Slow Cookers – Everything You Need to Know

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photo: slow cooker by Pseph under the CC BY 2.0 license with changes

Slow cookers are great, and definitely belong on any homesteader’s must-have item list. A good slow cooker will save you time and money, and can help you get the most out of the food you prepare; it can even make your whole kitchen smell delicious. It’s no wonder that these appliances are now more popular than ever. Let’s take a closer look at slow cookers, why you should buy one, and how you can use them in your homestead kitchen tonight.

What Is A Slow Cooker, Anyway?

A slow cooker is a kitchen countertop electrical appliance. It allows you to cook foods at lower temperatures than you could otherwise using methods like baking in an oven or pan frying. Slow cookers are sometimes referred to as crock pots, which is also a brand name for a popular brand of slow cookers. They’ve been around since the 1950s, and became popular when women as well as men began to join the workforce en masse; slow cookers allowed families to cook meals even when no one was home during the day.

Slow cookers have evolved over the past several decades, and are now more in wider use than ever before. They come in a wide variety of sizes, making them extremely versatile no matter the size of your household. Most slow cooker controls are more sophisticated as well, allowing you to program the device to cook a wide variety of meals. It really is the perfect kitchen appliance for people who are always on the move. Let’s take a closer look at what makes slow cookers tick.

The Parts Of A Slow Cooker

Slow cookers typically consist of three components

1. The Base. The slow cooker base contains an electrical heating element that allows the appliance to “slow cook” the meals you place inside it. The base also contains a control panel that, based on the model, lets you program the manner in which the device will cook your food. The exterior of the base usually stays cool while the unit is operational, a safety feature.

2. The Stoneware Insert. You cook your food in the insert. The slow cooker insert is normally removable, which makes storing your food as well as cleaning the insert very easy.

3. The Lid. The lid sits atop the insert and allows you to cook your food, or store it in the refrigerator to serve as leftovers. Many slow cooker lids feature gaskets now, and lock in place;. The locking mechanism reduces spillage on your counter, or when you’re moving the insert; it also helps with food storage later on.

Why Do You Need A Slow Cooker?

You may be thinking to yourself, “why do I need yet another appliance, from the 1950s no less, clogging up my cabinets?” Actually, there are several great reasons why a slow cooker will be value added on a homestead. Let’s cover a few of them.

Save Time

In most cases, you can prepare an entire meal in a slow cooker in a matter of minutes; simply add the ingredients, program the slow cooker, and let the appliance take care of everything else. Many of the meals that you can prepare in your slow cooker would require multiple time-consuming steps if you were going to cook them on your stovetop, in your oven, or both; you’d have to be there in the kitchen, to do those things, too. Cleanup is also very quick with a slow cooker as well.

Save Money

The slow cooker cooks at a lower heat setting for longer periods of time than food prepared in an oven or on a stovetop. It uses considerably less power than a standard range as well, which can help cut down on your gas or electric bill. The slow cooker also allows you to prepare meals using less expensive cuts of meat that many shoppers pass by, since the longer cooking time will ensure they turn out just right.

Healthier Meals

Preparing meals in a slow cooker can be a healthy alternative to cooking those same meals at high heat. Studies have shown that searing beef or other meats creates chemical compounds that can cause various forms of cancer. Those same studies indicated grilling meats over charcoal can be particularly bad. Slow cookers, however, help you prepare meats and other dishes at low heat, and avoid the health hazards that charbroiling and other cooking techniques can expose you to.

No Oils!

Since slow cookers heat foods at lower temperatures than ovens and stovetops, food doesn’t normally stick to them. You won’t have to use oils or other fats like you have to when preparing foods in a sauce or frying pan. This will allow you to prepare even healthier meals in your slow cooker, and save you some more money as well.

Great Taste

beef in slow cooke

Photo: A delicious beef recipe being prepared in a slow cooker, by Nicole via Flick under the (CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

A slow cooker isn’t just an economical timesaver. The foods you prepare in it taste delicious! Meat prepared in a slow cooker will often be much more tender than anything you’d bake in an oven or fry in a pan. Stews and soups will often be more flavorful as well.

Bonus: The Aroma!

A more esoteric benefit of the slow cooker is the aroma. When you are cooking a roast or a stew in your slow cooker, eventually the smell of that meal permeates your entire kitchen, and carries through the entire house. There’s nothing better than coming inside after working in cold weather, and smell whatever delicious meal is sitting there, warm in your slow cooker!

Choosing a Slow Cooker

There are three primary considerations when purchasing a slow cooker: size, programmability and price. Let’s discuss all three of these.

Size

It is better to buy a larger slow cooker if you can afford it. Smaller slow cookers may be somewhat less expensive and easier to store in your kitchen. If you are a one or two-person household, then maybe a small one may be just right for you. However, a family of four will need at least a six-quart model to prepare its meals. And even smaller households may want to prepare multiple meals in their slow cooker that they can refrigerate and eat later; they may also want to be able to cook for guests as well.

Programmability

Slow cookers run the gamut from 1950s functionality to 21st century high-tech. The bare bones models only allow you to manually turn them off and on, and set their heating level. Mid-range models can be programmed to cook for a certain amount of time, and then keep your food warm once the cooking is complete. The most high-tech models allow you to program multiple settings; some even let you control them remotely with your mobile devices, so you can monitor your food preparation and adjust it accordingly even when you’re not there.

Price

Size and programmability are the primary factors which determine the price. A 1.5-quart manual mode slow cooker usually costs under $15.00. Mid-range programmable 6-quart slow cookers cost $35-50.00. On the higher end, a fully programmable 6-quart Instant Pot costs $300.00. When it comes time to purchase your slow cooker, you’ll have to determine the size and programmability you need, or are willing to pay for.

Using these three criteria, here are several different slow cooker models at differing price levels that you should consider.

A Tale Of Three Slow Cookers

the instant pot

King Of The Hill: The Instant Pot

The Instant Pot is not just a slow cooker; it’s a kitchen phenomenon. This device is popular enough to have its own fan base of users called “potheads”, and was recently profiled in the New York Times.

The Instant Pot is a slow cooker. However, it can also perform several other functions in your kitchen as well, eliminating the need for other devices. It is a pressure cooker, a rice cooker, yogurt maker, and steamer as well, among other things. Depending on the model you select, the Instant Pot can cost anywhere from $79.00-299.00.

Beyond its versatility (and really, it is an amazing device) the other thing that the Instant Pot has going for it is programmability. It is extremely easy to program settings on the device to prepare meals to your exact specifications. If you want to spend even less time in the kitchen and still cook a remarkable array of good foods, then the Instant Pot is a must-have item for your kitchen.

Here is a great video of a gentleman using his Instant Pot as a slow cooker to make a delicious stew:

The one consideration with the Instant Pot is price. A mid-range model costs about $100.00. While you get a tremendous amount of versatility for your kitchen at that price, it is still a lot of money. If you don’t want to spend that much, there are other options.

Hamilton Beach Programmable Slow Cooker

Workhorse: Hamilton Beach Programmable Slow Cooker

If you want a great, no-nonsense slow cooker for your kitchen, it is hard to beat this 6-Quart programmable model from Hamilton Beach. This is the perfect-sized slow cooker for a family of four. And at about $31.00, you can get it for a price that any homesteader could love.

The Hamilton Beach slow cooker’s control panel is extremely easy to use; you just select the time and the heat level, and let the appliance do the rest of the work. It will switch to a warm setting when the cooking is complete. Like many of the mid-range slow cookers, this model also features a locking lid, which can help prevent spills on the counter or in your fridge.

If you want to spend the minimum amount of money and get a terrific slow cooker, a model like this is a way to go. You can put it to work as soon as you take it out of the box, and it is super easy to figure out the controls. It is also quite durable, and will last forever with a minimum amount of basic care. The one consideration for this device is its programmability; you only have a handful of cook settings on this slow cooker, compared to more expensive models.

Bargain Basement: Crock-Pot 2 Quart Manual Slow Cooker

When it comes to economy, Crock Pot’s 2-quart manual slow cooker is hard to beat. You can purchase one for under ten dollars! This device features three manual cook settings – high, low, and warm. You simply place your food in it, select the cook setting, and let the slow cooker go to work.

This device works extremely well. However, its functionality is limited to the three manual settings; there is no time control for it to automatically shift to the “warm” setting like the mid-range and more expensive slow cookers have. At two quarts, this slow cooker is also not the size needed for a medium-sized family, either.

If you live alone, or just want a slow cooker to cook side dishes with a larger meal, this is a great slow cooker for you. It is durable, works well, and is easy to store. It is also a great slow cooker for anyone who is thinking about a more expensive model, but wants to try out slow cooking before making a larger investment.

Here is a video that shows this slow cooker and all of its components:

Now that we’ve looked at the range of slow cooker models that are out there, let’s talk about some things you should think about when using one in your kitchen.

Putting Your Slow Cooker To Work: Three Things To Consider

Bigger is Better

We’ve already discussed size twice in this article, so you already know size is an important consideration. When you buy your slow cooker, you should try to buy the largest model you can afford, especially if you’ll be cooking meals for several people. It will be challenging to prepare dinner for a family of four in a 2-quart model. Conversely, you can prepare 1-person meals in a larger model, or simply refrigerate additional portions for later use. So go as big as you can.

Brown The Meats

Before cooking meals like chili or stews in your slow cooker, it is a good idea to sauté the meat first so that it is brown. This is not absolutely necessary, as we will see when discussing slow cooker recipes. However, the browned meet and accompanying juices can help improve the flavor of whatever the final meal is you’re preparing in the slow cooker.

Some of the higher end models, like the Instant Pot, allow you to brown the meats right inside of them for your slow cooker recipes. Here is a video of someone using the Instant Pot to brown meat:

Watch Those Vegetables, AND That Warm Setting!

A slow cooker gives you the freedom to cook a great meal without being chained to the stove. But that doesn’t mean you can just forget about what you’re cooking. If you’re cooking on a high setting, it is often a good idea to add tender vegetables, like kale greens, in the last hour or two, otherwise the heat is too much and can ruin the vegetables. Also, be careful when using the “warm” setting. It is supposed to buy you some time in case you can’t get right to the kitchen when your meal is done cooking. However, if you keep some foods on the warm setting too long, they can dry out or become overcooked.

Safety First

While slow cookers are designed to be extremely safe appliances, they are still electrical appliances that get hot; you need to use them safely. Only operate your slow cooker on a flat surface, like a countertop. Make sure that you don’t leave a slow cooker somewhere it could inadvertently tip over or fall on someone, or where the cord can cause a mishap. Finally, take care when operating one of the slow cooker models that doesn’t have a timer to revert to a “warm” setting. Don’t use it unless you’re absolutely certain you will be able to check on it from time to time.

OK, now that you’ve thought about how best to use a slow cooker, let’s look at a range of recipes you can make in them.

Great Meals To Prepare in Your Slow Cooker

You can cook an almost infinite variety of meals in your slow cooker; let’s discuss some of them, so you understand what an asset it is to have one of these devices in your kitchen.

A Family Roast

Roasts are one of the best and most popular meals to prepare in a slow cooker. Cooking a roast, such as pork shoulder, on a low slow cooker setting will ensure you have a tender, delicious meal when dinner time rolls around.

Here is a great video demonstrating how to prepare a pork shoulder roast in a slow cooker:

Note how the cook uses a wide variety of seasonings to help this roast come out even better. Keep in mind that when you make a roast like this, you can also cook your potatoes, carrots, or other root vegetables along with it; cooking them with the meat actually improves their flavor.

Whole Chicken

I absolutely love to prepare chickens in a slow roaster. The meat comes out tender and delicious when you cook it on a low setting for hours; throw a few potatoes and carrots in with it and you have an entire meal, too. Here is a great video illustrating how easy it is to prepare whole chicken in a slow cooker:

Hearty Stews

It is easy to make a terrific stew in a slow cooker. Letting the ingredients simmer all day in the device really brings out the best flavor in all of them.

Here is a great video demonstrating how to make a delicious slow cooker chicken stew:

Notice that the cook in this recipe DID NOT brown the chicken as we discussed earlier, which is fine. Many slow cooker users will brown their meats first in slow cooker recipes, in order to improve the meal’s overall flavor. Here is a video of a cook preparing a beef stew where they did brown the meat first:

Notice the wide variation in ingredients and meal preparation for the stews, both of which ended up looking terrific. That’s the great thing about slow cookers, they allow you to prepare foods in many different ways, even if you are not standing over them in the kitchen.

Beef or chicken stews are also examples of those slow cooker meals that smell terrific cooking in your kitchen on a cold winter day.

Delicious Chili

Slow cookers are great for preparing chili con carne for your family as well. Like other slow cooker recipes, the ability to let all of the chili’s ingredients simmer for hours at a lower temperature really makes this a flavorful dish.

Here is a video demonstrating how to prepare a great chili recipe in a slow cooker:

If you start with dried kidney beans, you’ll have to soak them before you can use them in this recipe. However, if you have an Instant Pot, you can have dried beans ready for use in just about half an hour. Here is a video showing how an Instant Pot can get your kidney beans ready for a slow cooker recipe really fast:

It is really easy to store leftover chili and other slow cooker dishes when you use your slow cooker. Simply remove the stoneware insert, place the lid back on, and place it in your refrigerator.

Tasty Soups For A Cold Day

Slow cookers are great for making soups, too. And in the winter, when someone on the homestead is always recovering from a cold, you can never have enough soup.

Slow Cooker Borscht

Beets are all the rage these days, and borscht, a traditional beet soup, is more popular than ever. There are many different ways to prepare it; here is a great borscht recipe you can make in your slow cooker:

Slow Cooker Apple Crisp

Most people think of slow cookers when they are preparing meals for their family and can’t be in the kitchen the whole time. However, slow cookers are great for making desserts, too! Here is a great apple crisp recipe you can make in your slow cooker:

. . . AND Even More Desserts

You can really transform your slow cooker into a dessert-making machine if you want to. Here is a video demonstrating how easy it is to make lava cake, cheesecake, and even fudge in this versatile appliance:

There are millions of slow cooker recipe videos on YouTube, and tons of cookbooks devoted to using slow cookers to prepare delicious meals for your family. Slow cooker recipes can be as simple or complex as you want them to be; the only limit to them is your own imagination.

Parting Thoughts

Slow cookers are amazing appliances, and every homesteader should have one in their kitchen. They come in a wide range of prices, sizes, and with varying degrees of capability; some, such as the Instant Pot and other models, are transforming the way we prepare meals in our kitchens. Find the one that is right for you.

You can make any manner of meals in a slow cooker, from roasts to stews, soups, chili, and even desserts; the sky is really the limit when it comes to these devices. So what are you waiting for? Get yourself a slow cooker, and start making some delicious, slow cooked meals today!

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photo: slow cooker by Pseph under the CC BY 2.0 license with changes

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About Tom Harkins 27 Articles
When Tom Harkins is not busy doing emergency repairs to his 200 year-old New England home, he tries to send all of his time gardening, home brewing, foraging, and taking care of his ever-growing flock of chickens, turkey and geese.

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