It’s hard to find many things that everyone agrees upon, but the slow cooker or crock pot is about as close as it gets. Believe it or not, at least eight out of every 10 U.S. households are said to own a slow cooker. That qualifies for the term “staple” as a fact of life in kitchens today.
Think about it: Slow cookers are there for every level of income, from those who need an affordable option to make meals that last for days, to more affluent homes wanting a gleaming multicooker in a sprawling kitchen. And there are always those other two households, not to mention families like ours that are due for a new one and have so much from which to choose.
We have owned the same trusty and scuffed-up Hamilton Beach Stay or Go 6-Quart Slow Cooker since someone gave it to us as a wedding present 14 years ago. Honestly, I had to go look at the logo to confirm because the lettering is so worn and all I know is that it has worked perfectly through every batch of lentil soup or chili or minestrone in all these years.
Why would we want a new one? Well, just look around. These babies are better than ever. A new fall season is a great time to invest in a new slow-cooking workhorse, because there are hearty soups and freshly harvested vegetables to cook, as well as all that holiday cooking that is up ahead. If you are going to replace one that is 10 years or older like we are, just keep in mind that a new one will probably run hotter but you’ll adjust to slightly different cooking times.
What's the Difference Between a Slow Cooker and a Crock-Pot?
They are pretty much the same thing. You just have to remember that Crock-Pots are slow cookers, but not all slow cookers are Crock Pots. It’s just one brand of slow cookers, which have been around for many centuries in at least analog form, starting with clay in the Far East.
In 1940, a General Electric engineer invented a self-named electric slow cooker with a technology that is more familiar to us today, called the Naxon Beanery. It was literally to cook beans. Just think how much more could be done with his innovative idea! Fortunately, the company that acquired it launched the brand Crock-Pot in 1971, and that spurred the phenomenon that is slow cooking more than a half-century later.
10 Points to Consider for Slow Cooking
There are quite a few more than this if you want to really research the whole market, especially if you are looking for recipes to help you choose a favorite slow cooker. But these 10 things will help lead you to an educated decision for a long-term convenience:
1. Size Depends on How Much Food You Need
The first question to ask yourself is what size crockpot you need. Are you routinely cooking for a hungry family? Is it just for you or maybe you and a partner? Could there be more mouths to feed in the future? You’re going to have this a long time. Rule of thumb: You don’t need more than a 6-quart cooker unless you cook for a large family or you make meals in advance to freeze them. A 4-quart is good for two people plus leftovers the following day, or just to feed four. You can downsize from there if it’s just to feed a couple or a single that day. Err on the side of bigger, because you can partially fill a big cooker but can’t make a small cooker go beyond.
2. Something for Every Budget
If you’re a Williams-Sonoma shopper, then you may lean toward the upper crock pot crust with something like the $330 All-Clad 7-Quart Slow Cooker. Very shee-shee. The stainless steel exterior is so shiny it doubles as a mirror as you get dressed in the morning, and oh by the way it makes perfect meals and has more programmability features than any competitor. But honestly we’re talking about a slow cooker that is going to deliver every time for decades, and you don’t really need anything fancy other than High, Medium and Low setting options for perfection. So is there really a good reason to go over the $50-60 range tops? Probably not. The highest-rated model on Amazon is the Crock-Pot 7-Quart Oval Manual Slow Cooker, because it’s a reliable wedding gift at $40 that is proven meal after meal and year after year.
3. It's Like the Good Book Says
There’s a good reason why more than five million of Phyllis Good’s book Fix-It and Forget-It (Skyhorse Publishing) have been sold. You put the meal together in the morning and don’t need to stir or even think about it until dinnertime rolls around. The Crock-Pot brand had the 1970s advertising slogan that still applies: “Cooks all day while the cook’s away.” The slow cooker makes it possible to get cooking out of the way early so you not only save time, but you also increase the odds of everyone in the family eating together at the same table.
4. Manual vs. Programmable
The $158 Cuisinart 3-in-1 Cook Central Multicooker is a 6-quart countertop beauty that has preset functions to saute, steam or slow-cook, plus an additional Keep Warm feature so the meal stays warm after it’s done in case you or guests are running late. That’s an example of the fun programming available on many models, if you think three manual settings are just too 1990s. You can even go with a smart slow cooker if you want to manage the temperature and cook time remotely, because of course there is a wifi app for everything. But just remember, the whole point of the slow cooker is to forget all about your dinner preparation while you’re out in that busy world of wifi apps and work or workouts. Some people would say the crock pot is a respite from that, so ask yourself if technology is part of your cooking expectation. And remember that manual settings, which basically never break, mean a much more affordable appliance.
5. Oval or Round Shape?
There is not a great deal of difference between oval and round when it comes to the basics of slow cooking all day. Much of it is simply aesthetics and personal taste. But there are some minor reasons to go with one or the other. Oval is more common, because it is generally a larger capacity and better if you are preparing bigger chunks of meat or butternut squash pieces or a full meal all in one. Round slow-cooker models are typically smaller in size and tend to have some hot spots, but they are especially good for making dips or minimal soup, and in general they handle just about the same kind of overall recipes as the oval.
6. Cleanup Is East, But What About Liners?
The removable stoneware crocks and the glass lids are dishwasher safe. Just to be safer than sorry, we’ve always hand-washed our crock in the sink because it weighs so much that it could break an aging dishwasher rubber prong or two if jostled around. If it doesn’t have a removable crock, then cleaning is a pain and you have to ask if it’s worth it. Whether yours is removable or not, you can make things even easier and buy a box of slow cooker liners, so you spend less time scrubbing afterwards and even have a no-muss, no-fuss ways to store leftover food. Then again, some people just don’t like plastic, so different strokes for different folks.
8. What About An Instant Pot Instead?
People often lump the Instant Pot into the same conversation as slow cookers, because of some physical similarities, but they are usually two very different things. Chefs love slow cookers because they can fill them with ingredients early in the day, go slow for hours and then have everything ready for dinner. An Instant-Pot is historically the opposite, hence the word “instant.” These appliances cook with high pressure for fast delivery when you don’t have that much time to wait. However, Instant Pot does make a slow cooker, so that brand could be what you’re looking for. They can live side by side on your counter in any case, say for rice in your InstantPot while your slow cooker is working on that delicious red curry dish.
9. Energy Efficient Cost Savers
Slow cookers have low-wattage, so they just don’t get hot like standard stove pots and pans. Because of that, a half-hour of oven cooking time is about equal to the electricity output of eight hours in the slow-cooker. Multiply that times tens and hundreds of crock-pot meals and you wind up saving on your electric bill. The more you use it, the more you save, so that’s something to consider when weighing the option of paying a little more for a better cooker.
10. You Still Have to Follow a Few Rules
Crockpots are about as safe as it gets, but you’ll still want to follow some basic safety measures. Heatproof and flat surfaces are necessary for your slow cooking appliance, and that usually applies to most kitchen counters. When adding the contents to your cooker, stop at the three-quarters mark so the food has space to expand. You can store it by your kitchen wall if you want, but make sure to pull it out when you cook so there’s space for heat to circulate.
Chilly weather is on the way or already here in much of the U.S., so it’s time for people like myself to update that old scuffed-up pressure cooker and warm up with a hearty bowl of slow cooker beef and barley soup, just like Kate wrote it up here in the DrizzleMeSkinny.com recipes.