Slow cookers are a common feature in many kitchens. They allow you to simmer tough meats, stews and soups at very low temperatures and for long periods of time. But the end result is a gorgeous mouth-watering meal.
However if you’re having difficulty choosing the best type of slow cooker, I recommend that you read this guide. It will help you make a decision based on how involved in the cooking you want to be, the space in your kitchen, what you want your cooker to do, the number of people you’re cooking for and, crucially, how much you’re willing to spend.
Bear in mind that the slow cooker has three essential parts: the outer container, the crock pot or inner vessel, and the lid.
Slow Cooker Types
There are three main type of slow cookers. I think it would be useful to familiarize yourself with each to see which one best suits your needs.
Manual Slow Cookers
These are the most basic slow cooker. The simplest versions has just the on/off button. The better versions have a minimum of 3 temperature settings: high, low and warm. The ‘warm’ button is a useful one to have because it keeps the food warm when the cooking’s complete. I would recommend this version for you if have a tight budget and are present at home for all the time that the cooking is going on and because the high, low and warm functions have to be manually turned on.
However, I wouldn’t recommend it if you’ve got to be out all day and want to find your food ready to eat on your return. You would need something with automatic settings such as a programmable cooker.
Programmable Slow Cookers
This is great for you if you’re away most of the day and want everything done and ready in your absence. You simply toss in your ingredients in the morning, turn on the cooker, program it to operate for the amount of time you want, say 7 hours, and out you go for the rest of the day. In your absence, the cooking goes on undisturbed and when it’s done, the device automatically switches to warm mode (unlike the manual cooker which need to be physically turned to that mode). On your return, your food is warm and ready to be eaten.
There are numerous varieties of programmable slow cookers on the market. The most basic ones have fewer timing selections and temperatures, while the more advanced ones have many different features, including a manual mode. I would advise that you choose a cooker that meets your needs and caters for the kind of recipes you wish to try out.
Multipurpose Slow Cookers
The multi-task slow cookers are great for you if you’re a cooking enthusiast or have a home-catering service. A variety of functions can be performed through the slow cooker. These include steaming, notching up the pressure to speed up the cooking, and simply warming up the food. Some cookers even have up to 4 crocks to enable you to warm up a variety of food items in the same cooker.
Slow Cooker Essentials
No matter the slow cooker you use, there are a number of essentials I believe every cooker should have if it’s to function the way you want it to.
If you love to go on one-day family trips, I would recommend a cooker with a lockable lid. This keeps the food intact and stops it from spilling on the trip in the car.
It’s never a good idea to lift the lid while the food is cooking because this allows heat to escape. Remember that heat is essential for the cooking process. However, if you’re not sure you can resist the temptation, I would advise that you buy a cooker with a glass or plastic lid, so you can check on proceedings without lifting the lid. Or you could buy a cooker with a flexible lid. This way, you can lift up one side of the lid to peak in while the other side remains intact, keeping the heat in.
The type of food you want to cook should match the capacity of your cooker. Your owner’s manual will help you in this. If you cook too little food in a large space, your meal will very quickly become dry so your best bet would be a smaller cooker. Here are some guidelines to help you choose the right size.
- A small cooker has a food capacity of up to 3 litres and is great for feeding up to 2 people
- A medium cooker has a food capacity of about 5 litres and is just right for 4 people
- A large cooker has a capacity of about 6 litres and is great for meals involving 5 people or more
The Crock pot
The crock pot or inner vessel, is the heavy ceramic dish contained within the slow cooker. I would recommend a removable crock pot. It’s easily washed by hand or in the dishwasher ( if the label says it’s dishwasher safe).
While many crock pots are made of ceramic, others are made of metal and are lighter. But one thing to bear in mind is that the heavier the crock pot the better it is at holding the heat.
A crock pot that is versatile will allow you to be versatile in your cooking, I believe. There are crock pots you can use on the stovetop for quick browning of meat and sautéing of onions after which the crock pot and its contents may be put into the cooker for leisurely simmering. Other crock pots can safely be used in the microwave or oven. In fact some recipes require that you lift the crock pot from the cooker and place it in the oven for baking.
When your food is cooked, you can place the entire crock pot on the dining table and have people serve themselves directly from it.
Crock pots come in different shapes, too. Most are circular but it’s not unusual for some of the larger ones to be oval, rectangular, or oblong in shape. Generally, the circular pots take up less energy and they’re great for stews. However, if you want to cook larger meats or whole chickens, I would suggest the other shapes. They keep the chicken intact and stop it from falling apart.
You can set the timer so it does a countdown to the hour when the food will be ready. Some cookers will cook something at high heat for about an hour and then automatically change down to a lower temperature for another 8 hours. If you cook recipes that require an up and down change, then this model is for you.
Check that your device is properly insulated. That means it should remain cool on the outside during the cooking process. The heat should do its job on the inside of the slow cooker where the food is.
Many slow cookers have the basic temperature buttons, high, low and warm while others have another button – auto. I would recommend you get a cooker with this function. When you start off with ‘auto’ the temperature will initially be on high to get the food to a high temperature quickly for efficient cooking, and after a while it changes down to low for concentrated cooking. The low setting achieves the same kind of results but the ‘auto’ function enables a quicker result.