You might have seen slow cookers and their recipes popping up in your Facebook feed recently, or perhaps you've seen them on food blogs. For a few years now, the slow cooker, also known as the crock pot, has seen a resurgence of interest. The device is hardly new, but the economic stagnation of the past few years, combined with the proliferation of creative cooking content, has built into the perfect storm of attention. It is popular to use slow cookers for increasingly elaborate meals. However, they still maintain their role as a great way to cook large amounts of food inexpensively and easily. In this post, I'll give you all the background you need on slow cookers, how they work, and what you need to know about them. I'll also review 6 of what I feel to be good representations of different kinds of crock pots. I am not necessarily trying to find the best 6 available, but to show you the options and give you an idea of what's out there so you can be an informed consumer. I love cooking with slow cookers and hopefully after reading this post, you'll see why and become just as enthusiastic as I am.
Slow cookers have worked the same way since their invention in the 1950s. There are two parts to each model. There is a metal outer oval-shaped container. This contains a heating element in the bottom and the sides. It also has temperature controls. Most slow cookers have very general controls, with settings like "Low", "Medium", "High", and "Keep Warm" instead of exact temperatures. The second part is an inner container with the same oval shape. This part will contain the food, and it is usually made of ceramic. The heating elements warm up the ceramic container and the food, and then you can take it out afterward for easy serving and cleaning. Slow cookers also have a glass lid with a rubber seal. However, they are not pressure cookers and the inside of the cooker does not have more pressure than the air outside: this is to keep liquids confined to the cooker without bubbling out and to keep anything from falling in, as well as to maintain the right temperature. Slow cookers use electrical heating elements with no exposed flame. They do not reach temperatures as high as an oven or stovetop. Instead, you fill it with ingredients, pick a temperature setting, and then let everything simmer for several hours. The exact time frame depends on your recipe and preferences.
Advantages of Slow Cooking
Slow cookers have a number of unique characteristics that make them attractive. First of all, they are very easy to use. All you need to do is put everything in the pot, then put the lid on, turn on the heat, and walk away. Come back hours later and the meal is ready. At the same time, it is safe to leave unattended, unlike most other forms of cooking. That means you can let food simmer overnight or during the day when you are out of the house. Of course, you will need to be careful of things like spoilage if you are using dairy and similar items, but most crock pot recipes revolve around the idea that you can cook without paying any attention to the process.
That is not to say that slow cookers are for the lazy or that they make mediocre food. To the contrary, there is an entire array of meals that work best in slow cookers and only reach their full potential using that "low and slow" cooking approach. The long simmer makes the meat and other ingredients incredibly tender while allowing the spices to meld with everything in the pot.
What To Look For In A Slow Cooker
If you are starting to become interested in trying out slow cookers, then there's a few things you should know. First of all, you don't have to spend a lot of money. It is very possible to get an excellent unit for under $30. Don't feel pressured to spend extra to get the very "best" available cooker. Remember, these have been around for almost 70 years now. Newer models have features that make them more reliable, easier to clean, more energy efficient, and so on, but the basic task of simmering is always the same. The main thing that modern slow cookers add is the ability to program in a cooking time. You can set a particular time that you want the cooker to run, and at the end of that time it will switch over to the "keep warm" mode.
Aside from all that, you need to consider things like how large you want it to be and what extra features you want, like a locking lid or a heat probe. In my experience most good slow cookers are all roughly the same in terms of how well and consistently they cook, so the question is really how much you want to pay, what features you need, the size, and what you plan to do with your cooker.
The SCCPVL610 is one of the most popular models of slow cookers. It has a list price of $60. Its most notable features include the locking lid, the programmable cooking for up to 20 hours at a time, and the 6 quarts of capacity. It is designed for both home cooking and for bringing food to parties and other gatherings.
To break everything down piece by piece, the locking lid is a very good feature. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is impossible to try to transport any slow-cooker model without a locking lid because the risk of spillage is too high, considering how heavy these can be when full and how much liquid is inside them. Next, the programming is one of the longest time lengths I have seen so far. In fact, you should be careful with it. Leaving food in a warm environment for 20 hours risks spoilage and bacteria, so make sure that you seal it up tight and that you keep a close eye on the food. As far as the size goes, 6 quarts should be plenty. Usually the most you will ever see is 7. Six is enough to feed a family because you can fit in a 6-pound cut of meat to roast or make a lot of soup, stew, dip, or sauce. For the money, this is a powerful and modern machine that will do just about anything you need.
Hamilton Beach's 7-quart monster is a little bit cheaper than the Crock-Pot at $40. Here is the rundown of the main differences between them. First of all, the capacity is obviously a little bigger. Next, it uses a different locking mechanism, which I will address later on. It also uses a different style for programming: you get greater control but only up to 10 hours of cooking at a time.
I like this Hamilton model because of its value. You will not see more than 7 quarts of capacity on any model, so if you really want to be on the safe side as far as size goes, this is where you want to be. The price is right for that much space. Even if you don't use all of that volume, you can fill it up with 6 quarts of food and liquids and be less worried about spills. You can program it to 1, 4, 6, 8, or 10 hours, and it will completely shut down after 14. The locking mechanism uses straps to seal the lid in place, which is very secure. The lid itself is well-designed and never shows condensation. All in all, Hamilton Beach did a good job at packing it with features and size while remaining at an affordable price point.
This is our first example of a 4-quart cooker. It is much cheaper at just $19. The lower price is not just because of the reduced size: it also comes from a lack of features. There is no lid lock and no programming on the Proctor Silex. That may or may not be a problem for you. If you don't see yourself using programming and you don't plan to carry the pot itself out of the house, you won't need either of those features. To be honest, I often find myself just using a timer on my phone instead of programming.
In any case, this is a typical budget offering. No bells and whistles, just a pot that heats up. The capacity is fine for one person but a family might push it to its limits. There are three temperature settings: high, low, and keep warm. The outside is made of aluminum and the inner pot is ceramic. The aluminum is not the toughest metal, which is another good reason to keep it at home. If you don't have any interest in programming or a lid lock, there's no reason to spend money on them. This is a good example of how you can save half off the price just by looking for the version without the fancy extras. You will get a lot of value out of this model because it is quite inexpensive and will last for a long time with proper care. It's a sign of just how good the value in slow cookers can be.
In terms of sheer feature set, this might be my favorite cooker. If you really want to take slow cooking to the next level, you'll want to drop the $50 on this Hamilton Beach machine for a few reasons. First of all, the programming is flexible and powerful. Next, it has a strong lid clamp for sealing. Last, though certainly not least, it has a very rare feature: a temperature probe that fits into the gasket. True fanatics will know that slow cookers can vary a lot in terms of the temperature at which they cook. With the probe, you'll be able to monitor the temperature and avoid the chance of overcooking the meat or other foods.
That is probably not that important to most users. The precise cook temperature won't make a chili recipe succeed or fail. But for perfectionists or just people who want to get the most out of their cooker, it can make a big difference. Consider the investment if you really want to get the cooking temperature right. It also comes with the other high-end features, so the probe is far from the only upside.
This is the most high-end cooker on this list. It's loaded with special features. First of all, take note that you can punch in the exact temperature you want for cooking, as well as the time. Next, you get three different cooking modes. The slow-cooking mode is standard, but the other two are not. "Steamer" mode turns the cooker into a steam machine, where you can use some water to steam up veggies or anything else. Steaming is a very healthy way to cook food, and it's hard to get an affordable steamer for home use, so this is intriguing. Thirdly, there is a Saute mode. Saute turns the cooker into a countertop grill, letting you warm up or brown food on a sizzling surface. The Cuisinart comes with a steaming rack. It will cost you $115.
From a pure cooking perspective, the temperature precision is very interesting. It comes most in handy when trying to adapt the temperature to different meats and cuts of meat. The different modes are another thing entirely. From the price tag, it should be clear that you will only really gain if you use at least two modes frequently. If you do not have experience with a steamer, you might not be in the habit of eating steamed foods, but it really is a good idea because it takes no oil and keeps the nutrients intact. The saute setting is less convenient because any pan can do the same thing. In the end, this is a tough call because there are so many fancy extras that it's hard to tell how much you will use them until you have them. For that price, it is hard to pass up a cheaper cooker.
Here is the opposite end of the spectrum. For less than $15 you get what is essentially a cooker for one person. It has just the basic temperature settings, no programming, no lid lock, no extra modes, and no steam rack. What it does have is excellent value. You will likely spend less on this cooker than you spent the last time you dined out. The potential for savings is very high, especially considering that it costs so little.
The size is perhaps the biggest problem with this cooker. 1.5 quarts is not very much room, even for one person, because ideally you would be able to make enough food to last for several days. You'll have some trouble fitting a good recipe into the small pot. At this price, though, it works fine in a supplemental way. It just isn't large enough to be your primary cooking method.
Personally, I am a big fan of the Hamilton Beach 7-quart machine. It has a huge capacity with a locking lid so I can take it to parties, and I do that often. The programming is just enough for me and the price is right. Hopefully, though, this list shows you that there is a very wide range of options depending on your needs and how much you are willing to spend.