Shortly after I married in 1970, the Rival Co. introduced a new kitchen appliance, the Crock-Pot. A hot item in my circles, it was touted to be foolproof and trouble-free. The original slow cooker came in one size with three settings (High, Low, Warm), a few colors, and a retail price of $17.99. I went for the popular Brady Bunch orange and assumed this baby would turn me into a world-class, gourmet cook overnight.
The reason my first slow cooker landed where it did (carport storage shed) is because it produced overcooked bland tasting meals that could at best be considered only semi-edible.
The problem was that I didn’t know the basic fundamental culinary techniques of slow-cooking. It wasn’t the Crock-Pot, it was me.
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot having owned no fewer than eight slow cookers not counting the “slow cook” option on my Instant Pot.
I’ve had a slow cooker that was programmable (a real stretch if by programmable one would assume it could actually be programmed), a ginormous 7-quart size with a loose-fitting lid and knob that would get so hot I’d burn my hand every time, and every imaginable version between. I’ve had more than a few that would frequently burn the contents, others that just didn’t cook evenly, and one that could only be characterized as a fast cooker.
I’ve come to the conclusion that even the most expensive slow cooker out there still requires some level of manual operation. So far, no one has come out with a smart slow cooker that has a clock and a timer with wifi capability so you can set it to start and stop according to the time you plan to walk through the door.
Thankfully, slow cookers have improved immensely over the years, while the prices have remained remarkably affordable.
Generally, for the best value and performance, I recommend a basic, no muss no fuss slow cooker that has three settings, just like the original Crock-Pot, the ability to set the number of hours required, and a tightly fitting lid with a heatproof knob or handle.
Given this simple list of must-haves, here are my picks for the Best Inexpensive slow cookers:
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The Hamilton Beach Set & Forget is basic with three temperature settings, and includes a probe thermometer so you can cook to a target temperature without having to lift the lid during the cooking process. Place the temperature probe into large cuts of meat to cook to a precise temperature. The control panel displays the food’s exact temperature as it cooks.
This slow cooker is programmable to the extent that you can set the amount of time you want it to cook, knowing that it will stop as directed and move into Warm mode.
With its 6-quart size, the Hamilton Beach Set & Forget accommodates up to a 6-pound chicken (wow, that would be a big bird!) or a 4-pound roast. The lid has a rubber gasket and clips to keep it tightly secured. The removable crock is dishwasher safe as is the glass lid.
Why slow cook?
A slow cooker can be left unattended all day. You can load up the ingredients into the slow cooker the morning and forget about it until dinnertime without worry of burning the house down. It’s as safe as a nightlight.
The best slow-cooked ingredients are often the least expensive. Knowing dinner is all ready to go precludes unscheduled fast food runs and relieves guilt. According to the California Energy Commission (and based on California energy costs), a slow cooker operating for seven hours uses about .7 kilowatt hours and costs six cents—less than $.01 per hour. An electric stove at 350°F operating for one hour uses about 2 kilowatt hours and costs about $.16. Exact usage will vary based on your model and prices will vary based on your location.
Basic slow-cooking techniques
Follow a recipe
Use and carefully follow only recipes developed specifically for slow cookers. It’s a completely different way of cooking.
Just because six hours is good doesn’t mean eight hours will be better. Overcooking results in weird textures, tough, rubbery chicken, mushy messes and bland offerings. Yuck.
For best flavor and texture, ground beef or ground turkey should be browned on top of the stove before adding to slow cooker.
Removing the lid for even a moment during cooking time allows the internal temperature to drop by up to 15 degrees. For each peek add an additional 20 minutes cooking time.
Start cold but not frozen
Keep perishable foods such as meats, poultry, and vegetables refrigerated until time to cook.
Flavors often become diluted with long slow cooking. So before serving any slow-cooked creation, taste and adjust the seasonings.
Use a timer
Careful timing is key to slow cooking. If your slow cooker does not have a timer, a quick and easy way to give your slow cooker a timer is to plug it into a lamp or appliance timer device you can purchase at the home improvement store or online. A timer will allow you to cook a dish requiring say six hours even though you will be away for eight. Start the cooking no longer than two hours later after placing ingredients in the cooker. For poultry, no longer than one hour later.
In the meantime, if you are anxious to make amends with your slow cooker, here is a favorite slow cooker recipe of mine that will give you great confidence and your family a delicious meal. Enjoy!
- 1 cup chunky apricot preserves
- 3/4 cup bottled Russian dressing (or Catalina)
- 1 (1.15-ounce) envelope dry onion soup mix
- 12 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, trimmed of fat (about 3 1/2 [three and one-half] to 4 pounds)
- 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
- In a medium bowl, mix together the preserves, dressing, soup mix and pepper. Arrange the chicken breasts in the bottom of a 6-quart slow cooker.
- Spoon one-half of the apricot mixture on top.
- Add the rest of the chicken and then the rest of the apricot mixture on top.
- Cover and cook on High for one hour. Without opening the lid, lower the temp to Low and cook for 2 1/2 to 3 hours longer on or until the chicken is tender. Do not overcook or the chicken will toughen. Serve with rice. Serves: 6 to 8.