A slow cooker or crock pot has become essential for today's busy cooks. You can save on food with a slow cooker because you can use cheaper cuts of meat and have them come out tender and flavorful every time.
There is no difference indicated between the terms slow cooker and crock pot. Note that a Crock-Pot is a registered brand of slow cooker.
Slow Cooker Style and Design
There are basically two common types of slow cookers—those that are traditional in look and those that are portable or "travel-friendly" with locking lids to minimize spills. If you plan on taking your slow cooker to potluck dinners or socials, you may want to opt for a portable type rather than a standard model.
You'll find different styles, sizes, and finishes of slow cooker. If you find you need a variety of sizes, a unit with differently sized ceramic cooking bowls in one heater unit, such as the Hamilton Beach Three-in-One, may be the answer.
Size Is Most Important
Choosing an appropriate slow cooker size is essential if you want this counter appliance to be practical and meet your needs. There's a good range of sizes (capacities) available in various brands, from 1 quart up to 6 or 7 quarts.
You can expect to need 1 quart per pound of meat being cooked in a slow cooker. A 5-quart cooker would be able to handle a 5-pound chicken. Use these size guidelines for a single meal:
- 1 to 3 Quarts: The smallest slow cookers are ideal for singles or couples who want to cook enough for one meal, to use in a recreational vehicle, or for keeping gravy or dip warm.
- 4 to 5 Quarts: A young family of four would find the 4- to 5-quart size handy
- 6 to 7 Quarts: Most crockpot recipes are designed for a 6-quart slow cooker. This size can feed a large family a single meal or give you lots of leftovers.
Slow cooker size is also an important consideration if you entertain a lot, like to make meals ahead, large batches of pasta sauce, and so on. Many homes have more than one size. However, storage may be a problem for some and the most versatile size if you can only have one, is a 5-quart
Most slow cookers are round, but there are many oval models available. The oval shape is quite popular and more versatile for a variety of foods such as a whole chicken or ribs.
Best Slow Cooker Features
The most advanced feature is the programmable setting, which is offered on many slow cookers. Being able to set the cooker to start at a certain time is great for those who must leave it unattended (such as during the workday), and return later to a meal that's ready to serve. Also, a notable feature is an automatic "Keep Warm" setting, which often accompanies a programmable feature. Programmable models usually have a Low and High setting and can also be used as a manual set slow cooker.
Most manual (non-programmable) slow cookers have Warm, Low, and high-temperature settings, but it's always good to confirm before buying. The Warm function can be very handy when the meal is delayed.
Removable ceramic inserts are standard and they clean up well. While off-white inserts were standard years ago, many slow cookers today have black inserts. Exterior finishes range from various colorful patterns to modern stainless steel.
A few slow cooker models have temperature probes that help you to monitor the temperature if the meat is cooked. This is a handy feature that ensures you don't overcook or undercook meat.
While you really don't need much else when using a slow cooker, it's a good idea to have some plastic serving utensils such as a large spoon, slotted spoon, and soup spoon on hand to prevent scratching your ceramic insert. Since some models can become quite hot on the bottom while on High for long periods, keep a wooden cutting board underneath a slow cooker to protect your countertop.
To make clean-up quicker, consider using a crock pot liner such as Reynolds Slow Cooker Bags. They fit round or oval cookers from 3- to 6-quart size.
Specialty Slow Cookers and Crock Pots
While most slow cookers are stand alone single appliances, you can find some very interesting and functional slow cooker units. You can find duo and trio units to cook and keep different dishes at their own temperatures. Connectable entertainment units allow you to line up as many single and duo pots as desired. These buffet servers can be used for entertaining as well as family meals. Each slow cooker has individual controls.
One thing to note is that not all specialty appliances have cooking functions; some are mainly servers with warm settings, so confirm this before buying.
Slow Cook Function in a Multi Appliance
If you need to cut down on appliances due to limited counter space or storage room, you might want to consider a multifunction appliance with a slow cooker setting. Some newer models of rice cookers have a slow cook function, as do some pressure cookers.
There's a lot of value in a slow cooker. They tend to be reasonably priced and you will use the appliance for many years. Because of the various features and sizes of slow cookers, prices vary considerably from $10 to $100 or more for high-end models.
Most often, when a slow cooker breaks down after the warranty period, it's simpler to replace the appliance rather than paying for a replacement part or shipping for repairs.
This is one appliance you'll want to use often, so chose carefully when it comes to size and features. There are many very good brands including Crock-Pot, Hamilton Beach, Cuisinart, Rival, and KitchenAid.