Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What to Look for When Buying a Slow Cooker

When my kids were young I loved my slow cooker.  I could put my meal on before leaving for work and come home to a tasty smell throughout the whole house.  After the kids grew and left the nest I stopped using my cooker.  Now, I find myself going back to this wonderful piece of kitchen equipment when I want to cook a roast - both beef and pork, or when I want to make a big pot of soup.  I actually now have 2 cookers.  One is smaller and has a metal pan allowing me to make smaller meals.  The other is larger and is great when making large amounts that I plan to share.

With the slow cooker coming back to not just me but to many busy cooks out there I felt it might be useful to know what to look for when buying your next cooker.  This information came from my internet research and I agree with this completely. 

When choosing you may want to consider a programmable model.  These are equipped with timers so you can set them to cook for a specific time with the cooker turning itself to a keep-warm mode.  Standard models have adjustable temperature controls but no timer so you'll need to be around to keep an eye on the food and turn off the unit when done.  In general, reviewers say programmable slow cookers are preferable to mechanical ones but the prices are usually very far apart with the programmable costing as much as $200 or more.

What size do you need?
The size of your family may play a factor in your choice.  Families of four or more should look for a 6 quart cooker, while couples or single people may only want a 4 quart model.  To cook food safely, a slow cooker needs to be at least half full, but no more than 2/3 full so that should be a factor in your choice too.  If you are a small family and do decide to go with the larger cooker, you can always prepare the larger quantity of food and freeze leftovers. 

What you plan to cook the most?
If you're buying a larger cooker, you may want to consider one with an oval-shape which can accommodate large cuts of meat like roasts or whole chickens.  The round crocks are great for soups and stews but if you're making large qualities of either the oval will work just as well, just remember the half full rule.

What type of insert do you prefer?
Most cookers have removable stoneware inserts which are heavy, sturdy and practical for the average user.  Some slow-cooker inserts can even be reheated in the oven or microwave.  A few models have aluminum or stainless-steel inserts which allow you to brown meat directly in the crock - but some experts agree that a skillet works better.  Some have a nonstick coating but these must be treated with care to avoid damaging the finish.

How important is the ease of cleanup?
Most of us will agree that a slow cooker must have a removable insert that is dishwasher-safe for easy cleanup.  But if you happen to have one that doesn't you might want to consider he disposable liners made of food-safe nylon resins.

What kind of lid do you want?
The best lids fit snug and are either glass or clear plastic.  This allows you to monitor the food during the cooking process without removing the lid which would allow the release of steam and slow the cooking.

And Most important is the actual safety of your food.
When using a slow cooker, it's important to avoid extended heat-up and cool-down periods.  According to the Food and Drug Administration, bacteria thrive at temperatures in a zone between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit.  Several slow cookers tested by the Good Housekeeping Research Institute aren't recommended because they take more than three hours to heat water to 160 degrees on low, meaning that food might remain too long at an unsafe temperature.  One way to avoid this is to set your slow cooker on high for at least the first hour of cooking.

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