Not all slow cookers are created equal … or work equally well for everyone!
Those of us who use slow cookers frequently know we have our own preferences when it comes to which slow cooker we choose to use. For instance, I love my programmable slow cooker, but there are many programmable slow cookers I’ve tried that I’ve strongly disliked. Why? Because some go by increments of 15 or 30 minutes and some go by 4, 6, 8, or 10 hours. I dislike those restrictions, but I have family and friends who don’t mind them at all! I am also pretty brand-loyal when it comes to my manual slow cookers because I’ve had great success with those and have had unsuccessful moments with slow cookers of other brands. So, which slow cooker(s) is/are best for your household?
It really depends on how many people you’re feeding and if you’re gone for long periods of time. Here are my recommendations:
For 2–3 person household
3–5-quart slow cooker
For 4–5 person household
5–6-quart slow cooker
For a 6+ person household
6½–7 quart slow cooker
Large slow cooker advantages/disadvantages:
• You can fit a loaf pan or a baking dish into a 6- or 7-quart, depending on the shape of your cooker. That allows you to make bread or cakes, or even smaller quantities of main dishes. (Take your favourite baking dish and loaf pan along when you shop for a cooker to make sure they’ll fit inside.)
• You can feed large groups of people, or make larger quantities of food, allowing for leftovers, or meals, to freeze.
• They take up more storage room.
• They don’t fit as neatly into a dishwasher.
• If your crock isn’t ⅔–¾ full, you may burn your food.
Small slow cooker advantages/disadvantages:
• They’re great for lots of appetizers, for serving hot drinks, for baking cakes straight in the crock, and for dorm rooms or apartments.
• A great option for making recipes of smaller quantities.
• Food in smaller quantities tends to cook more quickly than larger amounts. So keep an eye on it.
• Chances are, you won’t have any leftovers. So, if you like to have leftovers, a smaller slow cooker may not be a good option for you.
Have at least two slow cookers; one around 3 to 4 quarts and one 6 quarts or larger. A third would be a huge bonus (and a great advantage to your cooking repertoire!). The advantage of having at least a couple is you can make a larger variety of recipes. Also, you can make at least two or three dishes at once for a whole meal.
Manual vs. Programmable
If you are gone for only six to eight hours a day, a manual slow cooker might be just fine for you. If you are gone for more than eight hours during the day, I would highly recommend purchasing a programmable slow cooker that will switch to warm when the cooking time you set is up. It will allow you to cook a wider variety of recipes.
The two I use most frequently are my 4-quart manual slow cooker and my 6½-quart programmable slow cooker. I like that I can make smaller portions in my 4-quart slow cooker on days I don’t need or want leftovers, but I also love how my 6½-quart slow cooker can accommodate whole chickens, turkey breasts, hams, or big batches of soups. I use them both often.
Get to know your slow cooker …
Plan a little time to get acquainted with your slow cooker. Each slow cooker has its own personality—just like your oven (and your car). Plus, many new slow cookers cook hotter and faster than earlier models. I think that with all of the concern for food safety, the slow cooker manufacturers have amped up their settings so that “High,” “Low,” and “Warm” are all higher temperatures than in the older models. That means they cook hotter—and therefore, faster than the first slow cookers. The beauty of these little machines is that they’re supposed to cook low and slow. We count on that when we flip the switch in the morning before we leave the house for ten hours or so. So, because none of us knows what kind of temperament our slow cooker has until we try it out, nor how hot it cooks—don’t assume anything. Save yourself a disappointment and make the first recipe in your new slow cooker on a day when you’re at home. Cook it for the shortest amount of time the recipe calls for. Then, check the food to see if it’s done. Or if you start smelling food that seems to be finished, turn off the cooker and rescue your food.
Also, all slow cookers seem to have a “hot spot,” which is of great importance to know, especially when baking with your slow cooker. This spot may tend to burn food in that area if you’re not careful. If you’re baking directly in your slow cooker, I recommend covering the “hot spot” with some foil.
Take notes …
Don’t be afraid to make notes in your cookbook. It’s yours! Chances are, it will eventually get passed down to someone in your family and they will love and appreciate all of your musings. Take note of which slow cooker you used and exactly how long it took to cook the recipe. The next time you make it, you won’t need to try to remember. Apply what you learned to the next recipes you make in your cooker. If another recipe says it needs to cook 7–9 hours, and you’ve discovered your slow cooker cooks on the faster side, cook that recipe for 6–6½ hours and then check it. You can always cook a recipe longer—but you can’t reverse things if it’s overdone.
Get creative …
If you know your morning is going to be hectic, prepare everything the night before, take it out so the crock warms up to room temperature when you first get up in the morning, then plug it in and turn it on as you’re leaving the house.
If you want to make something that has a short cook time and you’re going to be gone longer than that, cook it the night before and refrigerate it for the next day. Warm it up when you get home. Or, cook those recipes on the weekend when you know you’ll be home and eat them later in the week.