Buyer’s Guide for Finding The Best Slow Cooker
Delicious home-cooked meals are often a luxury that busy people can’t afford nowadays. But if you simply can’t live without the warmth and the taste of home cooking, then a slow cooker will prove to be an invaluable asset in your home.
How They Work
You save time by cooking your meals slowly. The basic premise of a slow cooker goes like this- you fill up the container with food ingredients in the morning, turn the cooker on, and when you get home in the evening, voila! A hot, delicious gourmet meal is waiting for you. It’s an automated, hands-off convenience that can spell the difference between natural food and microwave dinner.
The best slow cookers can cook up any dish you want, whether steamed, braised or poached. It’s versatile enough to be used as water bath for making cheesecakes and tasty custards. Hot pots can turn tough meat cuts into melt-in-your-mouth slabs, create complicated stews and hot soup on demand. One interesting thing about slow cookers is that you can simmer food for a long time and at a low temperature as you leave for work.
Choosing the Best Slow Cooker Available
Here’s a comprehensive guide on how you can find the one that’s right for you. We’ll also show you some of the most important features to look for when investing in a slow cooker for your home.
What types are there?
Mechanical Slow Cooker
A no-frills slow cooker will have an on/off button and a dial that you can turn to set the cooking temperature to. You can choose to cook on high, medium or low heat depending on several factors. These mechanical slow cookers won’t have timers so you’ll have to do the monitoring manually. Furthermore, you’ll have to be close by when you’re cooking small batches of food or when you’re cooking delicate gourmet because the unit doesn’t turn off by itself.
Older models will stay on the heat level you initially set them to. Others will have a keep warm mode, but again, you’ll have to switch it manually. Mechanical slow cookers are prone to overcooking meals unless you’re working from home or staying on a weekend.
Programmable Slow Cooker
It has a digital timer and nifty electronic controls that allow you to set the exact cooking time. Newer models have more sophisticated controls such as choosing between preset times or cooking modes. Having a programmable feature helps prevent overcooking and turning your meals into unrecognizable mush. To give you an idea, some slow cookers can be programmed to cook for 24 hours with a digital display showing the remaining cooking time.
Features To Look For
Each type of pot material has its own pros and cons. Some slow cookers tout non-stick pots that you can use on the stove top, the microwave or the plain old oven, while others are made from metal or ceramic. The most popular pot material are the ceramic and porcelain ones as they are best for slow cooking purposes.
Most slow cookers in the market have a heating element at the base. Some high-end crock pots have heating elements on the side which is a nice touch because it cooks more evenly. It’s not uncommon for hot pots to have a base that fits in a removable insert. Cookers that have crocks sitting on top aren’t the best ones to get as you’ll need to do some stirring in order for the food to not get burnt, which seems counterintuitive of the fact that slow cookers can be left well alone and still cook delicious meals!
Keep Warm Setting
Automatic slow cookers will have a keep warm setting that automatically turns on when the pre-set cooking time has passed. Plus, your food will be kept warm for hours when you’re stuck in traffic. In instances where a time gap is unavoidable and when food tastes less better when it gets cold (like in polenta, marinara sauce, etc.), a keep warm setting can be a lifesaver. Think of catered foods that are still warm but not hot, and you’ll have an idea of just how useful a keep warm setting can be.
Crock pots have definitely evolved from being able to generally cook meals to having cooking options such as the sear function. With it, you can saute vegetables, onions or brown meat before putting them all together. The price to pay for this convenience is a higher price tag, but if you’re someone who definitely needs to pre-sear or brown food, then it becomes a must-have.
The pro here is that you won’t need to prepare a separate skillet and put it on a stovetop if the recipe calls for browning or searing meat before the slow cooking process. The sear function can done in 2 ways- first, you will be able to sear the meat right inside the pot by turning on the sear setting before switching to slow cooking. This is the option for those who don’t have the time to prepare a separate skillet for searing purposes. Second, you can put the pot on top of the stove, turn the heat on and just sear it right there and then. Afterwards, you can put the pot insert back to the slow cooker and turn it on to finish cooking.
Either one will save you one less pan to wash, though you’ll have a somewhat more limited space for searing and browning. If searing isn’t that important to you or if you’re on a budget then the sear function becomes a luxury rather than a necessity.
Look for slow cookers that have glass lids, as they are far superior than their opaque and plastic counterparts. Clear material will let you peek inside the pot without needing to actually remove the lid from the pot, thereby releasing heat. In short, you’ll see what’s going on inside without interrupting the cooking process. Some slow cookers will have lids that are hinged onto the unit, allowing you to lift up the lid while keeping the heat contained.
If the reason why you’re thinking about buying a slow cooker is because you often serve a group of people in parties in potlucks, then you’ll need a hinged lid and an included serving ladle that fits in snugly through it. A locking mechanism prevents food spillage as you transport the slow cooker to and fro gatherings.
A good-sized slow cooker will have a capacity of somewhere between 2 to 7 quarts and are oval in shape. The product manual will often suggest that you only fill the pot to about three-fourths full to prevent undercooking and messy spillovers. If you have a family of four, then we would suggest getting a slow cooker that’s about 5 or 6 quarts in capacity.
Opt for a 5 to 7 quart size when possible. A 6-quart slow cooker will be able to cook food good for 3 to 4 people. Moreover, it will be large enough to handle whole chickens and most roasts you can think of. A loaf pan and a 2-quart souffle can fit inside if you need to bake cheesecakes or make pudding. Think of it this way- you can cook up food using a 6 quart slow cooker in the same quantity as a 4 quart one, but a 4 quart slow cooker won’t be able to cook as much as a 6 quart unit.
You can get a mini slow cooker that can hold dips, or get extra-large holding pots for feasts, but the best general-purpose ones are that of the 3 or 4 quart variety. The only exception to this rule is if you have a large family or if you constantly cook up large batches of food for guests, co-workers, etc.
Slow cookers come in all shapes and sizes! Some of them are oblong, while others are oval or round. But which shape is the best? It helps to visualize what kind of food you’ll mostly be cooking in the crock pot. Ribs, chicken and brisket will do well with an oval shape. It can also handle a wide variety of meat cuts for different cooking purposes.
Keep in mind that two slow cookers can have the same capacity but have different shapes. Bulky ones are more difficult to transport and store and they take up more space. If you’re planning on mostly cooking stew, soup and other liquid-based meals, then go for the shape that will fit in your counter or cabinet perfectly.
Added Features and Accessories
Don’t overlook the importance of a sturdy handle. Other minute features to watch out for are add-ons such as roasting racks that allow you to steam vegetables, roast chicken and other meat more conveniently, cord storages, insulated carrying bags and a temperature probe. A probe is especially useful for cooking meat because it can let you know the current meat temperature and tell you how much more time you need to reach the desired temperature. That, and it will automatically have the slow cooker go to keep warm mode when the right temperature is reached.
Ease of Cleaning
Can the crock or container be removed if you need to clean up? Slow cookers that have the pot and heating unit fused together will prove to be difficult to clean. If you want to save time and headache, opt for a removable pot. What’s more, having a lid and an insert that’s dishwasher-friendly is a plus. Touch controls are easier to wipe than switches and knobs.
Almost all home-cooked meals are great with rice, but which rice cooker is the best for you? Again, this depends on your situation. If you have a small family, then you can probably make-do with a 3-cup rice cooker. If you’re feeding a family of 4 to 7, then a 6-cup rice cooker will be the best one to have. The key thing to remember is that a cup of rice that goes in the rice cooker isn’t the same as U.S. cup size. It’s actually just about 3/4 a standard US cup.
If you’re living in an apartment or a home with limited kitchen space, consider investing in a multi-purpose rice cooker that can function as a steamer. Better yet, get a multi-cooker which is excellent at slow cooking, steaming and pressure cooking the ingredients into the dish you want.
For pressure cookers, the features you need to look out for are the following- heavy gauge steel material, durability and resistance to corrosion. You’ll also want an accurate pressure indicator. The standard cooking pressure is somewhere around 15 psi. Check out units that have a quick release catch for when you need to add ingredients later. Last but not the least, you’ll need safety features that allow the built-up pressure to escape without potential harm.
Can one cook rice in a slow cooker? The quick answer is yes. You may use the cooker to cook rice along with the prepared veggies or meat. The juices from the meat or the vegetables will be soaked up in the rice. In a nutshell, a slow cooker has a flavorful advantage over cooking on the stovetop for the reasons mentioned.
Soup lovers will find hot pots especially useful. But what constitutes a good hot pot cooker? You’ll need a shallow pot with a large circumference for a larger soup surface area. You may use a butane camp stove when cooking with a hot pot. There are electronic hot pots for when you’re not too comfortable handling flammable material. There are slow cooker recipes that mimic the cooking of traditional hot pots- these are great for when you need a satisfying fare that warms the soul!
A slow cooker works best if it does the things you want it to do. In short, the best slow cookers are ones that cater to your specific cooking needs. If you’re always away but want to get delicious home-cooked meals, then a programmable slow cooker is your best option. If you’re the sociable type who goes on potlucks, then you’ll need a portable slow cooker. You’ll always find a slow cooker that fits your budget. The convenience of having a gourmet meal waiting for you at the end of the day will be well worth the investment!