The idea of “slow cooking” is about as old as, well, cooking. From mammoth haunches over a spit to big cauldrons stewing meat and beans day and night, the ancient cook understood that some good things take time. But high maintenance slow cooking fell out of favor in the face of faster, more convenient ways of cooking. That is, until the invention of the first “slow cooker” in the 1970s. These nifty low-energy-consumption appliances are totally hands off – you throw a few inexpensive ingredients in in the morning, put the lid on, plug it in, and walk away. When you get home 8-10 hours later, there’s a hot, hearty, homemade meal waiting in the pot. Today, with more homes than ever where both spouses work, and less and less time to spend in the kitchen, it’s no wonder these machines have made a comeback in the last decade – but the ones on the market today are NOT your granny’s cookers.
I grew up with the old style crock pots that only have a simple three-setting analog dial: Off, Low, and High. They still make cookers this way – like this Rival Crock Pot – and that’s really all the basic functionality you need. The thick ceramic pot evenly distributes the heat from metal heating coils throughout the interior of the pot, while the lid traps heat and moisture, cooking whatever you put inside in its own juices without the muss and fuss of traditional braising. Set it to high and it cooks hotter, faster, or leave it on low to let your stew, roast, or soup cook all day.
The problem with the original crock pot design is that if you don’t happen to be home at the end of however-many-hours your food is supposed to be cooking…it just kept cooking. Which means dried out food at best, or burnt-on entrees at worst. So even simple digital models, like this Crock Pot Smart Pot upgrade the high/low settings to cooking times, usually 2, 4, 6, 8, and sometimes 10 hours, and automatically switch to a very low heat “warm” setting once the cooking time has elapsed. This allows you a little more control over when your meal will be “done” so you can be sure it’ll be ready right when you get home from work, while still giving you a little wiggle room if you’re running late.
That said, unless you work part time, the 2, 4, and 6 hour settings probably won’t be much good to you if you have to start the pot up when you head out the door in the morning. Enter the Cuisinart PSC-650, which is programmable up to 24 hours and can be set at 30 minute intervals to cook your food in exactly the amount of time you’ll be out of the house, and switches to “keep warm” mode for up to 8 hours after the set amount of time has elapsed, so no matter how long you’re gone, your food will always be just finishing when you walk through the door.
The Set’n'Forget from Hamilton Beach goes even a step farther, with the same ’round-the-clock programmable timer, the traditional open ended heat settings, but adding a third option – a setting that will cook meat to a desired internal temperature. The pot comes with a built in meat probe that you insert into the meat you’re cooking through a small hole in the lid of the pot. The probe alerts the pot when the meat has reached the set temperature, causing it to immediately switch to a “keep warm” setting to prevent it from overcooking and drying out – a nice little bit of insurance if you cook a lot of larger pieces of meat but don’t have all day to baste and tend them.
Heat settings aren’t the only thing you should consider if you’re looking to venture into the wonderful world of crock pot cooking – or even if you’re looking at upgrading to a more modern model. You also want to think about size: 4 quarts is about enough for a 3-4 person family, but if you’re looking at regularly preparing larger cuts of meat or soup or chili for a crowd, you probably want to opt for at least a 6 quart model. If you aren’t quite sure what size suits your needs, or if you cook a lot for different sized groups, this Hamilton Beach 3-in-1 is a good way to keep yourself from buying multiple crock pots. It has three stackable pots in 2, 4, and 6 quart sizes that all fit to a single lid and in the same metal frame and heating coils, so you’ll always have the cooking capacity you need without sacrificing a lot of cabinet or counter space.
Finally, if your slow cooker is going to spend a lot of time working your local potluck circuit, you want to be sure to get one with an extremely secure fitting lid. The set’n'forget has a leak-proof gasket style lid and a clip-in spoon, which is great for traveling, and this West Bend comes with an additionl, more traditional tupperware style lid and its own travel carrying case. As an added bonus? The heating coil in the metal base actually doubles as a griddle, which makes it perfect for a big breakfast – just make oatmeal in the pot, and do pancakes, eggs, and bacon on the base!
While there have been huge advances in the design of slow cookers in the last ten years, the same basic functionality is the same: they make great meals with minimal maintenance, and greet you with a healthy, hearty meal at the end of a long day. That said, some features are more worth the splurge than others: do look for a ceramic insert that’s microwave and dishwasher safe for easy reheating and cleanup, but don’t go out of your way to get one that says it can be used on the stovetop. By design, the ceramic pots are better at retaining and distributing heat than focusing cooking, and even though browning meat or veggies in it can save you a pan to clean up, ultimately it really isn’t worth the mess, and a different pan can do it better!
Do you already have a slow cooker, or are you trying to find a better way to get inexpensive, healthy meals on the table? If you have any favorite recipes, I’d love to hear them in the comments!