The Slow Cooker is something every kitchen needs! Well, okay, it’s something most kitchens could make very good use of at least! Slowly cooked meats can make mouth-watering, melty recipes from the cheapest cuts. So, once you buy a slow cooker you can enjoy cheaper meals. And, luckily, these are one small kitchen appliance that can be found at very reasonable prices too!
If you prefer your meats to be cooked to tender, juicy perfection you have three main choices;
- get yourself an electric slow cooker
- invest in a decent Dutch oven
- spend a lot on expensive prime cuts of meat!
Personally choices 1 and 2 make a lot more sense. And, whilst I really love a good cast iron Dutch oven, I have to say, something that simply sits on the counter “doing it’s thing” all day long has its place too! And so, it is time for a My Shiny Kitchen look at the best slow cookers available today.
Every small appliance manufacturer seems to have some kind of crock-pot or slow cooker in its range. So to speed things up, and save me having to look at hundreds of products, I thought we would first take a look at what kind of cookers there are to choose from. Plus of course, what the benefits are of each, and the key points to look out for before making a purchase.
On with the Guide to Buying a Slow Cooker then…
Slow Cooker Types
First up, what type of slow cooker should you get? Well, it depends on just how “hands-off” you want to be with your cooking, how much space you have, how versatile you need your latest appliance to be and how much cash you have to spend (as usual). The key options available are:
Manual Slow Cookers
These leave you with the duty of switching them on and off! Fine if you are at home when you want your latest culinary sensation to be created, but not so convenient if you would like to get it all done whilst you’re out at work. On the plus side, there’s less to go wrong, and less money needed to bag yourself a good quality one.
Crock Pot Slow Cookers are the original and possibly the best when it comes to manual versions.
$30-$40 will get you a good sized manual slow cooker. You will want at least three temperature settings (low and high for the cooking, and warm for keeping the end results warm).
Programmable Slow Cookers
These are probably the number one choice for most. A little computer wizardry lets you pop in your ingredients, switch on and forget. Once the cooking time is up there is usually a “keep warm” feature which will work for a specified length of time (6 – 8 hours being usual). So you can put the meal on to cook before leaving the house and know it will be cooked and still hot when you sit down to dinner.
Perhaps the best budget buy programmable cooker is the Hamilton Beach Set ‘n Go, which you can read more about in our full review.
These automatic crock pots vary hugely. There are basic models with a selection of timings and a few temperatures. Or choose touch-screen controls that give you far more control over cooking time and temperature. You may even want to cook something up high for an hour and then have the machine cool to a lower temperature for another 10 hours or so. For the most safety conscious there are even models which will take the internal temperature of your meat and ensure the correct “safe” temperature is reached for a certain period of time.
Versatile Slow Cookers
Multi-functionality is the way just about everything is heading. If you are short on space (or simply love having the most versatile gadgets available) you can choose slow cookers that double up as steamers, or use pressure to increase the speed of cooking (which kind of seems weird for a slow cooker).
Some models can be used as griddle’s if the mood takes you, and all can simply be food warmers. A couple of options include 2 – 4 crocks so you can keep various items warm in one product – great for buffet entertaining I guess.
These are not electric. The idea is you heat your recipe ingredients up to boiling temperature, and then pop the inner crock into a giant Thermos. So long as they are around half full there will be no problem keeping the ingredients at over 160º for six hours or so, which is ample time to cook a great stew, casserole or curry.
They are pricey, but you end up cooking without using energy (once the initial boiling point is reached), so are the ultimate “green” choice should you have environmental persuassions. They basically allow free slow cooking (after the initial purchase at least) just like old fashioned hay box cooker. Thankfully they are a little more convenient for most home kitchens too!
Slow Cookers – What To Look For
The idea might be the same; cook things on a relatively low temperature using little energy, but slow cookers vary hugely. Here are a few things to consider, as the features that might be important to you are not always included:
- Lockable lid handles can make a great slow cooker, a far more versatile item for taking food out travelling.
- Size matters. 4 – 6 quart capacities are likely to be the most versatile, and therefore encourage you to use your new kitchen gadget often. You might also want to consider a model that includes a few different sized cooking crocks that all stack inside each other when not in use.
- Ideally the inner crock must be removable for easy and thorough cleaning.
- You also probably want that pot to be suitable for cooking on the stove. That way you can brown meats and caramelize onions and so on, all in the one pot before popping it into the slow cooker to continue simmering.
- If you are going “automatic” a count-down display is a must. If you still have to set a kitchen timer to know when the stew will be ready you may as well press the “off” switch yourself!
- Clay and stoneware inner cooking vessel will be heavy. You can get metal versions but heavy is good since stoneware will hold the heat more effectively.
- To be economical to use any slow cooker should be very well insulated, which means the outsides should be stay cool. If customers are complaining the outside gets hot, the insulation is not up to much and you’re paying to heat the outside of the pot as well as its contents.
- Oval or rectangular crock pots might be more convenient for your kitchen surfaces. But on the whole, cooking something in a circular pot uses less energy.
- Some crock-pots will let you choose a start time, but most “programmable” slow cookers don’t. If you need the ability to tell your cooker when to switch itself on as well as off, you’ll have to pay a little more for it – and search a little harder for one too!
- Some, but not all programmable cookers let you specify different types of cooking (so 2 hours on high, and then 6 on low for example). This may or may not be an issue for the type of recipes you plan on making.