It’s that time of year when the days are shorter, the night falls sooner, and we drive home from work in the dark. Bummer.
But there’s no need to be in the dark about dinner when you get home. There is a bright light (and a warm meal) waiting for you if you know how to flip the slow cooker switch. So don’t dial for dinner and order expensive take out on your way home, get crocking by cracking out your Crock Pot for frugal and healthy family meals.
If you don’t already own a Crock Pot or a slow cooker, here are 6 Reasons to use a Crock Pot . When you’re convinced that a slow cooker is for you, then here’s how to buy the right one! These are not your mother’s Crock Pots. I swear!
1. “Crock-Pot” vs. Slow Cooker?
Don’t get stuck by playing the brand name game. A Crock Pot is a slow cooker. But a slow cooker is not always a Crock Pot. Seriously. A “Crock-Pot®” is the brand name for those slow cookers sold by the company Rival. Slow cookers are the generic product name for a handy kitchen appliance with a heating element and an insert that slowly cooks food. Hot stuff, non?
Slow cooker competitors to Rival’s Crock-Pot® brand are made by companies like Hamilton Beach, Sunbeam, Proctor Silex, West Bend, and Cuisinart — just to name a few. To keep things legal, these companies have to call their stuff “Slow Cookers”. But really, from a food preparation point of view, there is no difference between cooking with a “Crock-Pot®” and other brands.
Your biggest concern should be the features your slow cooker boasts, not the brand name it wears.
2. Size Matters
Slow cookers come in a range of sizes measuring in quarts. Picking the right fit for your family is important, especially if you want leftovers or want a crock big enough for meals like roast beef or pot roast.
Some simple slow cooker size guidelines:
- Two Adults: If you have two adults dining, then the 3 to 4-quart size can work well. Many recipes are designed with this size in mind, and there are usually some leftovers for lunch the next day.
- Larger Families: If you have a larger family or love lots of leftovers, then go with a 6-quart model.
- Love Leftovers: Get a 6-quart unit if you’re all about making double-measure recipes, cooking one big meal each week, freezing or refrigerating smaller portions, or bringing something tasty to work for lunch.
Even though we are a family of two, I prefer a larger 6-quart slower cooker. The reason is roasts. There just isn’t enough room in a smaller crock for meatier meals calling for chicken, lots of beans, or roast beef. Besides, I’m busy during the week so coming home to leftovers is bliss.
3. Shape: Round or Square?
I was always a bit of a square growing up, but I must highly recommend passing on corners and getting a round slower cooker. Rounded edges are simply easier to clean than square edges with crevices. Also, be sure to get a slow cooker with a tilted or graduated rim. Crocks with narrow or flat rims can bubble and spill liquids over the top. Who needs that mess.
4. Get a Removable Crock Insert
This is important if you want to stay sane with your slow cooker — get a removable crock insert. A removable crock is far easier to clean since it can be separated from the electronic base and set to soak in your sink. The units sold as a single crock with heating base cannot be submerged in water. Besides, a removable crock can be moved to your refrigerator if there are leftovers, making your cleanup and storage easy. I used to own one of those single units in school, and never used it because it was a pain to clean.
5. Put a Glass Lid on It
You’ve got to put a lid on it, so if you want your slow cooker to last get one with a glass lid. Lids with plastic pieces or metal rims may not withstand the test of time since they can melt, warp, and even discolor. Glass lids can also boast a higher dome, giving you more space for cooking tall foods like whole chickens and roasts.
But the big bonus with a glass lid is that you can see your food cooking. Lids that are plastic or opaque require you to uncover your crock to see where your meal is at. When slow cooking, removing the lid is a big no-no since this lets the heat escape, thus increasing your cooking time. Big energy and time waste, non?
6. Fancy Features
Slow cookers and Crock Pots are pretty simple devices — they have an insert, a lid, a heating base, and a temperature dial. But today’s slow cookers boast features that would make your mother’s Crock Pot simmer. Here are some features to consider before plunking down your dinner dough:
- Crock Material: Some crocks are made of stoneware while others are metal inserts with non-stick coatings. The choice is yours, but I’m a fan of the stoneware models since they hold heat well, look attractive served on the table, come in a variety of styles and colors, and refrigerate well.
- Digital Digits or Dials: Some units come with just a dial while others are fully digitized. The units with dials tend to cost less.
- Various Settings: Today’s slow cookers come with a variety of settings to choose from, like: keep warm settings, programmable delayed cooking timers, and multiple temperature settings. Most slow cookers with dials come standard with these settings: Off, Low, High, Warm. Slow cookers with timers are handy for those who work late or start the day early.
It’s easy to lose your head and flip over the fanciest of features. But really, a simple heating unit with a dial will get dinner done.
Like most things in life, you get what you pay for. But with slow cookers paying a lot more moolah doesn’t necessarily get you a better meal. Generally, slow cookers and Crock Pots range in price from a mere $20 to a whopping $220 for the feature-rich and brand name units.
Here are four slow cookers that balance excellent features with frugal prices:
- Hamilton Beach 6-Quart Programmable Slow Cooker (on sale $49)
- Hamilton Beach 4-Quart Oval Slow Cooker (on sale $25)
- Cuisinart 3-1/2-Quart Programmable Slow Cooker (on sale $59)
Slow Cooker Recipes
These classic slow cooker cookbooks are awesome and frugal too:
- Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker: Recipes for Two
- Slow Cooker Ready & Waiting: 160 Sumptuous Meals That Cook Themselves
- Fix-It And Forget-It: 1400 Best Slow Cooker Recipes
- 200 Recipes for Healthy and Hearty One-Pot Meals (vegetarian)
There you have it. Lots of details on how to dial into a slow cooker or a Crock Pot. If you still need some convincing, then here are 6 Reasons to use a Crock Pot.
Your Turn: Do you love your slow cooker? What’s your favorite cooker feature or frugal recipe?