We rely on them for our soups, stews, and easy weeknight dinners. They help make tough meat more tender, and can even be used to make bread. We also toss around their names interchangeably, assuming that Crock-Pots and slow cookers are interchangeable names for the same thing.
But that's not completely accurate.
Correction: This post originally stated that Crock-Pot-style slow cookers were heated from the bottom, but this is not always the case.
Crock-Pots and slow cookers use moist heat to cook food over a long period of time. Both are used to cook the same types of foods, and both produce the same delicious results. These wonderful, small kitchen appliances even contain the same three components: a pot, glass lid, and heating element.
A Crock-Pot-style slow cooker
But they're not actually the same thing! Here's the best way to think about them:
A Crock-Pot is a brand of slow cooker that gave rise to a type of slow cooker. But a slow cooker is not always a Crock-Pot.
Crock-Pots and Crock-Pot-Style Slow Cookers
A Crock-Pot (and a Crock-Pot-style slow cooker) is a type of slow cooker. The Crock-Pot was first introduced in 1970, and it was originally marketed as a bean cooker. Over time it was redesigned, and eventually evolved into the model we recognize today. Many companies now make Crock-Pot-style slow cookers, and they are of course in wide use throughout the country (we know you guys love your slow cookers).
Branding: Crock-Pot was the original slow cooker made in this style, and it is the brand name for the slow cookers made by Rival Manufacturing Company, although there are many other brands — including KitchenAid, Cuisinart, Hamilton Beach, Bella, and many others — that sell Crock-Pot-style slow cookers. The word "crockpot" has become a generic word for slow cookers.
Construction: Crock-Pot and Crock-Pot-style slow cookers have a ceramic or porcelain pot that sits inside the heating unit. Some, although not all, slow cookers of this type are heated from the bottom as well as around the sides of the pot. The pot can also be round or oval, and comes in various sizes.
Heat settings: Crock-Pots have just two heat settings — LOW wattage (bringing them to temperatures in the range of 200°F) and HIGH wattage (bringing them to temperatures in the range of 300°F). Some also have a third, lower-wattage, warming option. (Read more about how this style of slow cookers works in this article from Hamilton Beach.)
Cooking: While powered on, Crock-Pots and Crock-Pot-style slow cookers cook continuously. Some models also have a timer to allow cooking for a specific amount of time.
Read more about the history of Crock-Pots and this style of slow cooker: From humble to high tech, a slow cooker history at CNET
A different style of slow cooker.
Other Types of Slow Cookers
Not all slow cookers are Crock-Pots. There are commercial-style slow cookers; have some distinct characteristics that are not shared by Crock-Pots or Crock-Pot-style slow cookers.
Branding: "Slow cooker" is not a brand name; it refers simply to the appliance. There are numerous manufacturers of other sorts of slow cookers.
Construction: Some slow cookers, like the one pictured above, have a metal pot that sits on top of the heating unit (instead of inside a "crock," or heating unit). The pot is heated solely from the bottom. Since the heat is concentrated on the bottom of the pot, food may cook slower than in a Crock-Pot, has a greater chance of scorching on the bottom, and must be stirred more often. The additional stirring requires the lid to be opened more frequently, releasing heat and extending the cooking time.
Heat settings: These styles of slow cookers usually have heat settings that go beyond just low, high, and warm. Most have a range of five heat settings.
Cooking: These bottom-heated slow cookers can work in cycles, powering on and off during cooking. Some models also have a timer to allow cooking for a specific amount of time.
Read more about what sets traditional slow cookers apart: The Difference Between a Crockpot and a Slow Cooker at eHow
Why the Confusion?
The main source of confusion is that most products on the market labeled as "slow cookers" actually have the traits of a Crock-Pot-style slow cooker — a ceramic bowl set inside the heating unit, with low and high heat settings. As consumers, when we search for and buy a slow cooker, what comes to mind isn't the bottom-heated, more commercial-style unit that's talked about and pictured above. Instead it's a Crock-Pot-style slow cooker, labeled simply as "slow cooker."
When it comes to cooking, you can use either. While Crock-Pot is just a brand name, Crock-Pots, Crock-Pot-style slow cookers, and other types of slow cookers will all get the job done.
Across brands and styles of slow cookers, they all have one thing in common: they cook low and slow, and do the work while you're away.
Crock-Pot and Slow Cooker Recipes
(Image credits: Emma Christensen; Amazon.com)