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 stews.
  • Which 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 nylon resins.
  • 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.

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