Deciding on slow-cooker features
Experts and users alike tend to appreciate a few key features in a slow
cooker. One is a clear, snug-fitting lid, which allows cooks to check their
food without releasing steam and thus slowing the cooking process. Large,
sturdy handles on the crock insert make it easier (and safer) to transfer
dinner from kitchen to table. An indicator light lets you know the slow cooker
is working and can prevent you from accidentally leaving it on overnight.
Programmable timers are a must if you plan to leave the machine unattended
all day. Most slow cookers with timers automatically shift to a keep-warm
mode as soon as timed cooking ends.
Another consideration is whether you want your slow cooker to do more than
just cook slowly. For example, some models have metal inserts (instead of
stoneware) that can be used on the stovetop, allowing you to sear meats or
caramelize onions before slow-cooking. Some machines also have a base unit
that can double as a small griddle -- handy if you need some extra cooking
space for breakfast meats or pancakes.
When choosing a slow cooker, your most important decision will be whether
you need a programmable model. These are equipped with timers, so you can
set them to cook for a specified time, after which the unit shifts to a keep-warm
mode. You can also program a slow cooker to start cooking at a specified
time. Mechanical models, on the other hand, have adjustable temperature controls
but no timer, so you'll need to be around to keep an eye on the food and
turn off the unit. In general, reviewers say, programmable slow cookers are
preferable to mechanical ones. While some programmable models can cost $200
or more, most are comparable in price to basic slow cookers.
Other factors to consider when buying a slow cooker include:
- The size of
your family: Families of four people or more should look for a 6-quart
slow cooker, while couples or single people may do better with a 4-quart
model. (To cook food safely, a slow cooker needs to be at least half
full, but no more than two-thirds full.) The largest-capacity slow cooker
covered in this report is 7 quarts. As an alternative, small families can
prepare a larger quantity of food in a large slow cooker and freeze leftovers.
However, keep in mind that a larger machine will take up more room on a
counter or in a cabinet, and will also be heavier to lift and carry.
- What you plan to
cook most: If you're buying a larger cooker, you may want to consider
one with an oval-shaped crock, which can accommodate large cuts of meats
like roasts or whole chickens. Round crocks are suitable for soups and
type of insert you prefer: Most slow cookers have removable stoneware
inserts, which can be heavy, but are sturdy and practical for the average
user. Some slow-cooker inserts can be reheated in the oven or microwave.
A few models have aluminum or stainless-steel inserts, which allow you
to brown meat directly in the crock (although most experts agree that a
skillet works better). Some slow-cooker inserts have a nonstick coating,
but these must be treated with care to avoid damaging the finish.
- Ease of cleanup: Make sure
whatever slow cooker you purchase has a removable insert that's dishwasher-safe
for easy cleanup. Also consider disposable liners made of food-safe
- See-through lids allow monitoring during cooking. Most experts recommend slow cookers with clear plastic or glass lids.
This allows users to monitor foods during cooking without lifting the
lid, which can slow the cooking process by releasing steam.
- Replacement costs
for parts: Before you buy, check to see how much it'll cost to replace
a broken insert or lid. For some units, the replacement cost of these
parts is nearly as much as a new cooker.
- Food safety: When using a slow cooker,
it's important to avoid extended heat-up and cool-down periods. According
to the Food and Drug Administration, bacteria thrive at temperatures
in a zone between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Several slow cookers
tested by the Good Housekeeping Research Institute aren't recommended
because they take more than three hours to heat water to 160 degrees Fahrenheit
on low, meaning that food might remain too long at an unsafe temperature.
One way to avoid this is to set your slow cooker on high for at least
the first hour of cooking.