The company Rival first introduced the slow cooker, which they called the Crock-Pot®, in the early 1970s, and it quickly became a must-have kitchen accessory. Busy women juggling careers and children found that they could use the Crock-Pot® to make big dinners with minimal fuss. The ingredients would simmer in the slow cooker all day, and a hot dinner would be easy to serve. Today, modern cooks are rediscovering the benefits of using a slow cooker. Not only are slow cooker recipes easy to follow and modify, but also cooks on a budget can use a slow cooker to save money at the grocery store.
How a Slow Cooker Works
Slow cookers have a metal collar that contains a heating element. This metal collar encases a ceramic dish. The ceramic dish has a tight-fitting lid that’s typically transparent, so you can see the food you’re cooking. The heating element in the base of the slow cooker warms the food inside the ceramic dish, causing condensation to form on the lid. This water then returns to the food in the ceramic dish. Because no fluids are lost in this process, ingredients spend the day bathed in hot, damp conditions.
A slow cooker sits on the countertop to do its work, and it only needs a single electrical outlet. Some slow cookers contain timers, allowing you to program when the appliance turns on and off. Most slow cookers contain a high, medium and low setting. A standard slow cooker or Crock-Pot® will use about the same amount of energy as a light bulb. Most of the heat returns to the food in the dish, meaning that using a slow cooker won’t cause the temperature of your house to rise.
The Benefits of Using a Slow Cooker
By using a slow cooker, you can:
- Cut costs. Inexpensive, tough cuts of pork and other meants cook up soft and juicy in a slow cooker. In fact, cuts with very little fat are ideal for the slow cooker. Pork and beef are often more expensive if they have a high fat content.
- Save time. Most slow cooker recipes require very little preparation. You’ll likely need to cut up vegetables and brown meats, but that will end your prep work. When you return home hours later, dinner will be ready.
- Quickly make substitutions. For cooks looking to lower salt intake, slow cooker recipes can be modified to include herbs instead of salt. Sugars can be replaced with fruit juices.
- Entertain your guests. Slow cookers truly do cook food slowly. If you’re throwing a dinner party and a guest is late to arrive, you can leave your food in the Crock-Pot® for a little extra time without worrying that it will burn.
- Make leftovers. Crock-Pot® recipes typically make many servings, ensuring you’ll have leftovers for lunches.
How to Choose a Slow Cooker
Most slow cookers come in 1- to 6-quart sizes. Think about how you’ll use your slow cooker before you buy. In order to cook food properly, the slow cooker must be one-half to two-thirds full. If your Crock-Pot® is too large, foods will scorch on the bottom of the ceramic bowl. If your slow cooker is too small, the fluids can overflow and short out the electrical element.
Look for slow cookers with ceramic inserts that can be removed from the metal heating collar. The heating element should never be submerged in water. If your slow cooker cannot be disassembled for cleaning, it may be very difficult to clean it properly between uses.
As mentioned, some slow cookers contain specialized programming, allowing you to program when the appliance will turn on, when it will turn off, when it will run at a high temperature and when it will switch to a low setting. This can be a blessing for extremely busy cooks who plan to be away from home for a long period of time. But for cooks who plan to stay near to home or return home after only a few hours, the additional features may not be worth the expense.
Using a Slow Cooker Safely
To avoid the risk of foodborne illness, it’s best to test your slow cooker before you use it. Fill the ceramic insert half full of tap water. Turn the control to the highest setting, and leave the appliance on for 8 hours. Do not lift the lid. After 8 hours, lift the lid and quickly take the temperature of the water with a food thermometer. The temperature should be 185 degrees or above. If the reading is lower than 185 degrees, the slow cooker is not able to heat quickly and thoroughly enough, which may allow bacteria to grow in your food as it cooks.
As you prepare your dishes, place thick, hearty vegetables such as turnips, potatoes and carrots at the base of the pot and add meats on top. Vegetables tend to cook more slowly than meats, so they should be placed as close to the heat source as possible. Turn the setting on high for the first hour of cooking, to ensure that the food reaches a safe temperature quickly.
As the food cooks, do not lift the lid. Each time you open the lid, the temperature inside the cooker drops by 10 to 15 degrees, and you add 30 minutes to your cooking time. This is an important to remember while using your slow cooker. Pork and meat dishes may smell terrific and you’d like to check your progress, but you can create dangerous conditions with your checks.
As you search for slow cooker recipes, look for recipes that are designed for the size of slow cooker you’ve purchased. Recipes that are too large will simply not fit and can result in a mess.