There are a lot of tools and gadgets that you can use in the kitchen to make cooking easier or create amazing food. Of these, one of the most well-known would be the slow cooker. For most people, the main appeal of a slow cooker is the hands-off nature.
In particular, a slow cooker gives you the ability to get a meal started and then leave it to cook without monitoring it. Most of the time, this is used to get dinner started in the morning so that it is ready when a person gets home from work, but you can also leave things cooking overnight, when you're gone in the afternoon, or even cooking desserts while you clean up from dinner and rest after the day.
That feature alone is great but it is only one reason for using a slow cooker. In many ways, slow cookers actually end up having more advantages and greater potential than most people realize.
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A Little Background On Slow Cookers
Basically, a slow cooker is a counter-top appliance that allows you to cook food at a fairly low temperature in liquid over an extended period of time. They are also designed to be completely safe when left alone, so you can leave the house with a slow cooker doing its thing, as many people do. This is not the same as leaving the oven on while away from the home, which is very dangerous and not recommended!
Many people also casually refer to a slow cooker as a crock-pot. This is a reference to the Crock-Pot brand, which does produce a range of different slow cookers, from the simple to the complex. However, often people are simply referring to a generic slow cooker when they use the word crock-pot, rather than one specifically from that brand. It's the same thing like when people say “Q-Tip” instead of cotton swab.
For the most part, slow cookers are fairly simple. They tend to have either a circular or oval design and can come in a large variety of sizes. Many also have a removable interior pot, which allows for easy meal preparation and cooking. They also come in a tons of different colors. Some are more typical like red, blue, black, and silver, but there are some wacky designs out there like teal or polka dots.
Simple and inexpensive slow cookers tend to be fairly limited in features, but that’s not a disadvantage. After all, you don’t need many features to actually do slow cooking.
For example, many slow cookers will just have settings for high and low temperature, and a “warm” setting to keep food warm without overcooking it. You'll see many of these simple features in the lower to middle price range. More feature-rich devices will have timers, multiple high/low settings, automatic warming, and even alternative cooking methods like sautéing.
When cooking a dish, a lower temperature means that the cooking will take longer. The longer cooking time can help to make some dishes more tender, although it does not work as well for sensitive dishes, like pasta.
In many cases, a slow cooker will simply keep on cooking until you turn it off or unplug it. However, some models do have the ability to switch to a keep warm mode after the cooking is done, which helps to prevent overcooking.
The overall simplicity makes slow cookers incredibly easy to use, especially if you have a pretty basic one. They’ve also been common appliances for decades, so there is no shortage of recipes and cookbooks that are specifically focused on slow cookers. It's a favorite appliance of moms around the world since it can cut down on cooking time significantly.
Getting Around Slow Cooker Texture Issues
Slow cookers often get overlooked because they are so strongly associated with soups and stews. Additionally, some people find the texture of slow cooker meals to be unappealing. For example, the meat will sometimes end up dry or stringy. Conversely, in some cases, the meat will end up having almost no texture at all, which can be just as bad.
To some degree, there will always be some limitations to the texture that you can get when making food in a slow cooker. After all, you’re cooking with liquid for many hours. You’re never going to get the same texture baking the same meal in the oven.
However, many of the problems that people experience aren’t connected to the cooking process itself. Instead, they tend to be related to the recipe or precisely how the person is cooking.
For example, cubing meat prior to cooking can help make sure the texture turns out better. You may also need to take a look at the cooking time and the temperature. In many cases, cooking a meal for too long can make it much less appealing because you’re overcooking many of your ingredients.
Temperature of cooking can affect moisture, and then the texture and flavor of the meal. It may take a few times to figure out a new slow cooker because every brand and model cooks slightly differently. There are different sizes, shapes, and heating degree, so you could make the same dish exactly the same way in to different cookers and have it taste differently.
Another trick is to add more seasoning than you think you need.
Many people under season when they’re using a slow cooker and this leads to meals that are bland and unappealing. Just like with conventional cooking, getting the seasoning right can have a huge impact on your meals. In many cases, the seasonings will even make the difference between success and failure with a given dish.
One more piece of advice is to pay attention to different ingredients and when they should be put in. With a slow cooker, it’s tempting to throw everything into the pot all at once and let it cook away (I'm guilty of this!). But, doing this means that you can easily turn everything to mush, as some ingredients require far less cooking time.
This is why some recipes will call for the addition of some ingredients right at the end of cooking or part way through. Doing so can be a pain if you’re out during most of the cooking time. However, adding in some diced peppers or other chopped vegetables 30 mins before the end of cooking is fairly easy to achieve and can make a huge difference to the final meal. No one likes soggy, floppy bell peppers. They're just as bad as undercooked potatoes!
Advantages And Features Of Slow Cookers
In some ways, slow cookers are counterintuitive because one of their biggest advantages is their ability to save you time. It might seem odd that you can save time by increasing the length of cooking but this really is true.
For one thing, slow cooker recipes tend to need less prep work than conventional recipes. Plus, you get to do that prep work ahead of when you need to serve dinner. That’s great for people who are exceptionally busy in the evenings or don’t get home from work until late.
You’re also saving time in the cooking process because you don’t have to manually do much. Most slow cooker recipes use a ‘set and forget’ approach, so you don’t have to actively manage the process or add many ingredients. Some recipes do require more attention to detail, but you can pick and choose the ones that fit your lifestyle.
Size And Shape Options
Slow cookers also come in all shapes and sizes. Most of us are familiar with the fairly large options, which tend to be used to feed a whole family, with leftovers to spare. Such slow cookers are often used to make containers upon containers of stew or soup to freeze.
But, there are also much smaller options out there. For example, there are some models that are specifically designed for one or two servings, such as models that are 3 quarts and smaller (I’ve seen as low as 1.5 quarts).
The smaller models could be a great choice for a person living on their own or a student. This type of model lets you take advantage of the time savings that come with a slow cooker, without forcing you to cook a large amount of food at once.
At the same time, there are also many options in terms of price. The fairly basic slow cookers can be fairly inexpensive, even if you're looking for a large version. In fact, slow cookers are pretty cheap for all of the advantages that they offer. But, that being said, there are also some more expensive models out there, especially those that have a large number of features.
Oh, and they can go up to around 10+ quarts if you really need to cook for a lot of people!
A Wide Range Of Features To Choose From
Another great thing about slow cookers is their features. In most cases, slow cookers may be fairly basic, just having a low and a high setting. But, there are also some more complex models out there that offer you better control over the cooking process.
One of the main examples of this is a timer. This feature is present on many slow cookers and lets you set how long you want it to cook for. Once the cooking is finished, the device then switches over to a keep warm mode.
Using a timer is particularly relevant for recipes that are likely to finish before you get home. Additionally, this helps to make sure your food doesn’t get ruined because you happen to be late home for any reason.
Some slow cookers also give you the ability to brown meat within the product itself, which can remove the need to do prep on the stovetop before putting ingredients into the slow cooker. These tend to be more expensive, with a multitude of other features.
On some slow cookers, another feature is the ability to sense the temperature of the food. With this, the slow cooker can actually switch to keep warm mode once the ingredients reach a certain temperature. This helps to avoid some of the guesswork in slow cooking and should lead to better meals overall. Need to cook a whole chicken or thick roast? This style is perfect for you!
There are other features out there too, which I’m not going to go into in much detail. For example, some products have extra seals to make them more portable, while others may have extensive programming options. Those options can let you set the temperature to change part way through the cooking process. This is another feature that allows for more control, although many people may not need it.
In some cases, companies have combined the slow cooker aspect with other functions. So, you end up with a product that can do a lot of different things, such as slow cooking, rice cooking and pressure cooking.
Additionally, some slow cookers have Bluetooth or Wi-Fi functionality, allowing you to monitor and control your slow cooker from anywhere. That technology would be great for people who work all day and want more control. Even if you're in and out of the house all day, you could benefit from something like this so you don't have to check the cooker all the time.
All of these different features can be beneficial, although they will suit some people more than others.
Realistically, many people are perfectly happy with just a basic slow cooker. However, if you do want more control over your meals, then the additional features can certainly help in this area.
The Versatility of Slow Cookers
Slow cookers are amazing tools and they are much more versatile than most people realize. This means that you can actually make a lot of different types of meals.
In fact, slow cookers aren’t limited to moist meals either. For example, you can make baked potatoes in a slow cooker along with pizza, bread and various types of candy. There are also some more complex dishes that you can make using a slow cooker, such as layered lasagna.
Honestly, the options for different types of meals are pretty much endless.
So, if you don’t particularly like slow cooker meals, this may simply be because you haven’t tried some of the more unusual recipes out there. If you take the time to try out new things and experiment, you may be pleasantly surprised at what you can actually create using a slow cooker.
Now, earlier, I mentioned that most slow cooker recipes are fairly straightforward, which is why they are great for saving time. That’s true but some recipes are an exception. Many slow cooker enthusiasts have taken the time to modify traditional recipes so they fit into a slow cooker lifestyle. For example, I've made brownies and lemon cookies before!
Some recipes may call for browning meat on a stovetop first or adding in different ingredients throughout the course of cooking. I made a mac ‘n cheese recipe once that had me slow cook the ingredients for three hours, but add noodles during the last 30 minutes. It was delicious!
Needless to say, doing so may not be appealing if you’re wanting to cook as quickly as possible or if you aren’t at home while the meal is cooking. But, if you’re wanting great food, the process is often worth the effort. It also means you save on cleanup, since you can just throw the crock and lid into the dish washer when you're done. You generally don't have to worry about burnt foods either.
Besides, in most cases, even with the extra steps, cooking requires less time and effort with a slow cooker than making the same meal in a conventional manner. Remember those noodles in the mac ‘n cheese? Yeah, I just tossed them in and came back in half an hour.
Why Buy A Slow Cooker?
Slow cookers can save you time, which does tend to make them a perfect choice for people who are busy.
After all, conventional cooking methods mean that you have to keep an eye on your food and you often have to be in the kitchen the entire time that it is cooking. That’s far from ideal if you have young children or have other things that you want to do with your time. In contrast, slow cookers tend to be hands-off, letting you allocate your time to other, more interesting, tasks.
They can also be a way to save money because you have the option to buy and cook in bulk. Additionally, you can take advantage of tougher (and cheaper) cuts of meat with a slow cooker, because the cooking time means that the meat will end up tender.
Speaking of saving money, slow cookers also tend to use less energy than using an oven, even if you are running your slow cooker all day.
When you use good recipes and follow them well, slow cookers can produce amazing meals – many of which you couldn’t replicate with standard cooking methods. The process of cooking has a lot to do with this, allowing a richer flavor profile and ensuring that cuts of meat absorb a lot of flavor from other ingredients.
So, even if you’re not a major fan, there’s no reason to avoid a slow cooker. They can save time and money, while also creating some truly amazing dishes. Don’t just stick to the conventional recipes either. The more unusual recipes are well worth trying out and these can be much more appealing than the soups and stews that we tend to get used to. With enough experience, you'll also be able to adapt some of your favorite recipes to the convenient slow cooking method!