Slow cookers are all the rage at the moment. Almost everyone has one. And if you don’t have one already, you’re almost certainly thinking about buying one, so read on to understand how to choose from all the models out there on the market.
What is a slow cooker?
A slow cooker, often called a crockpot, is a small kitchen appliance that allows you to add ingredients and leave them for hours at a time to cook – often while you are out of the home – and return to a delicious, hot meal, ready when you are. They work by having a removable pan that holds your ingredients, which sits over a base unit that contains the heating element.
Sometimes the sides of the base also heat, which can allow for more even distribution of heat. Avoid models that do not heat from below as they might require you to stir the meal as it cooks, which goes against the ‘chop and drop’ motivation for many.
Slow cookers can be ceramic or metal and either works well. Either way, having a removable pan is more practical allowing for an easier, more thorough clean.
What size slow cooker to choose
There are lots of different makes and models of slow cooker available to choose from, in a range of sizes aimed at different consumers. Whether you want a very small model that is just large enough to warm dips, or something rather more substantial that can cater for a large family meal, there is a slow cooker out there for you. Be sure to check that the quantities in the recipe you are following match the size of your slow cooker to avoid scorching or under-cooking your meal.
Other functions to consider
Various heat settings on your machine will give you greater flexibility as to how you can use your slow cooker. As with a conventional oven, some dishes are better suited to a higher temperature, perhaps for less time, and for others ‘low and slow’ is most definitely the order of the day. For ultimate flexibility, having a choice to warm (rather than cook) can be a big help for those who like to entertain and keep party food warm for the duration of the event.
A timer is another very useful feature. Some units have a selection of pre-set cook times, others have a timer that can be set and will turn off (whilst keeping the food warm) so that your meal is not overcooked and mushy by the time you come to eat it. Timer functions are one of the big draws of slow cooking as they allow you to prepare well in advance, for example starting an evening meal in the morning, cooking it all day, and then returning after a day at work to a hot meal.
The smell of a freshly cooked meal as you walk through the door is one of life’s great pleasures!
Some cookers will have a function that allows you to sauté vegetables or sear meat before the ‘cooking’ starts. This allows you to really bring out the flavour of your dish, and in terms of practicality, it saves on washing up by using one less pan. Alternatively, check whether your bowl can be used on the hob – many models have this capability – as that will save a frying pan and mean that nothing is lost in a transfer. Removable pans can also move straight from the slow cooker to the dining table.
Tips for using your slow cooker
Try not to open the lid when cooking is underway as the dramatic change in temperature can prevent your ingredients from cooking thoroughly. Instead, if you want to check on progress, choose a model with a glass lid to allow you to see into the bowl and check on progress. A word of caution; many slow cookers are not dishwasher-safe so be sure to check before washing so as not to cause irreparable damage to your appliance.
If you’re buying a new slow cooker, you might also want to consider the energy efficiency of your appliance and how it compares to a ‘regular’ oven. Even when ‘on’ all day, most modern slow cookers will compare favourably.
Make sure that all ingredients are thoroughly defrosted before adding them to your slow cooker so as not to release too much water into the recipe, and to ensure that the meal cooks consistently throughout. Cooking enough for more than one meal and freezing some is an economical way of preparing food, although beware not to freeze a meal that contains previously frozen ingredients.
A slow cooker really is a great addition to your kitchen and a small appliance that every home could use. Be sure to read the instruction booklet that comes with your slow cooker and follow the manufacturer’s advice so that you get the most out for your machine for years to come.