Thirty or forty years ago, there were only a few models of slow cookers to choose from. Today there are hundreds, if not thousands, of options in the world of slow cookers. Over the years, improvements have been made, new brands have come to the market, and the world is reinventing what the slow cooker can do. When it comes to selecting one, you need to know what to look for, what you absolutely need your slow cooker to do, and your bottom line. Let’s take a look at a few guidelines for choosing the perfect slow cooker for you:
The Basic Structure
A slow cooker is made up of three main parts; 1) the outer shell or base; 2) the inner stoneware or crock insert, and 3) the lid.
The outer shell should stay rather cool to the touch. You should be able to wash off the surface with a damp rag without too much trouble. Look for skid-proof feet on the bottom to keep the slow cooker from slipping around the counter top while you’re preparing your meal. The outer shell also houses the controls, so check to see if they are sturdy, well situated, and easy to see. From personal experience, also look at the handles. If you are going to be transporting meals very often, make sure they are very sturdy. I had one break on me and that’s not a pretty mess.
The inner stoneware section, or ‘crock’, should be rather resilient and feel sturdy. The crock is not unbreakable, so if you drop it on a solid floor, it may break. However, it should feel solid in your hands. The best slow cookers have a removable crock so it makes serving and clean up easy. You’ll also want to be sure you can get your hands on the crock handles and easily lift it out of the outer shell without struggling.
The lid, while simple in design, is one of the reasons slow cookers work so well. The best lids have a separate knob protruding out of the top. This separation of materials helps to keep the knob cool to the touch while the rest of the device heats up. The lid should also have a good seal around the outside edge, in order to keep the heat and liquids from escaping. Glass lids used to be the standard, but nowadays the plastic ones are just as nice and they have the added benefit of being lighter, which makes them easier to handle.
What You Need vs What You Want
Those three basic parts come standard on all slow cookers; the base, insert, and lid. Beyond those three basic elements, you’ll find some very nice, convenient features you might want to look at.
Your basic slow cooker has one switch on the outside of the base, sort of a dial. This switch usually has three or four settings. The standard settings you’ll find are High, Low, and Warm. There is a fourth setting of “Off” on many slow cookers today, but years ago, it was common to unplug the slow cooker when you wanted to turn it off.
More modern slow cookers allow you to control more than those three basic settings. Digital slow cookers are designed to give you control over the actual temperature your cooking the meal at. You can also set a timer to let you know when your dish needs to be stirred, have ingredients added, or is done.
Programmable slow cookers allow the user to set the temperature on high, then automatically turn down to low at a chosen time during the cooking process. While it usually seems good to have more control, these added features may make things a little difficult. Depending on your style, this may make cooking seem more involved, especially when most slow cooker recipes are written with simple High and Low settings.
I’m of the mind that I just want simple High and Low settings. There’s a reason I like the fix it and forget it of a slow cooker. I have a pretty basic model that turns itself to warm after the cooking time is complete. This has been convenient on many occasions when we don’t get home at the time I expected. Dinner is still hot and ready to eat even if it’s a few hours later.
Determining the size of the slow cooker needed is also important. The larger the family, the bigger the slow cooker. However, a large stew can still be made in a four or five quart slow cooker. You’ll want to consider the area you have on your counter top, too. Also, the shape is important. If you’ve cooking a lot of bigger chickens or roasts, you might want to consider an oval shape. If your slow cooker will be used mainly for soup, a deeper model may be just right. If you are cooking appetizers and snacks mostly, a smaller slow cooker will probably suit you just fine.
Depending on how much you use it you may find that you need various sizes. Since I like to do some batch cooking for the freezer there have been many times I’d really like 3 slow cookers. However, also think before buying more. You can probably borrow from friends on that 1-2 days a month you could use an extra to cook with.
The Bottom Line
Slow cookers can range from ten dollars to well over a couple hundred. The most important aspect of picking out the perfect slow cooker for you is to look at your budget and find the best value for your money. Look at size, construction of parts, and how well it all goes together. If taken care of, your slow cooker will last a lifetime and will pay for itself over and over again. Just remember, you don’t have to get the fanciest slow cooker to make a great meal for your family.
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