Guide to Slow Cookers
Are you trying to decide what would be the best slow cooker for your family – or for a gift? The Guide to Slow Cookers helps you evaluate your needs!
As you may know, Rich and I are in the middle of preparing to move. We will be combining households with his parents, who have reached the stage of life where they could use some help, and we have reluctantly come to the conclusion that it makes financial sense for us to leave New York City. The two together were unarguable.
So, that combining households part is tricky, and takes a lot of planning. It was bad enough when he and I did it some ten years ago – but now, we don’t want to haul something 500 miles if it’s a duplicate. They already have a well furnished, well-supplied house! So we’ve been downsizing like mad, and that includes the kitchen. I’ll do most of the cooking, so I will keep some of my tools and appliances, but only if they meet a need, so… her blender and my food processor – her saucepan and my frypan… and basically their dishes, baking pans, and so on.
I’d decided that I would do a few Holiday Gift Guides over the next few weeks, since my mind is on comparing cookware and appliances! (And my kitchen is being dismantled… so recipe development is getting complicated.) After a lengthy consideration of slow cookers, though (and the decision to not move mine) I realized I had enough thoughts about them for a standalone post.
See – if you want me to tell you the Best Slow Cooker – I’ll tell you that I cannot. Much more than most other appliances, it depends on your situation, family, lifestyle, cooking style… I will get a new one after the move, specifically because our situation is changing.
First of all – notice that I call them slow cookers rather than the more common crockpots. There are two reasons. The first one I had did not, in fact, have the crockery insert (most that I discuss here will) so I didn’t think of it that way. But also, Crockpot is, in fact, a trademark of a corporation. I used to be a vendor for a company that made cookware and appliances (none of which will be discussed here, as most are not currently available on the US market) so I trained myself quite firmly to never use the other term. Slow cooker it was…
So yes, most do have the crockery insert. It holds heat, helps bring the heat up around the sides even if the only heating element is in the bottom of the pot, and helps maintain a very even heat. (It is also heavy and awkward, and breaks easily – hold that thought, I’ll return to it.)
The basic model typically has three manual settings – High, Low, and Warm. And it stays as you set it until you change it. For years that was all there was – but it’s limiting if you are out of the house more than 8-9 hours. because food can overcook. On the other hand, that’s what I have now, and it’s fine – we both work (mostly) from home, so even if I’m away, Rich is here to switch the setting to Keep Warm at the right time. And when I make stock from a chicken carcass or a pork bone I can just let it run for 24 hours with no trouble at all, which gives me a rich stock with plenty of gelatin. Many Sabbath observant Jews prefer this for cholent for the same reason – set it up, and it simmers happily away until you are ready for it. If that’s what you need, then that’s all you need.
On the other hand, if you work and commute long hours, if you can’t guarantee when you’ll get home, if you might need to be out or too busy to fuss in the kitchen when food is ready, you’ll think a timer is the Best Invention Ever. When the timer says the food is cooked, the programmable slow cooker switches to Keep Warm, so your food is held for several hours at a safe temperature. Simple luxury! One non-mushy late dinner after you’ve been stuck in a traffic jam (or every day if you have a long commute) or one emergency double shift in which you don’t worry that dinner has dried out will basically pay for it. I loved the one I had when I was working until 6:00 or 7:00 and could come home to chicken that was not cooked to rags! Both Crockpot and Hamilton Beach make good, well-made, less expensive models both with and without timers or other features. (I currently own a Hamilton Beach.)
Now, depending on your budget, you can decide what features you want. You can get a relatively simple one, where you push a button to select a preset time, often in two hour increments, or one that you can adjust to the exact time you need. (Personally I often like to cook chicken for seven hours – it’s cooked through but still firm enough for many recipes. At eight hours, it falls off the bone.) The adjustable ones tend to have the option of longer cooking times as well – up to 24 hours. They also tend to cost more, but the features can make the price well worth it. Higher end ones I would recommend are All Clad (which I saw demonstrated many times,) KitchenAid and Cuisinart. (I have not used slow cookers by either of those companies, but have owned other products and done well with them.)
Speaking of features… Other ones to consider. Shape. I prefer oval – chickens come oval (and if you’re getting the idea that I often use mine to cook chicken, you’re right) and they’re more apt to have space for long bones – pork shoulder, for instance, or ham. But if you don’t cook meat, or don’t cook larger cuts, the shape might not be a factor. A round pot works quite well for stew, soup, and beans.
Speaking of fit, what size do you need? I have actually used a two quart one which made a few servings of stew, and was wonderful for apple butter and the like, but… much too limiting for me. Right now I have a six quart, because it holds those pork shoulders I mentioned – but then I never use it to make just one or two meals for the two of us, because that amount of food just seems lost in it. (Now that I will be cooking for four, that may make more sense.)
You can get a slow cooker with a lid that clamps on so that it is portable – you can even get a thermal carrier for some models! Useful if you often go to potlucks or bring food to family dinners – cook at home, then plug it in to keep warm – not something I felt I needed. Whatever you do, make sure it has handles and you can move the hot pot safely, though – most do, now, but once I had one I could not move… Also make sure the insert can be removed! That’s pretty standard, these days – but it was not true of my cheap little two quart, which made it a major nuisance to wash.
Sometimes you can choose color, or patterns (or even team insignia) though most right now are stainless steel. I’m starting to see bells and whistles that I cannot tell you anything about – hook up a slow cooker to wifi? (Perhaps some day that will seem as obvious as the timer!) A pot that stirs itself? Some sell replacements for the crocks, and that’s a big plus… they do crack.
And some don’t have crocks at all. Remember above when I told you to hold the thought of heavy, breakable crocks? You can get slow cookers that are metal pots that sit on a heated base. The heat isn’t quite as even – though I never found it made all that much difference. The biggest issue with them is that you often cannot move the hot base – and that can be a problem, especially in a small kitchen. But you can brown meat on the stove in the pot – saves washing a pan… And you can then put that pot right in the refrigerator with everything ready to cook, so that in the morning you just put it on the base, turn everything on, and head out. Above all, you don’t have to handle the heavy, awkward, breakable pot… which can be particularly important if you have issues with your hands, or are getting older… (My mother would only use this kind, because she had arthritis in her hands and was afraid of dropping a crock.) I am only aware of West Bend making these.
Have I thoroughly confused you? Or have I helped you clarify what questions you need to ask, and which features you do or do not need? I would not dream of keeping house without a slow cooker, though every other appliance is optional, even if useful. They are easy to use, very forgiving, and extremely convenient. There is finally nothing like dragging in the door after a long hard day – and smelling your own delicious dinner!