom of the pan. In the slow cooker, the heat is so low that isn't an issue. Sliced onions, plenty of fat like butter or oil, a little salt, and sugar are all you need. In a matter of hours, you'll have perfectly soft, deliciously sweet caramelized onions ready to be used in all your dishes -- or you can freeze them for later.

Hot Chocolate

mug of hot chocolate
mug of hot chocolate - Sefa Ozel/Getty Images

If you've only been using your slow cooker for food, you're missing out on how great it is for making hot beverages, especially if you need drinks for a crowd. When the weather's chilly, the only thing better than a mug of hot chocolate is a Crock-Pot full of the stuff. Having a warm batch of cocoa at the ready means no more constantly microwaving mugs to keep the beverage from going cold. With the slow cooker, you can easily melt solid chocolate instead of using a powdered mix, which gives it a huge upgrade in flavor and texture.

For an extra luxurious drink, try this slow cooker peanut butter hot chocolate made with condensed milk and half-and-half for richness, and vanilla and peanut butter for loads of flavor. For a grown-up treat, you can spike your slow cooker hot chocolate with whiskey, rum, or brandy. You could even make a batch of this red wine hot chocolate for your next holiday party. Whether you're making it for kids or adults, with the cocoa good to go, you can focus on fun toppings, so don't forget the whipped cream and marshmallows.

Warm Cocktails

various hot cocktails
various hot cocktails - Roxiller/Getty Images

Sometimes, nothing quite hits the spot like a hot beverage with a boozy kick. And nothing makes a wintertime party easier than making cocktails using your slow cooker. You can keep a batch at the perfect warm temperature all night, ready to be ladled into glasses, topped with garnishes, and enjoyed by your guests. Since you won't have to work as a bartender all night, you can enjoy the drinks yourself, too.

Mulled wine is a holiday classic, and the perfect concoction to warm spirits with aromatic spices like cinnamon and clove. The hot toddy is another fabulous warm tipple, which can be made with any spirit -- typically whiskey, rum, or brandy -- and the throat-soothing honey and lemon make it a great beverage for thirsty carolers. For a decadently rich hot cocktail, make a batch of this hot buttered rum, which adds chocolate chips into the mix, turning it into dessert in a glass.

Read the original article on Daily Meal.