The year after I was 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 choice of a couple of colors with 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 cook overnight.
The reason that slow cooker landed where it did (car port storage shed) is because it produced overcooked bland tasting meals that could at best be considered 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.
Since then I’ve learned a lot having owned no fewer than eight slow cookers. I’ve had one that was programmable (a real stretch if by programmable one would assume that meant 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 come to the conclusion that even the most expensive slow cooker still requires some level of manual operation making a programmable model overkill and a big waste of money. So far, no one has come out with a slow cooker that has a clock and a timer so you can set it to start and stop according to the time you will walk through the door.
For the best value and performance, I recommend sticking to a no muss no fuss slow cooker that has three settings, just like the original Crock Pot: High, Low and Warm. You want a cooker that has a tightly fitting lid with a heatproof knob or handle on the lid.
Given this simple list of must-haves, here are my picks for the best inexpensive slow cookers:
Crock-Pot 7-Quart SCCPVP700-S, about $40. This jumbo size slow-cooker is the perfect size for a large family—9 or more people. It easily accommodates a 7-lb roast or even a small turkey. I have this model and use it when I entertain or take food to an event. It has just the right features I love and it looks good, too.
Hamilton Beach 5-Quart 33550, about $30. This cooker holds a 5-pound chicken or 3-pound roast, has a great-fitting lid with heatproof handle, has a rubber gasket around the lid and cleans up easily. This is my favorite of all the medium-size slow cookers I’ve owned.
Proctor Silex 1.5-Quart 33116Y, about $18. This is the perfect size for two people, also for dips, fondues and appetizers. It comes with a latch strap that keeps the lid in place during transport, which makes it perfect for pot lucks and other culinary travel opportunities.
Why slow cook?
Convenience. 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.
Save money. 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.
Don’t overcook. 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.
Brown meats. For best flavor and texture, ground beef or ground turkey should be browned on top of the stove before adding to slow cooker.
Don’t peek. 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.
Re-season. 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. 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 for about $12. 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 [three-fourths] bottled Russian dressing
- 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)
- In a medium bowl, mix together the preserves, dressing and soup mix. Arrange three breasts in the bottom of a medium-size slow cooker. Spoon one-fourth of the apricot mixture on top. Add three more layers of chicken alternating with the apricot mixture and ending with it on top.
- Cover and cook on high for one hour. Cook for 2 1/2 (two and one-half) to 3 hours longer on low or until the chicken is tender. Do not overcook or the chicken will toughen. Serve with the sauce.