Can Food Burn in a Slow Cooker? (And What Causes it to burn)

A slow cooker is the ultimate kitchen appliance for convenient cooking. This appliance, also known as a crockpot, simmers and cooks food using gentle heat for many hours.

You can throw in all your ingredients in the morning, turn on the slow cooker and enjoy a hearty, comforting meal after a long day’s work.

While you’re away, the slow cooker uses low heat to slowly cook the food over an extended period. It also keeps the food warm, so you don’t have to reheat it when you’re ready to eat.

Luckily, not many people can say their slow cooker turned their favorite chicken stew into charcoal. However, it is possible to overcook food in the slow cooker.

If the appliance isn’t used correctly, or you add ingredients that aren’t meant to be cooked in a slow cooker, it can burn the food. 

In this post, I’ll explain why the slow cooker burns food and which ingredients to avoid cooking with this appliance. Keep reading to learn more!

Can a Slow Cooker Burn Food?

Yes, a slow cooker can burn food if the liquid evaporates or there isn’t much liquid in the recipe, to begin with. Some foods like casseroles, lasagna, or meatloaf are dense and dry. Since there is not a lot of liquid in these foods, the edges can burn after several hours in the slow cooker.

A slow cooker works by slowly heating the food for many hours. In some cases, you need to cook the food for more than eight hours.

The slow cooker is designed to cook the food by heating wet ingredients and then dispersing the heat evenly throughout the pot.

In a slow cooker, food that is either too dry or cooked for too long might burn.

Dishes like soups and stews usually don’t stick to the edges of the cooker. However, many other recipes will stick to the cooker’s inside walls and create a sticky mess that is hard to clean up.

What Causes Food to Burn in a Slow Cooker?

There are a couple of reasons why the slow cooker burns your food. Let’s take a look at the reasons:

1. Long cooking time

Overcooking any food item with any cooking method results in burnt food. Of course, the slow cooker is no exception to the rule.

When you apply heat to food over time, the cells in the food alter as a result of a reaction; if you pace it correctly, you’ll end up with nicely cooked dishes.

However, if you let this reaction carry on for too long, you’ll end up with overheated ingredients. This burning effect is natural, and it may be created by any device that heats food.

The fact that a slow cooker applies an even amount of heat to the cooking pot at all times means that after, let’s say, 8 hours, the food naturally burns because the cooking time is simply too long. 

Some of the latest models keep an eye on the temperature inside, but they don’t check to see if the contents have burned. If you maintain the components at a consistent temperature for too long, your food will burn in a slow cooker.

2. Dry ingredients

The liquid is used in slow cookers to evenly disperse heat throughout your ingredients. Essentially, heat is transmitted from the liquid to the solid materials, producing an equal cook.

There are two negative consequences to not having enough liquid in the slow cooker pot.

First, dry ingredients touch the edge of the pot and thus cause the food’s edges to burn – this happens because there isn’t enough moisture. The effect is comparable to cooking food in a frying pan without oil.

Second, when dry components begin to overheat, they require a place to release the excess heat. If there isn’t much liquid in the pot, the heat has to go somewhere. It can only go into the other dry ingredients it touches, and this causes them to burn.

3. Slow cooker’s age

The older the slow cooker gets, the higher the chances that food burns and sticks to the inner walls of the pot.

The interior of new slow cookers has a glossy coating to help keep food from adhering to the inside walls. This makes cleaning up easier because you don’t need to do any heavy scrubbing. In most cases, a small amount of dish soap can do the job well.

One major problem is that the glossy finish will wear off over time, and food will begin to stick to the cooker’s walls, especially if it doesn’t have a lot of liquid.

This can be highly visible, so you’ll want to throw the old cooker and buy a new one. Cooking certain foods, such as acidic sauces (i.e., tomato sauce), might cause the interior finish to wear away after a year or two.

How to Prevent Food From Burning in a Slow Cooker?

Foods cooking for a long time without much liquid tend to burn in the slow cooker, no matter how old your appliance is.

To avoid this problem, add liquid to keep the food from sticking and burning.

If you’re making dishes that don’t call for a lot of water can still turn out perfect even if you add additional liquids because the foods tend to absorb them after prolonged heating.

Also, be sure to check the cooker’s progress after the first few hours to see if there’s enough moisture. When you smell something burning, remove the food.

Do You Need Liquid in a Slow Cooker?

No, you don’t necessarily need to add liquid to the crockpot. You should only add liquids to recipes that require water, stock, broth, or other juices.

It depends on each individual recipe: some dishes such as ham don’t require liquids at all because they cook dry. But some, like soup or baked goods like slow cooker bread, must cook with water.

Can a Slow Cooker Catch on Fire?

Is it true that slow cookers may cause house fires? Yes. However, the likelihood is extremely low because slow cookers don’t catch fire unless there is a manufacturing error.

Cooking is the leading cause of household fires in the United States. But the chances of your slow cooker catching fire are exceedingly remote.

Most models don’t exceed 200-300 watts, making them a low-current, low-heat appliance. These plug-in appliances can indeed produce a lot of heat for an extended period, but they don’t tend to overheat like high-watt cookers. 

An oven has a much higher chance of catching fire than your slow cooker.

What Cannot be Cooked in a Slow Cooker?

An often-overlooked fact is that as versatile as it is, the slow cooker cannot cook everything!

Some foods and dishes absolutely can’t be cooked in a slow cooker, and then there are foods that are not recommended for this appliance. The latter can technically be cooked in the slow cooker but might not turn out as tasty.

Foods you cannot cook in the slow cooker:

  • Dairy: milk, sour cream, and cooking cream can separate while cooking in the crockpot. To avoid curdled dairy in your dish, you should add it to your ingredients near the end of the cooking time.
  • Raw rice & couscous: the long cooking time is a sure way to ruin rice. This grain requires fast pressurized cooking in a rice cooker or a saucepan. When you cook it with your slow cooker, the middle of the grain will be hard and undercooked, but the edges will be brittle. The same thing applies to couscous, which will become a mushy mess.
  • Alcohol: if your recipe calls for wine, don’t cook it with your slow cooker. Alcohol cannot escape and evaporate from the crockpot, so it just adds an unpleasant taste.

Foods that are not recommended for slow cooking:

  • Lean meat: very small pieces of lean meat like chicken breast are likely to turn out chewy and overly dry because this lean meat doesn’t need a long time to cook, and the crockpot overcooks it
  • Raw meat: since the slow cooker uses low heat, the meat doesn’t get brown – browning locks in tasty flavors. Minced meat should be fried before you add it into the slow cooker, or else it won’t brown, and it might taste bland.
  • Mushy vegetables: you should not add fast cooking vegetables like carrots or peas to the slow cooker until the cooking period is almost over. Always add these soft vegetables at the end to avoid them becoming fully mushy.
  • Fish and shellfish: most fish and shellfish has lean meat. This delicate flesh doesn’t need a long time to cook, so it will disintegrate and break apart if you put it in the slow cooker for many hours.

Conclusion: Is there a likelihood of food burning in the slow cooker?

Yes, it’s possible, but usually, adding a small amount of liquid prevents this from happening.

A lack of moisture in your slow cooker causes food to burn, especially at the edges. If you must cook many dry ingredients, be sure to reduce cooking time or add more liquids as needed.

Using a slow cooker to make delicious meals for the family is easy, but avoid cooking tender vegetables, lean meats, and raw rice or similar grains with this appliance.

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