Crock pots, also called slow cookers and are great for beginner cooks, busy people who want a home cooked meal, but don't have a lot of time and are also great for keeping food warm (like hot cider and chili).
Crock pots are as varied as you an image, small ones holding 10 oz that are marketed as for keeping dips warm as well as giant 2 gallon devices.
They all operate similarly, some have removable liners, which are great for transporting and cleaning, (a real time saver for cleaning!) some have temperature gauges, while others are as simple as on on/off high/low switch.
I find the removable pot or liner is the only option I must have.
1. There are cooking bags on the market (sold with plastic wrap etc) that line the crock pot with. I have never used one, but it is supposed to make clean up a breeze, just scoop out the food and toss the liner. I have reservations about wanting to cook my food in plastic bags, but that is a choice you can make.
2. Alternately, spray your crockpot with oil or cooking spray to reduce burnt-on, stuck-on food, before you heat it up.
3. Regardless of if you are cooking food on HIGH (4-6 hours) or LOW 10 - 12 hours, for the first hour keep it on HIGH to being food up to temperature as soon as possible. Most foods (meats) need to be cooked to 140 to be safe. You don't want your food hovering around 90 degrees a perfect place for bacteria to grow.
4. LOW setting is 200 degrees HIGH is 300 degrees (+/-)
5. Fill crockpot between 1/2 and 2/3 full, overfilling will not cook the food properly.
6. It is recommended to NOT put frozen food into the crockpot as it hovers at unsafe temperatures for too long. I think that if you are putting cooked but frozen food in (like cooked meatballs) and you are not cooking for an immune deficient person elderly or sick, you are OK.
7. Sear all meats before you put them in the crockpot OR into a boiling hot pot of liquid, you can add small pieces of cut up raw chicken. Again, this is a personal issue, but I think it is a good idea.
8. To thicken stews and the like, leave the lid off the foods for the last hour
9. Peppers, hot sauce etc, get a bitter taste if left on too long, so add these during the last hour only
10. Seafood should also only be added during the last 45 min - 1 hour as it turns rubbery after being cooked for many hours.
11. Lifting the lid off the crockpot slows down cooking time, so resist the urge to stir your crock frequently. Instead, slightly tilt the lid, spin it around to clear the condensation and quickly return it to the pot.
12. Food placed on the bottom of the pot will cook with more heat and moisture, so this is where the big pieces of meat should go, they add the vegetables on top of this. Some people believe that root vegetables (potatoes, turnips, carrots) should be placed underneath the meat, I prefer the meat then the veggies, it is up to you.
13. While covered, the liquid doesn't boil away like it does on the stove top, so if you are putting in liquid from another recipe not designed for crockpot cooking, reduce the liquid by 1/2 - 3/4 cup or so.
14. Some spices should only be added for the last hour of cooking, otherwise their flavor could fade or in the case of cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes, turn bitter.
15. Aesthetically speaking, colors of veggies fade in the crockpot - carrots, potatoes, etc. So, keep this in mind. Garnish stews and soups with chopped fresh veggies (tomatoes, shredded carrots etc) and fresh herbs to add a flavor boost and a burst of color.