Slow cookers are a lifesaver in my kitchen, and it sounds like a lot of our readers enthusiastically agree with me. When using a slow cooker, delicious meals practically cook themselves while we're free to tackle other tasks.
If you've decided it's time you joined the slow-cooker movement and buy your first one, or your old slow cooker needs to be replaced, here are some things to think about when shopping for one.
Slow cookers come in a wide range of prices and functions; finding the right one for you really depends on what you plan to use it for. Here are some factors to consider to help you find the perfect one for your kitchen, so you can happily use it for years to come.
1. Method of heating
Most slow cookers have a base that snugly encloses a removable insert. Sometimes the heating element is just on the bottom, or if you're lucky, the element also goes up the side of the base (which allows heat to be more evenly distributed).
Some slow cookers just have a crock that sits on top of the heating unit. Heat isn't as evenly distributed this way, and you might have to stir the food more often to prevent scorching, which sounds like the antithesis of why we love slow cookers!
2. Crock construction
Ceramic and porcelain are the popular options out there, although there are metal crocks, too. They all do a good job of conducting heat, so it's really up to your preferences. What's important with the crock, however, is that it's removable for easy cleaning. Slow cookers with the crock and heating unit fused together just aren't fun or easy to clean.
3. Lid material
When using a slow cooker, you want to avoid opening the lid, since that lets out precious heat and extends cooking time. Slow cookers with glass lids — so you can see what's going on inside without taking the lid off — are better options than plastic or more opaque versions.
Standard slow cookers come in round or oval shapes. Which one is best? There's no real right answer. Think about what you'd like to cook in the slow cooker and let that dictate the shape you choose. For instance, whole chickens, brisket, or ribs will fit better in an oval shape, but if you're usually making beans or stews, shape doesn't matter as much and you can buy the one that fits better in your cabinet or on your counter.
You can get tiny slow cookers that really are only useful for keeping dips warm, or you can get a really large-capacity one. If you're a small household, don't mind scaling down recipes, and don't like to have leftovers, smaller three- to four-quart slow cookers will work.
Most slow-cooker recipes, however, are meant for the average-sized slow cooker, which is about six quarts; this is the one we recommend as the starter size. If you like to double recipes and cook for a crowd, by all means, go even bigger! The key to size is that slow cookers need to be at least half full to get good results.
6. Sear function
Some slow cookers now come with a sear function to make browning meats or sautéeing onions or vegetables easier, but this function usually also comes with a higher price tag.
It can be designed in two ways: The first lets you sear food right in the insert using a sear setting before you switch to slow cooking; for those who don't have a stovetop, this could be a function worth having. The second way searing can happen is the insert is stovetop safe: Place it directly on the stove, sear meat right in the insert, then place the insert back into the slow cooker to finish cooking.
Both ways let you wash one less pan, although the surface area on the bottom of an insert may be less than a frying pan and you might have to sear in batches. If you're on a budget or fine searing in a pan on the stove, you can just skip this function.
I love when a slow cooker has a timer on it, whether it's in the form of a digital timer or a choice between preset cooking times. Unless you always plan to be home to turn off your slow cooker at the right time, having a built-in timer in the slow cooker helps food from overcooking and turning to mush.
8. Warming function
Slow cookers have both high- and low-temperature cooking settings, but some also come with a warming function, which holds foods warm at a lower temperature. They can also be tied into built-in timers so that once the timer goes off, the slow cooker automatically switches to the warm setting.
The warming function is great for keeping foods at a warm but not piping-hot temperature for parties. It also lets you come to home to still-warm but not overcooked food if you're out of the house longer than the food needs to cook for.