Looking for a convenient, all-in-one kitchen appliance that makes delicious meals with minimal effort? That’s the promise made by many pressure cookers, multi-cookers, and slow cookers alike. But, what’s the difference between each, how do you know which is better suited for your family, and which features are worth paying a higher price?
First up in our three-part series, we take an in-depth look at slow cookers to help you decide which appliance—and model—is worth space on your kitchen counter.
All About Slow Cookers
When trying to understand what sets slow cookers apart, the name really says it all. Slow cookers, sometimes known by the name of best-selling brand Crock-Pot, might be the only kitchen appliance that saves you time by taking longer to cook.
The appeal of slow cookers is that with a relatively modest investment of up-front prep time, you can put the ingredients for dinner together, turn it on, and walk away for a few hours or a whole day.
The cooking method does come with several challenges: A closed cooking environment doesn’t permit much browning or reduction—the keys to flavor development for most cooking methods. Additionally, more delicate ingredients, such as tomatoes and peppers, must be added later in the cooking process so as not to turn to mush. For those reasons, slow cookers are generally depended on for meat-heavy dishes, soups, and stews.
However, with a few everyday basics and a little practice, time-pressed home chefs can use a slow cooker to make a variety of recipes, from casseroles to side dishes and even desserts.
Choosing a Slow Cooker
Slow cookers can range in price from $20-200, yet most have pretty similar features. They consist of three parts: a base containing the heating element, a removable stoneware insert, and a lid.
The first and most important aspect of a slow cooker is its size. Not just for the amount of mouths a slow cooked meal can feed, but because a slow cooker works best when between one-half and three-fourths full. Filling it less will burn or dry out your food; more might cause your cooker to overflow if the food expands during cooking, or if you leave your meal undercooked.
Which Size Slow Cooker to Choose
Diminutive one to three-quart models are ideal for party dips or very small cooking tasks. If you're cooking for yourself or for two, a two and a half to three and a half-quart slow cooker could be large enough. Four-quart size pots are big enough for many kinds of soup, stewed dishes, and casseroles. However, you might want a five to seven-quart model if you have a large family or plan to use it for larger dishes like pulled pork or roasts.
Other considerations include a slow cooker’s shape, as they come in both round and oval designs. Some reviewers state that round is better for soups and stews, but oval is best to accommodate cuts of meat. Since it’s easier for liquid to conform to the shape of its container than trying to cram a square roast in a round hole, we recommend just picking an oval slow cooker.
Additional Slow Cooker Features
Basic slow cookers have an on/off button and not much more. Just turn the control to the desired temperature—low, medium, or high. There's no timer so you'll have to monitor the cooking, especially for smaller quantities of more delicate foods, and you'll have to turn the slow cooker off.
For a higher price, you can get a programmable slow cooker that lets you choose the cooking time. Many of these models allow you to program the slow cooker for up to 24 hours in 30-minute increments and the digital display will show remaining cooking time. Some automatically switch to a keep-warm setting when the pre-set time is up and can keep food warm for hours. Programmable slow cookers often offer additional features for convenience. Here are a few to consider:
- Inserts: Most slow cookers have a removable ceramic pot. However, some are metal. You'll see models with non-stick coatings and some that can safely be used in the oven, microwave, or on the stovetop. Of all the varieties, it appears that ceramic inserts still receive the highest reviews for even heat distribution and minimal scorching.
- Ease of cleaning: An easy-to-clean insert and lid that can go into the dishwasher are handy. Additionally, touchpad controls are easier to clean than knobs and buttons.
- Lids: A glass or clear plastic lid lets you take a look without removing the lid. Some slow cookers have a split lid that's hinged, which lets you check on your food by lifting one side while the other stays shut (retaining the heat).
Slow Cooker Features Not Worth Paying Extra For
Slow cookers have come a long way since first being patented in 1940. Now many models have evolved to include timers that can slow down or speed up a recipe's cooking time, models that stir a pot, or record a roast’s internal temperature.
While those might sound enticing, the folks at America’s Test Kitchen found the fancier features to be more of a hindrance than helpful: Slow cookers that promised the ability to shorten or lengthen a recipe's cooking time caused the quality of the meal to suffer and yielded unpredictable results, even in sturdier foods, such as chili and beans.
Models that claimed to track internal temperatures of meat, then adjust cooking temperatures accordingly, were found to give faulty readings, either because the heating elements were on one side of the slow cooker or because the cut of meat was not symmetrical in size and thickness, resulting in uneven cooking.
Finally, slow cooker models that featured self-stirring pots often stirred the middle contents appropriately but left the outer contents, located next to the heating elements, unstirred and, inevitably, scorched.
Bottom line on fancier features: Look for programmable models with timers, locking lids, and a silicone gasket to prevent spills. Additional features likely aren’t worth paying more for.
Tips & Tricks For Using Your Slow Cooker
First and foremost, don’t forget to prep your slow cooker! Vegetable oil spray or aluminum foil can be used to protect ingredients in recipes where sticking and burning are problematic, such as casseroles.
Here are some additional tips to ensure slow cooker success:
- There’s no escape for liquids in your slow cooker. So, if you're using a recipe not designed for a slow cooker, reduce the liquid it calls for by 1/3—otherwise, you’ll find your main course floating in broth or sauce.
- Again, capacity makes a difference! Slow cookers cook best when filled one-half to two-thirds full.
- Food on the bottom of your slow cooker will cook the fastest and absorb much of the flavor. As such, it’s best to place hearty vegetables, such as potatoes and carrots, on the bottom and meat on top.
- Don’t peek! Every time you remove the slow cooker’s lid, you'll need to add an extra 20 to 30 minutes of cooking time. Instead of releasing all that steam, spin your slow cooker’s clear lid to remove condensation, and then you’ll be able to see your dish clearly.
- That is, unless you want to reduce the liquid or thicken a sauce. Then, you can take the lid off and cook on high for the last 30 minutes.
- Don't blow your budget on meat. Cheaper cuts are more fatty and actually work best in a slow cooker. For example, throwing a chuck roast in your Crock-Pot, along with some onion soup mix, beef broth, and veggies makes a quick and easy dinner with some of the most tender, flavorful beef you've ever tried.
- Use your microwave to heat up aromatics, such as onions and garlic, before adding to your slow cooker. Microwaves are also useful to partially cook hearty vegetables, or release excess moisture and fat from meat.
- Sometimes it’s necessary to wrap more delicate vegetables in a foil packet before placing them in your slow cooker. This keeps them from overcooking and keeps their flavors from fading.
Finally, don't throw away that manual. Slow cooker models vary a great deal, so it's helpful to follow the manufacturer's suggestions for temperatures and cooking times.
Additional Slow Cooker Safety Tips
Slow cookers are certainly convenient, but if used incorrectly they can be hazardous to your health. Here’s what you need to know to make your slow-cooked meals safe and delicious:
- Never place a cold inner pot inside your slow cooker. If you've kept the dish in the fridge, allow it to come to room temperature before cooking, or the ceramic pot may shatter.
- Temperatures between 40° and 140°F fall into the ‘danger zone,’ since bacteria thrive in these temperatures. Try to make sure your cooked food doesn’t sit too long within this temperature range.
- Do not put frozen ingredients in the slow cooker; defrost meat and poultry thoroughly in the refrigerator before slow cooking.
- If you’re cooking meat and poultry on low, the USDA suggests that you start the dish on high for the first hour, then switch to low for the remainder of the cooking time. However, since this may not always be practical, we advise you to bring liquids to a simmer before adding them to the slow cooker on low, thereby jump-starting the creation of heat.
Top Slow Cooker Models
We scoured cooking websites for comprehensive slow cooker reviews that included side-by-side testing. Not surprisingly, the most thorough reviews of slow cookers came from America’s Test Kitchen and Consumer Reports.
America’s Test Kitchen seemed to run the most rigorous testing, trying three different recipes—pot roast, meat sauce, and French onion soup—in each cooker, as well as measuring the precise temperatures at which each ran on their high and low settings. The editors were particularly mindful that modern slow cookers seem to generally cook too hot, and they found that the best models heated above 190 degrees, but below 212 degrees (the boiling point).
Based on their findings, they highly recommended KitchenAid 6-Quart Slow Cooker with Solid Glass Lid ($89.99), with Crock-Pot’s 6½-Quart Programmable Touchscreen ($63.99) coming in second. It’s worth noting that neither of these models come with locking lids or gaskets.
Consumer Reports, on the other hand, tested four recipes—spare ribs, pulled pork, honey chicken wings, and Apple Brown Betty. They found that the price of cookers didn’t seem to predict performance. Editors chose All-Clad’s 9009 6½-Quart Slow Cooker ($179.95) as their top pick with the Hamilton Beach 6-Quart Simplicity Slow Cooker ($45.99) coming in second.
At the end of the day, a slow cooker should offer you the convenience of putting food in before work, and after eight hours, returning to a meal that isn’t pulverized or completely without flavor.
While not all slow cookers are made equal, shopping for a good one doesn't have to be difficult. Just look for the things that make cooking in it as easy as possible, with features that make cleanup convenient an extra bonus.
Slow Cooker Recipes & Resources
Ready to start cooking? When looking for recipes fit for a slow cooker, there is, of course, few resources more dependable than Crock-Pot.com, where you can search for recipes by meal, ingredient, or type of cuisine.
However, you can do more with a slow cooker than Crock-Pot’s traditional dishes. For those willing to invest in their slow cooking-skills, America’s Test Kitchen offers a video series course called “Slow Cooker Revolution.”
Monthly memberships are $19.95, but they do allow a 14-day trial period during which you could easily watch the whole course. Alternatively, if you’re a fan of America’s Test Kitchen and don’t want to sign up for a membership, all the same information is available in their cookbook by the same name, “Slow Cooker Revolution,” for $19.99.
Finally, Youtube is a great resource for those who are culinarily-challenged or simply want to see a recipe in action. We found this fantastic playlist of 31 slow cooker recipes, starting with the slow cooker mac n’ cheese shown below.
- “Slow-Cooker Revolution”, America's Test Kitchen
- “Slow Cookers”, Consumer Reports, March, 2015
- “New Takes on Slow-Cooking Tech”, WIRED, August, 2011
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