The Best Slow Cookers are Amazingly Affordable

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Proctor

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!

Apricot-Russian Chicken
Serves: 8-10
Ingredients
  • 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)
Instructions
  1. 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.
  2. 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.

 

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25 replies
  1. Dianne Carpenter
    Dianne Carpenter says:

    I read that the newer models don’t really have high and low… they cook at the same HIGH temperature; it just takes the LOW setting longer to get there. It takes 7-8 hours for low and 3-4 hours on high. Proceed accordingly. I have had to add a lot of water to keep from burning things to a crisp.

    Reply
    • debi sue
      debi sue says:

      Thanks for sharing that. I had a slow cooker and was very unhappy with the dry burnt messes even though I followed the recipes. The recipes were older and would have needed more water if the machines do not have a true “low” setting.

      Reply
  2. SouthernerinOhio
    SouthernerinOhio says:

    One of the best ideas is to remove the skin from a chicken that you bought on sale, put some seasonings on it, and cook it for about 6-8 hours. This is from one of Stephanie O’Dea’s “Make It Fast Cook It Slow” books. I bought both used from barnes and noble online and saved $. She also has a website… I also like pot roast in the crockpot and choice of poultry/meat plus vegetables.

    Reply
  3. Laurie
    Laurie says:

    I love my Hamilton Beach programmable slow cooker. Works great, I can set it and if I’m not home it will go to warm.

    Reply
  4. marysews
    marysews says:

    We have an Aroma digital rice cooker, but we use it mostly to steam our veggies. It also does sautee and simmer, much like a crock pot. Of course, we got it on sale!

    Reply
  5. Angela in VA
    Angela in VA says:

    I would highly recommend three slow cooker cookbooks. The first is America’s Test Kitchen’s Slow Cooker Revolution. It gives the science behind the method of using a crock pot. The other two are by Stephanie O’Dea, Make It Fast, Cook It Slow and More Make It Fast, Cook It Slow. They are both great, but the second one has meals by the cost and that helps my budget! Love my three slow cookers and would be lost without them!

    Reply
  6. Robyn
    Robyn says:

    I have a Hamilton Beach slow cooker with a probe that allows you to cook meat to a certain temperature. When it reaches that temperature it just keeps the meal warm. It works wonderfully…..no dry meat! A whole chicken is just wonderful!

    Reply
  7. Donna
    Donna says:

    What about the three-in-one slow cookers? Has anyone tried one of them? It seems it would be a good choice, especially when cooking for 2.

    Reply
  8. that_girl
    that_girl says:

    My favorite thing to do is just pop chicken breasts in (I’ve even used still partially frozen ones) with sauce — barbecue sauce, Mexican cooking sauce, whatever strikes my fancy — and leave ’em for about 4 hours on low. I add chopped onions usually and leave it on warm for 45-60 minutes. They are always perfect, tender, juicy, fall apart with just a poke — great for sandwiches or tacos.

    Reply
    • maxhalberg
      maxhalberg says:

      Pretty much my favorite thing too… so easy and about a $5-$10 meal with no prep. I mix it up with drumsticks and wings too.

      Reply
  9. Susan Sharp
    Susan Sharp says:

    Wow, I still have and use the original Rival crock pot. Inherited it from my mother in law, mine’s yellow (gold)

    Reply
  10. Betsy Whitehead
    Betsy Whitehead says:

    Along with the slow cooker I use the “Fix It and Forget It” slow cooker cookbooks edited by Phyllis Pellman Good.

    Reply
  11. Sandra
    Sandra says:

    A slow cooker has been used in my household for decades and wouldn’t want to live w/out one. I have a 7 qt and a 2 qt but the 2 qt gets so dang hot and I’d like to replace it. Any ideas for a smaller slow cooker?

    Reply
  12. Lucienne
    Lucienne says:

    My Crockpot brand crockpot that I bought at Costco has a timer on it, so you can set the number of hours you want it to cook. At the end of the time, it enters the warm setting where it stays until you turn it off. I bought it several years ago and love it.

    Reply
    • blazingb
      blazingb says:

      I got one of those as well and loved it until the steam/water started running down the side underneath the crock part and put cracks in it. Had to toss it.

      Reply
  13. Karla
    Karla says:

    I actually have one of the programmable models and love it. I can set it to cook on the desired temperature and set the amount of time for it to cook. Once the time limit has been met it automatically switches to “keep warm”. My roasts come out perfect.

    Reply
  14. GinnyEff
    GinnyEff says:

    And, a slow cooker doubles as a rice cooker. I make a pot-full of Basmati rice (my family’s favorite) and use it for a week as fried rice, in soups and stews, added to our senior dog’s with-a-senstive-stomach DIY food. At the holidays, it makes a great “chafing” dish or wassail bowl. Not to mention the apple sauce and apple butter I make in the fall….

    Reply
  15. Patti
    Patti says:

    One of the best things to come along for use with slow cookers is the slow cooker liners. If you are making chili or melting chocolate or something equally as messy & harder to clean, these things are a life saver. Even though I have a cooker with a removable crock, these liners make clean up a snap. A very good thing for a working woman.

    Reply

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