Slow Cooker Buying Advice

We all remember the Rival crock pot, the first slow cooker-its introduction in the -70s made it a household name. However, since then, other manufacturers have entered the market with innovative slow cookers complete with specialty accessories to customize this cooking method to your needs. Not sure what to look for? Start with see-through, glass lids that lessen the chances you'll do the one thing you should never do: open your slow cooker while it's cooking.

Choosing the Best Crockpot Size
Larger slow cookers can't be used to cook smaller-size meals, so size plays a strong role in how useful your crockpot will be. Crockpots need to be at least half full so meals don't overcook, but generally no more than three-quarters full to help prevent spillage.

Most people use slow cookers to cook meat, so you may want to consider basing the size of your crockpot on the size of the cuts of meat you'll be cooking most often. You might determine that you're better off with a slightly larger capacity than you think you'll need, even if you're only cooking pot roast for two. Otherwise, by the time you add the vegetables and stock to the pot, you might find that you've run out of room.

Generally, for singles or couples, small-capacity slow cookers (up to 3 quarts) are  usually adequate. If you're cooking for larger groups, often cook ahead and freeze or entertain frequently, choose a slow cooker with a capacity from 5 to 7 quarts.

Slow Cooker Inserts
Slow cooker inserts today are either traditional rounds or the more recent oval slow cooker. Oval slow cookers better accommodate whole chickens, roasts and other large cuts of meat. If you choose a slow cooker with an oval insert, keep in mind that items in it often need to be fully submerged in order to maximize tenderness and flavor. Round inserts, however, allow you to cook roasts with less liquid.  If soups and stews are going to be your slow cooker's mainstay, round inserts are optimal.

Another important consideration is what material your slow cooker's insert is made of. Stoneware is very heavy, but its insulating properties ensure even heating throughout the slow cooking process. If you intend to use your slow cooker for non-traditional applications, such as baking bread, stoneware is absolutely essential.

Some manufacturers now offer aluminum or stainless steel inserts, which can do duty on the stovetop for any sautéing you may need to do first (fewer pots means less cleanup). Aluminum or stainless steel inserts are lighter than traditional stoneware however, these metal inserts act as conductors, not insulators and your meal may not cook as evenly as they would with stoneware. Lastly, items cooked in aluminum or stainless steel inserts are at higher risk of overcooking than those cooked in stoneware.

The new slow cooker insert on the block is VersaWare, a ceramic insert that's similar to stoneware, but can also be used on the stovetop, in the oven or even in a microwave.  According to the owner's manual, VersaWare usage requires some extra steps, including using a heat diffuser with electric ranges, not using direct heat with an empty vessel (need to add oil, butter, food while heating), using slowly increasing heat, and never using high heat.  So if you aren't one to follow rules, you might want to skip the VersaWare and just do your browning in a skillet.

No matter which insert shape or material you choose, you'll probably want to purchase a slow cooker with a removable insert for easy cleaning (many removable inserts are dishwasher safe).

Temperature Control
Most slow cookers offer two temperature settings: high and low, where high is typically around 200 degrees Fahrenheit and low is around 175 degrees Fahrenheit. Beware the slow cooker that features temperatures significantly higher than this range-your food may cook too quickly and turn dry. These basic high/low settings are fine for traditional recipes, but if you intend to push the creative boundaries of your slow cooker, you may want to have more control over temperature in order to fine-tune your recipes.

One of the great benefits of slow cookers is throwing a bunch of ingredients in the pot in the morning and returning home to a hot meal at the end of the day. If this your motivation for purchasing a slow cooker, purchase one with an automatic shutoff feature. Some of today's models now come with automatic or optional -warm' settings that, when cooking is complete, will keep your meal warm until serving.

Programmable Settings
Budget and mid-priced slow cookers usually offer only a few choices when it comes to time and temperature. One that we looked at was as limited as high heat for 4 or 6 hours and low heat for 8 or 10 hours. If you need more flexibility, obviously you need more options. If that's true for you, look for a programmable slow cooker.

You might find that something as simple digital time and temperature setting is enough or that you'd really like to specify your own start and end times. Maybe you'd like to vary temperatures throughout the cooking process (especially useful if you're perfecting your recipes). If you're willing to spend the money, high-end models allow to program those changes and walk away and not worry about having to be home to adjust your settings manually. If you cook a lot and tend to fall in love with your kitchen gadgets, consider investing in slow cooker that gives you this kind of flexibility-the more you love you slow cooker, the more you'll use it.

Specialty Options
Slow cookers aren't just dinner. Some manufacturers make removable specialty inserts, almost always made of stoneware, for bread baking and dessert making. If this sounds like you or even something you'd like to try, consider brands that accommodate these, whether you purchase them now or later.

Other specialty options to look for include thermometer inserts that stay in the slow cooker. This is handy because opening a slow cooker while it's cooking affects temperature significantly. A thermometer insert gives you the option to temp your meal without any negative effects. Cooking at your house for an event at someone else's? Insulated travel cases are available to make transport easy.

Lastly, although it seems obviously, slow cooking is different than other cooking. If you're new to the method or even if you're looking to expand your repertoire, crockpot cookbooks contain recipes modified for maximum flavor preservation for slow cooking and some slow cookers come with their own crockpot recipes  for the best crockpot cooking (it might just be the tie-breaking factor between two models you like).

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