In this installment of our "Ultimate Guide" series, we're tackling the ins and outs of slow cookers. Want to know exactly how slow cooking works? In the market for your first slow cooker or looking to upgrade to something better? Or maybe you're just wondering how to make the most of the cooker you've already got. Well read on, Foodies, because we're covering all this and more in the paragraphs to come.
So How Does It Work?
First thing's first: let's talk about what a slow cooker actually does. It's pretty simple, really. Much like a pot on a stove, the heating element in a slow cooker heats the internal pot from the bottom and heat transfers up the sides of the pot, allowing conduction to heat the food in the pot from the outside in.
Slow cookers typically have at least 2 cook settings: High and Low. The difference between these settings is simply how long it takes for the water inside the pot to reach its boiling point (water will begin to boil sooner on High than on Low). This means cooking temperature will continue to climb the longer the slow cooker stays on, no matter what setting is used, to a maximum of 212°F, it just climbs more slowly on the Low setting.
For reference, a slow cooker set to Low may take around 7 to 8 hours to reach the simmer point (which is just below boiling, at around 209°F) while one set to High may take closer to 3 or 4 hours. Foods are safe to eat when they reach an internal temperature of at least 160°F, so some recipes will call for less time than this.
Additional time spent at the simmer or boil point will help reduce some of the liquid inside the cooker, though in general slow cooking retains liquids quite well. This is part of what helps foods—especially meats—cooked in a slow cooker to remain tender and moist.
Why Slow Cook?
Without a doubt the main draw of slow cooking is the set-it-and-forget-it advantage it has over regular cooking. Slow cookers are designed to cook without needing to be checked or adjusted at any point, and many have auto-warm settings that kick in once your desired time has been reached to keep foods from overcooking if you can't be in the kitchen right when the cooking is done.
Those who love slow cooking often have busy lives, full-time jobs (or even multiple jobs), and families to cook for on a daily basis. For these people, the convenience of slow-cooking can't be beat—they can put a large roast in the cooker in the morning and expect it to be cooked to perfection right when they get home from work, or they can cook breakfast overnight so they can grab it and go in the morning. If you have errands to run and places to be, and cooking is something that's always getting in the way, slow cooking can be a godsend.
The hands-off nature of pressure cookers is also great for amateur cooks, including young adults and college students, who are looking for a method of cooking they simply can't screw up. Slow cooking is not a particularly exacting style of cooking—since it cooks so slowly, even an extra hour of cooktime is often not enough to ruin your meal.
Slow cookers are also quite energy efficient compared to stoves and ovens. Because the pot is contained within a housing and covered with a lid while cooking, slow cookers don't lose much heat and therefore don't have to use much energy maintaining enough heat to cook.
This also means lower energy bills, though that's not the only way the slow-cooking can save money. Because it keeps meats moist and tender, cooks can use cheaper cuts of meat and still expect delicious results.
Because slow cookers do retain so much moisture and heat up so slowly, they are perfect for soups, stews, roasts, or any recipe that needs to cook low and slow. But if your recipe calls for frying, drying out in the oven, or significantly reducing/thickening a sauce, gravy, or broth, a slow cooker is not suitable; at least, it won't get you all the way from start to finish without using other cooking methods along the way.
What Do I Look For When Buying a Slow Cooker?
These days nearly everyone is a pro at shopping around online, but what are the important points of comparison to pay attention to when choosing the right slow cooker for you?
Most slow cookers weigh in at about 6 quarts, but you may need more or less depending on your cooking habits. If you regularly cook for a large family or parties with friends, you may want 7 or more quarts, but an individual or couple may only need 2 to 4 quarts. In general, a good guideline is to expect to need 1 quart per person (though smaller children may eat less).
If you're thinking, "but I can't eat a whole quart of food!" note that for proper cooking, you cannot fill a slow cooker all the way to the top with food, nor can you fill it less than halfway, so you need a cooker where you can hit the sweet spot (1/2 to 3/4 full) every time. If you want to be able to make less than 4 servings at a time, then, you're going to want a cooker that's smaller than 6 quarts. If you need to be able to make more than 6 servings, you'll want a larger one.
A slow cooker is comprised of a housing/base (containing the heating element), a vessel, and a lid. While you want a housing that's not going to get too dirty or dinged up (stainless steel is great for this) and a lid that allows you to see into the pot and doesn't get too hot to hold (glass with a heat-resistant handle is perfect), it's the material of the inner vessel that deserves most of your attention when buying.
The most popular material for the inner vessel—among both manufacturers and consumers—is ceramic stoneware. Such vessels are sturdy, dishwasher safe, easy to clean, don't stick to food, and provide the most even heating. Some slow cookers, however, have metal vessels, sometimes with a nonstick coating.
Since ceramic vessels are nonstick without needing a special nonstick coating that can wear down over time and potentially release harmful chemicals into your food, all while allowing for more even heating, it's no wonder they're the most popular option.
Most slow cookers come with two main heat settings—High and Low—though some also have a "Medium" setting and many have a "Keep Warm" setting. If you've been paying attention, you know that the real difference between these settings is the amount of time it takes the slow cooker to reach the boiling point (except for Keep Warm, which maintains a steady, below-boiling temperature). But there is no real standard amongst slow cookers for how fast this happens on low and how fast on high; it will depend on the precise model of slow cooker you use.
Unfortunately, user manuals and product descriptions don't always provide the time-to-boiling of each setting. Since slow cooking is such a forgiving method of cooking, however, it shouldn't matter much.
Many slow cookers these days are programmable, and even those that aren't often have auto-off or auto-keep-warm settings that kick in once the cooker's timer runs out. Having an auto-keep-warm function greatly adds to a slow cooker's convenience, so if you're keen on the set-it-and-forget-it advantages of slow cooking, make sure you pick a slow cooker with this feature.
Slow Cookers tend to be pretty basic, but some do have additional smart features, such as a "Probe" setting that uses a thermometer to automatically cook food for only as long as it takes for the food to reach its proper degree of doneness. Some may also have a "Delay Start" feature that allows you to set the slow cooker to start later in the day. This is perfect if you want dinner to cook while you're at work, but the recipe you want to use only calls for 4 to 6 hours of cook time.
There is one brand that for a long time has largely cornered the market on slow cookers and that of course is Crock-Pot. Crock-Pot slow cookers are so popular that for many, crockpot is just another word for slow cooker (kind of like Band-Aid is for bandage or Kleenex is for tissue).
Yet other brands are beginning to give Crock-Pot a run for its money, including All-Clad, Cuisinart, KitchenAid, Hamilton Beach, Rival, and several others. It isn't hard to find a slow cooker from a well-known brand with a strong reputation.
Always look for warranty information when buying an appliance. Slow Cookers can last for years and years, but if something goes wrong, you want to know that you aren't out the tens or even hundreds of dollars you spent. We recommend holding out for a product that comes with a warranty of at least 1 year, though it's possible to find slow cookers with much longer warranties, up to 10 years or even your lifetime.
This one's a huge duh, but you want to find a slow cooker that does what you want at a price you can afford. Slow cookers can cost anywhere between $20 and about $200, so there's a wide spectrum to choose from. Keep in mind that larger slow cookers with smart features and long warranties are likely to be more expensive, while smaller, manual, short-warrantied cookers tend to be much cheaper.
How Do I Make The Most of My Slow Cooker?
While slow cooking is generally a very forgiving method of cooking, there are still plenty of simple mistakes people tend to make that can sometimes turn this insanely easy, hands off cooking method into a sad disaster. Here are a few tips from us to help you avoid common slip-ups and get the most out of your slow cooker.
- Fill your cooker up...but not too much. In order to cook evenly and thoroughly without overheating or drying things out, your cooker needs to be at least halfway full, but not more than 3/4 full. This means cooks with particularly small or large cookers as well as anyone looking to halve or double a recipe needs to be careful to ensure that the recipe they're using will fall within this zone. It's worth noting that most slow cooker recipes are written with a 6 quart cooker in mind, so owners of smaller or larger cookers may need to adjust ingredient amounts as well as cook times.
Know about hot zones. Your slow cooker's heating element is located at the bottom underneath the inner vessel, and it uses conduction to heat the food inside the cooker. This means your cooker does have hot spots—namely the bottom and sides of the pot. Whenever possible, place hardier ingredients that need more heat to cook (such as potatoes and carrots) near these hotspots and keep more delicate ingredients (like mushrooms and tender fruits) nearer the top and center while cooking.
Thaw and sear meats before slow cooking. Much of the flavor of a good meat dish comes from the maillard reaction, in which high heat helps sugars react with amino acids to produce a variety of flavor and aroma compounds. So while it may take extra effort, if you want that nice sear flavor, and especially if you want a bit of a crust to the outside of a roast, you're going to need to brown meat in a pan before adding it to the slow cooker. You should also avoid adding frozen meats to the slow cooker as this can add hours to the necessary cooktime as well as excess moisture. It also makes it harder for your slow cooker to heat things evenly.
Cut large roasts into chunks before cooking. If you're having trouble getting a roast to cook all the way through in a reasonable time, or roasts aren't cooking evenly, try cutting your meats into evenly-sized chunks to make things easier on your slow cooker.
Get familiar with timing. Every slow cooker is slightly different, and what takes one 4.5 hours on Low may take another up to 6 hours on Low. Luckily, because slow cookers are so forgiving with respect to precise timing, the trial and error process probably won't yield any complete failures. You'll also want to get a sense of when during the cooking process to add various ingredients. While many recipes allow cooks to throw in all ingredients at once, recipes with particularly tender or delicate vegetables, fruits, pastas, or dairy can sometimes become a mushy or spoiled mess unless these ingredients are added nearer the end of the recipe's cook time. Even seafood can sometimes become mushy if cooked for the full cooktime.
Season generously and at the right time. Slow cooked dishes often benefit from a heavy seasoning hand and from seasoning at multiple points. Try seasoning dishes both at the beginning and at the end of your cooking process. This allows flavors to soak in and marry, but also ensures that flavors don't fade during the cooking process. Besides, the best way to ensure that any dish is delicious is to adjust seasonings to taste immediately before serving.
DON'T remove the lid. Once your dish is cooking, it don't remove the lid any more than necessary. Every time you remove the lid, you allow heat and moisture to escape, increasing the necessary cook time and potentially drying out your food.
Adjust your liquids. That said, slow cooking is typically very good at retaining moisture, to the extent that you may need to use less liquid than usual when adapting a conventional recipe to the slow cooker or add thickening agents in order to achieve thicker stews and sauces, since the liquid will not cook off and reduce as it would in a pot on the stove.
Know the difference between old and new slow cookers. Slow cookers from the last decade or so follow stricter food safety guidelines than older slow cookers did. This means that modern cookers get hotter faster so that foods like meat and eggs spend less time in the "danger zone" (temperatures that allow bacteria to thrive). If you know a slow cooker recipe is older, you may want to reduce the cooking time to make sure you don't end up overcooking it.
Have the right cleaners and accessories. You should never use abrasive cleaners to clean either the inner pot or the housing of your slow cooker. If you're having trouble with stuck-on foods or just want to make cleanup as painless as possible, consider using slow cooker liners. They're disposable and make cleaning the inner pot completely unnecessary.
Which Slow Cooker Should I Buy?
It's hard to find a truly bad slow cooker, but there are so many choices out there that it can also be hard to find the best one. Below we break down some of the top slow cookers and tell you everything you need to know about them to choose one that's right for you.
The Crock-Pots—The Smartypants
We've already noted that Crock-Pot is and has for quite some time been the reigning slow cooker brand, particularly in the USA. This brand remains popular because it makes highly affordable products that work. The downside is that you aren't likely to find many bells and whistles, nor an extended warranty on their slow cookers. This one does, however, come with lid gaskets to provide a tight seal and prevent messy leaks.
Size: This slow cooker is a fairly standard 6 quarts, which Crock-Pot claims is enough for 7+ people, though you should probably be skeptical of this claim. 6 servings is a safer bet.
Materials: It has a ceramic stoneware inner pot, a stainless steel housing, and a glass lid with heat resistant plastic handles.
Temperature Settings: High, Low, and Keep Warm
Smart Settings: Programmable for cook times anywhere between 30 minutes and 20 hours. Automatically switches to Keep Warm when cooktime is complete.
Brand: We've said a lot about the Crock-Pot brand already; let's just reiterate here that Crock-Pot is the go-to slow cooker brand and has long set the standard for slow cookers. As with many brands out there, customer service reviews are mixed, some lauding Crock-Pot for having excellent customer service, some condemning them as entirely unhelpful. It appears on the whole, however, that the company offers competent and helpful customer service.
Warranty: 1 year limited warranty
Price: $49 on amazon
The Crock-Pots—The Manual
Crock-Pot's manual cooker represents the old guard of slow cookers. It comes in more sizes, is set with a dial rather than digital buttons, and comes with no frills. If you're looking for a starter slow cooker to figure out if slow cooking is for you, this might be your best bet.
Size: Comes in two sizes on Amazon—4 quarts or 7 quarts. Crock-Pot also has a variety of other sizes (as well as colors and patterns) on their official website—anywhere from 2.5 to 8 quarts.
Materials: Cermic stoneware cooking vessel and glass lid with plastic handles. The smaller size features a black or red plastic housing while the larger size has a stainless steel housing.
Temperature Settings: High, Low, and Warm
Smart Settings: None
Brand: See the entry above for more info.
Warranty: 1 year limited warranty
This All-Clad model is a sleek, sophisticated, and smart model for those who want something a little more fancy. It features a digital display, intuitive buttons, and extra temperature and smart settings, though it'll cost you a pretty penny.
Size: This cooker comes in two sizes on Amazon—4 quarts and 6.5 quarts
Materials: The inner pot is ceramic stoneware, while the housing is stainless steel—including the side handles, which means you never have to worry about the handles cracking or breaking. The glass lid has a stainless steel handle that's lined with silicone so that it's never too hot to touch.
Temperature Settings: High, Low, Hi-Lo, and Warm. The Hi-Lo setting begins cooking at High, then switches to Low, which is convenient for the many recipes that call for just such an adjustment part of the way through the cooktime. However, it is unclear how such a setting is different from a "Medium" setting, since the real difference between High and Low settings is simply the time it takes to reach the boiling point.
Smart Settings: Automatically shifts to Keep Warm for up to 6 hours once cooktime is complete and automatically shuts off after that.
Brand: All-Clad has been making awesome stainless steel cookware since 1960, but it has only recently branched out into kitchen appliances. Their customer service is easily accessible on their website, though Amazon reviewers often report negative experiences with customer service.
Warranty: All-Clad has a lifetime warranty on its cookware, but only a 2 year warranty on its electronics. This seems to indicate that the inner vessel and lid are covered for life, but the housing is only covered for 2 years.
This model may not look as sleek and sophisticated as the All-Clad, but it ultimately offers more bells and whistles for less money. This is why it's one of the most popular slow cookers on the market right now. Like the smart Crock-Pot above, the Hamilton Beach has lid gaskets to help secure the lid and avoid spills and messes, but the most interesting thing about it is its "Probe" function. More on that below.
Size: This cooker is a standard 6 quarts
Materials: This cooker has a ceramic stoneware pot within a stainless steel housing and covered with a glass lid. All the handles as well as the footed base are made of plastic.
Temperature Settings: High, Low, and Warm
Smart Settings: What stands out most about this slow cooker is its probe function, which allows you to cook food until it reaches the proper internal temperature. This is most useful (and reliable) for large roasts, but also helpful for stuffings and foods containing egg. It also automatically switches to Keep Warm when the cooking is done, regardless of which temperature or smart setting you use. The Program function allows you to select a cook time after which the cooker will switch to Warm, while the Manual function gives you the ability to simply select your temperature without selecting a cook time.
Brand: Hamilton Beach specializes in appliances and has been around since 1910, so it enjoys a notable amount of trust from consumers. That said, it does have mixed reviews regarding customer service; many feel that the service is straightforward and helpful while many others complain that customer service is needlessly strict about when and how they will replace defective products and require that customers pay shipping fees when they do offer replacements.
Warranty: Hamilton Beach offers a 1 year limited warranty on this product.
Price: $49 on Amazon
Does the right slow cooker for you need to be the smartest kid in class? Then this Cuisinart model is a strong contender. Technically speaking, it's a 3-in-1 multicooker, because in addition to slow cooking, it can also brown/saute and steam. The largest size even has an extra "Roast" setting. What a nerd, right?
Size: It comes in three sizes: 4 quarts, 6 quarts, or 7 quarts.
Materials: This cooker has a cast aluminum cooking pot with a nonstick teflon coating, rather than using the traditional ceramic stoneware material. This is important to mention, because while many have had no issues with the pot, plenty of others have complained of the teflon coating scratching off or forming bubbles over time. While you can always get a new inner pot, some may find the hassle a major downside. The housing of this cooker is stainless steel while the lid is glass and all handles (of which there are 5) are made of plastic.
Temperature Settings: My oh my does this thing have a lot of temperature settings. The slow cooking function has options for High, Low, Simmer, and Warm. The brown/saute function can be set to any temperature up to 500°F, while the roast setting can be set to between 250 and 450°F. The steam function has only one temperature setting—namely, the boiling point of water.
Smart Settings: The many pre-programmed functions of this cooker (slow cook, brown/saute, steam, precise temperature controls, plus simmer and warm options) are what makes it stand out from the pack. Add to this the ability to enter cooktimes for each setting and an auto-keep-warm feature that kicks in when the cooktime is completed, and you've got yourself one smart slow cooker.
Brand: Cuisinart is a collossus in the kitchenware world, so it's no wonder their slow cooker is one of the top choices out there. Customer service reviews however are very similar to those for Hamilton Beach; while some reviews noted positive customer service experience, many reviewers noted issues with high replacement shipping costs and resistant customer service reps.
Warranty: 3 year limited warranty
What Recipes Should I Try?
Need cooking inspiration? There are a million slow cooker recipes out there to try, but these are some of our favorites.
Lamb roasts, lamb stews, shepherd's pie, you name it! Our article on How To Make The Perfect Crock Pot Lamb has tons of tips and recipes for—you guessed it—the perfect crock pot lamb.
What's your favorite thing to make in your slow cooker? Any slow cooking tips we missed? Share them with us in the comments! A good cook never stops learning.