Buying Your First Slow Cooker and Universal Slow Cooking Tips

Sunday January 25, 2015

1. What do you think is the best slow cooker for families (specific brand/model)?

You can really have your choice of brands, any of the major brands are competitive–Rival, Kitchen Aid, Cuisinart, Hamilton Beach, but for families you want the right size. That is the super size 6 1/2 to 7 quart model. This will give you some leftovers and still feed a family. A lot of cooks go for the 5 1/2 quart as well. The larger cookers usually come in an oval or rectangular shape now to fit the most food in the smallest of spaces. The round cookers, shaped like a flower pot and the original shape, are more limited in the cuts of meat, they need to be cut in half to fit, but are great for cooking beans, stews, and chili. I am reluctant to name specific models since the genre is evolving with new models constantly. I find you have to check out what the store you are shopping at has available. If shopping online, check out the different brands and find one that appeals to you.

2. What should moms keep in mind when shopping for a family slow cooker?

Get a color you love since it will be sitting on the counter and you have to look at it. Then, all the considerations in question #1. I like the tempered glass lid, but Cuisinart has a metal lid and no one complains about it since the machine is so good.

3. What’s your favorite gourmet/high-tech slow cooker (specific brand/model)?

I am a Hamilton Beach gal and find the three main cook levels work for me, but other people love the integrated digital control panel. This All Clad slow cooker has a 6 1/2 quart capacity, up to 26 hours of cooking time and three heat settings. If you are out of the house all day, this will be the ticket for convenience and flexibility.

4. What are some fun and/or new features to look for when shopping for a higher-tech slow cooker?

The electronic temperature management and digital control panel and some even have recipes programmed in, which I don’t need. But if you planning to cook and leave it all day while you are at work, the 8 to 10 hour timer is helpful. The lids are coming with rubber seals now, which keep in the moisture like never before. The by far most popular new wave is the removable crock that can be used stove top for initial browning, then placed back in the cooker so that you don’t need any extra pans. All the pros I know use this feature and love it. Westbend has that the heating and serving base move to stove top, oven, refrigerator, or freezer. And the base doubles as a non-stick mini-griddle. Rival has the double crock so you can make two different recipes at the same time. There is a stand that fits three small slow cookers designed for table service, which is great for an appetizer party for hot dips. There are models specifically for carrying to potlucks, with a lid latch. There is a new 9 x 13 inch shallow rectangular for casseroles with side lid latches.

5. What’s the best slow cooker for beginners (specific brand/model)?

Really it doesn’t matter. You can get wild here and be spontaneous by picking whatever you fancy…round or oval, color, stainless steel, or chrome, flat black, features. If this is your first one, buy an inexpensive model and try it out (you can get a great slow cooker for around $25). You can always upgrade to the more expensive later and have more than one machine (you will be surprised how convenient it is to have more than one machine). Just get the size that you think you will use most. If you have a family, get a large one; if you are cooking for one or two, get a medium. The simple three cook levels-High, Low, and Keep Warm, is great for starting. You first have to figure how big you want it depending on how many people you are cooking for. If you get hooked on this style of cooking, consider having 2 or 3 different sizes…a small 1 1/2 quart for dips, a medium 3 1/2 to 4 quart, and the large 6 to 7 quart. You always want that the machine will shift automatically to Keep Warm if you can. Dont ever get one that doesn’t have a removable crock and just an on/off by putting the plug in and out. These are obsolete now and one wonders how cooks managed since cleaning is such a hassle. Go for a Hamilton Beach/Proctor Silex or Rival, the stalwart reliable brands. Rival is the original crockpot. Other popular brands are Breville, Cuisinart, Kitchen Aid, Calphalon, DiLonghi, and ALL CLAD.

6. What should beginners watch out for when shopping for a slow cooker?

See #5.

7. What’s the best budget slow cooker (specific brand/model)?

Hamilton Beach and Rival, all basic models. You can pick up a smaller size for $15.

8. What’s a great way to save money when slow cooking?

Saving money is sort of intrinsic to the slow cooker style of cooking. You can make any type of dish in any model machine as long as the food fits in there. You can utilize the cheaper cuts of meat and experiment with all sorts of braised dishes, which are historically the economical home foods. Get comfortable with making beans from scratch. There is a wide variety available with wonderful flavors. You don’t need expensive, hard to find gourmet ingredients to make great food.

9. What are your top 10 favorite tips for cooking with a crockpot?

My Slow Cooker Tips

While we often think of the slow cooker for those long cooked winter stews, the slow cooker is the premier tool for summer cooking as well. It generates very little heat so your kitchen will stay cool without the added heat of the oven or stove top. Here are a few tips for using your slow cooker during the long hot days of summer.

•Consider buying two or three slow cooker in different sizes. You can then make the main dish and side at the same time if you wish. I suggest a 3 or 3 1/2-quart oval, and a 5-to 6-quart round or oval as a start.

•The slow cooker is user-friendly and very economical, utilizing about the same amount of energy as a 75-watt light bulb.  It takes much less electricity to use a slow cooker than a conventional gas or electric oven.  On the HIGH setting, you will use less than 300 watts. It is an excellent alternative method of cooking on extremely hot days when energy alerts recommend reduced use of electrical appliances and won’t add heat to your kitchen like an oven does. In some new machines, you might find 400 watts cook temp now.

•There are two cook settings on a slow cooker: LOW and HIGH. The LOW setting uses 80 to 185 watts and and cooks in the temperature range of 170º to 200ºF.  The HIGH heat setting is double the wattage, 160 to 370 watts, and cooks at a temperature of 280º to 300º, with slight variables due to size of cooker, temperature of the food, and how full the crock is. There is a KEEP WARM setting, but that is not for cooking or reheating of food.

• Some of the best dishes to make in the slow cooker:

-3 hour boneless chicken breasts

-meatloaf

-lasagna

-roasted winter squash

-beans and baked beans

-chili

-corned beef and brisket

-turkey breast or thighs

•Certain foods are NOT suitable to slow cooking. These include tender steaks, large loin roasts such as prime rib, recipes that quickly sauté meats or wok cooking, poultry with the skin on (this triples the fat content of the dish), pies and cookies, layer cakes, pasta (except for orzo and some recipes for small tube pastas that specify no cooking), regular rices, except for converted rice (which holds its shape during long cooking), fresh delicate seafood, cheese and dairy products like milk and sour cream (use evaporated milk or else add regular dairy products during the last hour of cooking).

•Get in the habit of spraying the crock with nonstick vegetable or olive oil cooking spray before every recipe to prevent sticking and to facilitate easy washing of the crock.

•Hard heavier vegetables (such as carrots, winter squash, potatoes, turnips, onions) take longer to cook than meat, so place them on the bottom of the cooker and set meat or poultry on top and pile up around the sides. Unskinned potatoes keep their shape better and smaller pieces cook faster than larger chunks and whole potatoes. Cut all different vegetables in one dish into uniform bite-sized pieces so they will cook evenly. Lighter vegetables (such as corn, peas, and summer squash), can be layered on top or added halfway through the cooking time.

•Always be aware of how much liquid you are using in a recipe, especially if adapting from a traditional oven or stove top recipe. Only add the amount of liquid listed in the recipe, even if it seems like not enough since a lot of juices from the ingredients will collect. The slow cooker does not evaporate any liquid so less liquid is needed.

•If you are leaving the slow cooker unattended all day or night, it is best to cook on the LOW setting. That way there is no chance your food will overcook. Most pot roasts, stews, soups, and chili all cook best on LOW.

•If you are not at home during the entire cooking process and the power goes out, throw away the food even if it looks done. If you are at home, finish cooking the ingredients immediately by some other means: on a gas stove or on the outdoor grill. If the food was completely cooked just as the power went out, it should remain safe up to two hours in the cooker with the power off.

•If you are pressed for time, prep ingredients the day before cooking by chopping vegetables and storing separately in sealed containers or plastic storage bags. Cover cut potatoes with water to prevent discoloring. Ground meat can be browned and refrigerated overnight as long as it is fully cooked (browned roasts, cubed meat, and poultry all need to be prepped just before cooking for safety since they are not fully cooked). Fresh poultry pieces can be quickly grilled on an outdoor grill, then immediately frozen for later use. Ingredients, except for meat and poultry, can be assembled in the crock and refrigerated, covered, overnight; in the morning, you just pot the crock into the housing and turn on the machine.

•Unless noted in the recipe, thaw frozen foods before placing in the slow cooker so that the food temperature can reach 140º as soon as possible.  This is very important since frozen foods can slow the heating of the cooker and leave your stew or braise at too low a temperature for too long a time to be safe to eat. I never place frozen foods in the slow cooker unless a recipe specifically calls for it as it throws off the heating of the contents. Never thaw foods of any type in the slow cooker.

•You will see lots of instructions that say never to lift the lid during the cooking process.  On one hand, that is a good rule; on the other hand, that is impossible.  As the contents of the slow cooker heats up and create steam, of a natural water seal is created around the rim of the lid as the vacuum is formed.  The rim of the lid will stick in place when gently pulled.  This is important for the even cooking of the food within. Check your dish for doneness halfway or near the end of the cooking time, especially if it is the first time you are making the dish.  When you place the lid back on, it takes 20 to 30 minutes for the internal temperature of the contents to come back to the proper cooking temperature.

•Taking your full slow cooker to a buffet or picnic as a handy serving container? If you do not have a lid latch, wrap the lid with foil to secure it in place. The cooker can be wrapped in a clean, thick towel on the car floor or in a box in the trunk, or placed in an insulated cooler (with towels wrapped around to prevent slipping while driving) to retain heat for a long journey. Upon arriving at your destination, plug in and set to KEEP WARM or LOW up to 2 hours before serving.

• DO NOT use the slow cooker crock in the microwave or on the stove top unless your manufacturers manual says it is designed to do so. Do not store cooked food in the refrigerator in the crock; it will not cool down and chill the contents properly.

Beth Bytes

This is a fabulous article that appeared in the March 2010 issue of RachelRay magazine. I have done an article for them some time back and they are wonderful to work with and real slow cooker enthusiasts, even though I am a Hamilton Beach/Proctor Silex gal. This article was written by Vivian Jao, who did a good deal of excellent solid research for the first time slow cooker shopper. I LOVE the photo.

photo by Kang Kim for RachelRay magazine

1) CUISINART PSC-350 3.5-QUART SLOW COOKER
$60, cuisinart.com
(The Entertainer/Home Cooking Favorite)
UPSIDE Ideal size for soups, beans, dips, oatmeal and even cakes; LCD screen shows countdown; programmable timer; automatic keep-warm setting.
DOWNSIDE Expensive for its small capacity; hard-to-hear cooking completion signal; hard-to-read temperature indicator.

2) HAMILTON BEACH SET ’N FORGET 6-QUART PROGRAMMABLE SLOW COOKER WITH SPOON/LID
$60, amazon.com
(The Frequent Potluck Attendee/Family Home Cooking Favorite)
UPSIDE Easy-to-read LCD screen; thermometer probe for setting meat temperatures; automatic keep-warm setting; tight seal on lid, with side clips and extended handles for safe and easy transport.
DOWNSIDE Probe can be awkward to position; bulky for storage; short cord.

3) CROCK-POT 7-QUART SLOW COOKER
$45, crock-pot.com
(The Big Family on a Budget)
UPSIDE Inexpensive for its capacity, which can feed up to 10 people and hold up to a 7-pound roast; includes travel bag.
DOWNSIDE Short cord.

4) PROCTOR SILEX 4-QUART ROUND SLOW COOKER
(The College Cook/First Home Cook/Wedding Gift)
$25, proctorsilex.com
UPSIDE Inexpensive; compact; ideal size for soups, beans, dips, oatmeal and even cakes. Go for an oval too.
DOWNSIDE No “on” indicator light; short cord.

5) WEST BEND 4-QUART CROCKERY COOKER
$30, westbend.com
(The Small Frugal Family)
UPSIDE Inexpensive; stay-cool plastic handles for carrying; oval shape is compact, yet can fit a whole chicken.
DOWNSIDE Inner crock is not ovenproof like the other winners.

Text copyright Beth Hensperger 2015

Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.


Your Comments

4 comments Comments Feed
  1. Roger Bourland 10/07/2011 at 2:12 pm

    Beth, I’d love to see a similar piece on some of the new generation pressure cookers. They seem to blaze a new path in good cooking.
    Roger

  2. Beth 10/08/2011 at 7:29 am

    I’m working on it…keep an eye out…Beth

  3. Cosgrove's Cook 15/01/2012 at 1:52 am

    Beth, I’m very confused about temperatures. Crockpot says on their site that Low and High cook at the same temperature (just below boiling), but that Low takes longer to get to that point. But your recipes — if I’m understanding right — expect a temperature of 280-300. Am I missing something fundamental, or are Rival Crockpots out of line with everyone else? And can your High recipes be cooked in a Crockpot machine?

    Thanks.

    C’sC

  4. Beth 15/01/2012 at 8:22 am

    those temperatures are at maximum when the machine heats up for a period of time. Every brand runs at a slightly different temperature and the new machines are definitely hotter than the old ones of say 12 years ago and earlier due to the concern about getting the food to the proper safe temperature ASAP. I have never heard about Low and High cooking at the same temperatures. if so, yes rival crockpots would be different than other manufacturers. yes, any of our instructions for cooking on HIGH can be cooked in a rival. keep me posted. my best, BH

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