Slow cookers (often generically called crock pots after a specific U.S. brand) are a work top cooking appliance which can be a very useful addition to our busy everyday life and are great for producing many different meals including soups, stews, curries, pot roasts and risotto. They cook the food by simmering at a very low temperature for several hours. They are very easy to use as you put all the ingredients into the slow cooker, including a liquid such as water, stock or wine to cook the food in, programme the cooker for the required time and then just leave it! You can set the slow cooker in the morning, and when you come home at night the meal will be ready. They are also good for making the most of cheaper, tougher cuts of meat as the longer, slower cooking process helps to tenderize it. Another advantage is that all the ingredients for the meal are prepared in one pot, thereby saving on washing up.
The typical design of a slow cooker is a removable round or oval ceramic or stainless steel cooking pot which sits in a metal container. There is an electric heating element within the cooker which heats the food. The slow cooker has a lid, usually glass, which traps any steam from the cooking food, keeping the food at a constant temperature and helping to keep it moist. The ceramic pot can often also be used as a serving bowl thereby saving on additional washing up.
Manual Slow Cookers
Manual slow cookers nowadays usually have 2 to 3 temperature settings - low, high and sometimes medium. The setting dictates how long a meal will take to cook. As an example, on the low setting a meal may take 8 hours to cook as opposed to 4 hours on a high setting.
This type of slow cooker is less expensive than a programmable slow cooker.
Programmable Slow Cookers
Programmable slow cookers are more sophisticated but offers greater flexibility as the user can pre-set different time and temperature settings.
The slow cooker is a relatively simple design so choosing one should not be difficult. The main criteria, apart from budget, which may affect your decision, are:
Most slow cookers come in sizes ranging from 3.5 litres to 6.5 litres capacity although there are smaller slow cookers available with a capacity of 1.5 litres to 2 litres.
A slow cooker of 3.5-4 litres capacity will feed approximately 3 to 4 people while one of 5.5 to 6.5 litres will feed approximately 6 to 7 people. The size that you choose will depend on how large your household is, but do not buy one which is bigger than your requirements, unless you plan to freeze a portion of the meal for later use - it will take up more space on the work-top and use more electricity.
The shape can also be a factor as oval slow cookers are often better for cooking food such as joints of meat.
Most slow cookers are can prepare a single meal, however there are some slow cookers available with two or even three dishes in one large stand.
The main choice will be between a manual and programmable slow cooker, and while the programmable cookers offer more flexibility, they are more expensive than manual ones.
Additional features may include:
- Auto cook setting - the slow cooker starts on a high setting then reduces it to low after a pre-set period of time.
- Automatic timer.
- Keep warm setting which keeps the food at a constant temperature until it is ready to serve.
- Fast stew function to prepare means in less than 2 hours.
- Sealing functionality, which seals the food at a high heat.
- Insulated lid which helps to retain heat and therefore saves electricity.
- Insulated housing which keeps the outside of the slow cooker cooler.
- Cool touch handles.
- Integral cord storage.
- Digital display.