There is “no pleasure, no rapture, no exquisite sin greater” than meat cooked in a slow cooker. Rival’s Crock-Pot, the original slow cooker introduced in the 1970s is a household name, but others have entered the slow cooker market spurring innovative cooking options, specialty accessories across a broad range of solid products. No matter which slow cooker you choose, you’ll want yours to have a glass lid to prevent you from doing the one thing you should never do: opening a slow cooker during cooking drastically lowers the temperature, extends cook time and may result in undercooked food. What else should you look for? Let Pronto’s Slow Cooker Buying Guide point the way so you’re cooking in no time.
Singles and couples generally do best with 3-quart slow cookers. For larger groups, frequent entertaining or larger cuts of meat, slow cookers in the 5-7 quart range get the job done. Slow cookers need to be at least half full and no more than three-quarters full for optimum cooking and avoiding spillage.
Oval-shaped inserts can accommodate oddly-shaped items like whole chickens and large roasts while round inserts are optimal for soups and stews. Stoneware inserts are heavier, but tend to heat more evenly throughout the slow cooker. Aluminum and stainless steel inserts are lightweight and can often be used on a stovetop or in the oven.
If you want to be able to fine-tune a recipe, look for adjustable temperature controls beyond the traditional High and Low settings. For safety and convenience, consider models with auto shutoff and auto-warm features.
Digital programmable settings offer cooks maximum flexibility with time and temperature throughout the entire cooking process. Handy if the slow cooker will be under minimal supervision—you don’t have to worry about being in the room to change the settings manually.
Maximize use of your slow cooker by purchasing models that offer additional inserts for bread baking and dessert, thermometer inserts to gauge meal doneness, insulated travel cases to deliver meals to friends and family and slow cooker cookbooks.
The ceramic insert of the traditional slow cooker is often referred to as stoneware. While heavy, the ceramic material is a great conductor of heat and also a great insulator. Innovations in cooking technology have resulted in a newer model of stoneware that’s much more lightweight and versatile than the original.
Also known as VersaWare, this style of insert is a lightweight version of traditional stoneware. Unlike traditional stoneware, it can be used on the stovetop, in the oven, in the refrigerator or freezer – even in the microwave.
This option will allow you to program your slow cooker to switch temperatures during cooking. For example – if you want to start cooking on a high setting to quickly raise the temperature of your meat, and then switch to low setting for a long cook time, the dual-control will allow you to pre-set the temperature change.
Some slow cooker literature will include the words ‘thermostatically controlled’ or refer to the heating element. The basic design of a slow cooker includes a heating element casing and a stoneware insert. In some models, the heating element is only on the bottom, and in some models, heating elements extend to the sides of the slow cooker. Heating elements don’t vary extensively from model to model – of more importance is the insert, and how well and evenly it conducts heat.
Some manufacturers support this add-on, which is designed to maintain the temperature of the food during travel. If you intend to bring your slow cooker dishes to parties or office events, an insulated travel case will ensure that your food arrives at the desired temperature to satisfy the masses.
Choosing the right size slow cooker is essential if you want to maximize its usefulness and the range of things you can do with it. For singles or couples, small-capacity slow cookers (up to 3 quarts) are generally best. If you’re cooking for more than two people, like to cook ahead and freeze, or plan to do a lot of entertaining, you’ll want a slow cooker that can hold from 5-7 quarts. Keep in mind that larger slow cookers can’t be used to cook smaller-sized meals. Slow cookers need to be at least half full in order to prevent overcooking, but generally no more than three-quarters full to avoid spillage. Slow cookers excel at cooking meat, so if you intend for that to be your slow cooker’s primary purpose, consider the size of the cuts of meat you’ll regularly cook. You may find that you’ll do better with a larger size, even if you’re cooking a pot roast for two (by the time you add the carrots, onions and liquid, you may run out of room).
The shape of your slow cooker’s insert and the material it’s made of are important factors to consider before making your choice. You’ll probably want to purchase a slow cooker with removable insert which makes cleaning easy and many removable inserts are dishwasher safe.
Slow cooker inserts are either traditional rounds or the more recent oval-shaped. Oval-shaped inserts better accommodate whole chickens, roasts and other large cuts of meat. If you choose a slow cooker with an oval-insert, keep in mind that items in it often need to be fully submerged in order to maximize tenderness and flavor. Round inserts, however, allow you to cook roasts with less liquid and if soups and stews are going to be your slow cooker’s mainstay, round inserts are optimal.
Another important consideration is what material your slow cooker’s insert is made of. Stoneware is very heavy, but its insulating properties ensure even heating throughout the slow cooking process. If you intend to use your slow cooker for non-traditional applications, such as baking bread, stoneware is absolutely essential. Some manufacturers now offer aluminum or stainless steel inserts, which can do duty on the stovetop for any sautéing you may need to do first (fewer pots means less cleanup). Aluminum or stainless steel inserts are lighter than traditional stoneware however, these metal inserts act as conductors, not insulators and your meal may not cook as evenly as they would with stoneware. Lastly, items cooked in aluminum or stainless steel inserts are at higher risk of overcooking than those cooked in stoneware.
Most slow cookers offer two temperature settings: high and low, where high is typically around 200 degrees Fahrenheit and low is around 175 degrees Fahrenheit. Beware the slow cooker that features temperatures significantly higher than this range—your food may cook too quickly and turn dry. These basic high/low settings are fine for traditional recipes, but if you intend to push the creative boundaries of your slow cooker, you may want to have more control over temperature in order to fine-tune your recipes.
One of the great benefits of slow cookers is throwing a bunch of ingredients in the pot in the morning and returning home to a hot meal at the end of the day. If this your motivation for purchasing a slow cooker, purchase one with an automatic shutoff feature. Some of today’s models now come with automatic or optional ‘warm’ settings that, when cooking is complete, will keep your meal warm until serving.
Budget and mid-priced slow cookers usually offer only a few choices when it comes to time and temperature. One that we looked at was as limited as high heat for 4 or 6 hours and low heat for 8 or 10 hours. If you need more flexibility, obviously you need more options! If that’s the case, look for slow cookers that feature programmable settings. You might find that something as simple digital time and temperature setting is enough or that you’d really like to specify your own start and end times. Maybe you’d like to vary temperatures throughout the cooking process (especially useful if you’re perfecting your recipes). If you’re willing to spend the money, high-end models allow to program those changes and walk away and not worry about having to be home to adjust your settings manually. If you cook a lot and tend to fall in love with your kitchen gadgets, consider investing in slow cooker that gives you this kind of flexibility—the more you love you slow cooker, the more you’ll use it.
Slow cookers aren’t just dinner. Some manufacturers make removable specialty inserts, almost always made of stoneware, for bread baking and dessert making. If this sounds like you or even something you’d like to try, consider brands that accommodate these, whether you purchase them now or later. Other specialty options to look for include thermometer inserts that stay in the slow cooker. This is handy because opening a slow cooker while it’s cooking affects temperature significantly. A thermometer insert gives you the option to temp your meal without any negative effects. Cooking at your house for an event at someone else’s? Insulated travel cases are available to make transport easy. Lastly, although it seems obviously, slow cooking is different than other cooking. If you’re new to the method or even if you’re looking to expand your repertoire, slow cooker cookbooks contain recipes modified for maximum flavor preservation for slow cooking and some slow cookers come with their own (it might just be the tie-breaking factor between two models you like).