You can rely on Martha Stewart for all things home and garden, and her cookbooks are no exception. Her latest, Martha Stewart’s Slow Cooker, is packed with everything you need to utilize this amazingly versatile kitchen appliance to the best of its myriad abilities. Before you fire it up and get cooking, make sure you read Martha’s slow cooker commandments. 

Reprinted with permission from Martha Stewart’s Slow Cooker

For more than a year, our editors and recipe developers embraced the task of creating recipes that maximize all the slow cooker’s assets and make up for some of its well-known limitations. At the same time, they heartily took on the challenge of adapting many of our favorite dishes to the machine’s distinctive cooking method. In doing so, they became quite enamored — you could say surprisingly so — of the appliance that’s long been loved by legions of home cooks. Our cooks researched, read up, dug in, and, more than anything, rolled up their sleeves and got into the kitchen to figure out what the slow cooker is good at, what it’s great at, and — at times — where the pitfalls lie. After that intensive study, and the intensive tasting and tweaking that went along with it, here are our so-called slow cooker commandments:

1. Forget about “forgetting it.”

We got bet­ter results when we didn’t simply turn on the switch and walk away for the day. While the appliance is known for cooking weeknight dinners, we really loved it for preparing big-batch recipes on weekends—the kinds of afternoons when you’re in and out of the house on errands. Great results came with being mindful of what was in the pot, when we could occasionally open the lid and give it a stir (bottom line: not often), and which heat setting would result in the very best flavors and textures.

2. Don’t just dump it in.

Simply scraping chopped vegetables and some meat straight from the cutting board into the pot with a handful of dried seasonings might not taste so good six hours from now. Invest 10 to 20 minutes at the start of the process: Go ahead and sauté those onions, carrots, and celery, and don’t skip the step of browning that roast (on all sides!); this will encourage the flavors to develop more fully and get richer with time.

3. Be wary of too many shortcuts.

In researching popular slow-cooker recipes, some struck us as a mash‑up of processed, packaged foods—like instant gravy mix stirred into canned soup topped with a packet of powdered salad dressing! Not sur­prisingly, we found the best flavors resulted from using the freshest ingredients. The shortcut we relied on first and foremost was the slow cooker itself.

4. Relax and let the machine take charge.

The slow cooker is a refuge for the impatient. Maybe you are the type of cook who is always trying to rush things — “simmer” to you means a low boil, or you occasionally burn onions in an (admittedly too hasty) effort to caramel­ize them, or you have ruined a pan or two with scorched sauces. If that sounds familiar, you’ll be relieved to know you can trust this appliance to perfectly poach fish and poultry and caramelize onions and simmer sauces without constant checking and stirring.

5. Let texture guide you.

Select tough, inex­pensive cuts of meat that stand up to slow, steady, moist heat (pork shoulder, beef brisket, and lamb shanks are great for long braising; prime rib, not so much). Avoid anything that cooks quickly and perfectly on the stovetop or grill—in other words, tender chops and other lean meats. Root vegetables, too, develop great flavor and maintain their shape and much of their hardiness in the slow cooker, while many delicate vegetables are still best simply— and briefly—steamed on the stove.

6. Cook once, serve multiple meals.

The slow cooker lets you prepare ahead and jump-start dinners throughout the week. Braise a pork shoulder to make porchetta, for example, and—depending on your last-minute prep, condiments, and an array of garnishes and toppings—you can serve it on a platter with fresh tomatoes and salsa verde one night, in sandwiches with garlicky greens the next, or over creamy polenta, and so on.

7. Finish with lots of color—and some crunch.

For the most satisfying meals, round out the slow-cooked main course with fresh herbs and vegetables, mixed greens, or diced onion. These toppings and sides bring wel­come texture and snap.

8. Deploy the machine as a space saver.

When your oven is crowded with the main course (like a holiday roast) and casseroles or even desserts, use the slow cooker for sides, such as potatoes or squash. When your stovetop is fully engaged, let the slow cooker step in as a low burner. (It can also be used to reheat mashed potatoes, say, or as a warming dish for cooked pasta.)

9. Keep your cool.

You might think of autumn and winter as slow-cooker season, but the machine especially shines in the hot summer months, because you can cook dinner with­out heating up the kitchen. Beer-braised pork ribs only sound like they came off the back­yard grill—make them in the slow cooker and serve with chilled slaw, potato salad, and more beer (!) on a steamy summer night.

10. Realize how sweet it is!

The slow cooker may be known for savory foods, but it also turns out excellent desserts—custards and puddings, fruit crisps and buckles, even cheesecake! Keep in mind that unlike soups or stews, “baking” in a slow cooker needs to be watched a bit more closely. Depending on the strength of your machine, the batter may be more or less cooked in the time suggested. It’s particularly great for custards and pud­dings when you use it as a bain-marie. You are just one slow cooker (and a butane torch) away from crème brûlée!