Slow cookers are convenient ways to cook meals ahead of time. Small and efficient they take up little room on the counter or in the cupboard. Due to the slow cooking method, they provide tender, tasty meals from less costly cuts of meat. Cook an entire meal all in one pot. Prepare it the night before, store in the refrigerator, and put it in the pot in the morning. Set the temperature, turn it on and go about your daily activities. When you and your family are ready to eat, the meal is ready to serve.
Types of Slow Cookers
There are basically two types of Slow Cooker, the mechanical and the programmable.
The mechanical type comes from the original “Crock-Pot” invented by Irving Naxon in 1936. His device consisted of an insert, held up by a case that held a heating device, which facilitated even heating of food inside the insert. The device was also portable. It continues to be made today by Rival Manufacturing without much change but is also made under many other brand names.
The programmable slow cooker, as its name says, can be programmed by electronic controls. Some models can be programmed for up to 24 hours in 30-minute increments, although cooking food for this long is much more than most home cooks require and can lead to food-safety concerns. Many models automatically switch to a keep-warm setting when the set time is up and can keep food warm for hours. Manual mode is also available on some models.
For tips on cooking with slow cookers be sure to read this.
Mechanical Slow Cookers
The basic control on a mechanical slow cooker or Crock Pot is a 3 or 4 position switch. The 3 positions are “Off – Low – High” and on a 4 position switch “Warm”.
Following is a table comparing cooking times of conventional stove vs high-low slow cooker settings. In other words, if a conventional oven takes (x) minutes to cook a meal, then a slow cooker on high setting will take (y) hrs and on low setting will take (z) hours
Conventional (x) High (y) Low (z)
15-30mins 1-2hrs 4-6hrs
35-40mins 3-4hrs 6-8hrs
50mins-3hrs 4-6hrs 8-18hrs
You must manually turn the temperature control to “Warm” setting, when available. “Warm” setting keeps the food hot and ready to serve. Food kept at the high or low settings for too long will overcook and turn to mush.
- Easy to use – simple, uncomplicated switch setting, no learning curve
- Less expensive to buy
- No electronics – less chance of equipment failure, cheap to fix/replace if it breaks
- removable inserts for easy serving and cleaning
- Manual control – requires more attention in order to prevent overcooking
Examples of Mechanical (Crock Pot) Slow Cookers
Programmable Slow Cookers
Timers automatically switch to “warm” when the food is finished cooking. Some of the more common features of this type of slow cooker are:
- digital displays
- settings up to 24 hours in 30-minute increments
- removable inserts
- some models feature multi-cooking modes such as steaming and rice cooking
- some have WiFi for remote control via a smartphone app
Examples of programmable slow cookers
Things to Consider When Buying a Slow Cooker
- Location of Heater Element – is either on the bottom only or on the bottom and on the sides. Having a bottom only heater element leads to uneven heating and cooking of food. The best models have heater element(s) on the bottom and sides and a tight-fitting insert to ensure even and efficient spreading of heat throughout the food.
- Size – slow cooker sizes range from 3-quart up to 8-quart. What you plan to use it for determines the size you need. Smaller units suit singles or couples. Larger families and those of you that entertain groups need the larger capacity.
- Crock Material – is metal, ceramic or porcelain. All types are fairly easy to clean, particularly if removable.
- Removable Inserts – allow easier cleaning and more convenience. Slow cookers with non-removable pots cannot be completely immersed in water. Otherwise, the damage to electrical components could result. Removable inserts can also double as serving containers.
- Lid Material – the temptation to look at what’s cooking is very great but lifting that lid releases precious heat and delays the final tasty result. Look for a glass or other clear material for the lid so you can see inside without opening the top.
- Shape – slow cookers come in various shapes the most common being round or oval. What you intend to use the cooker for should determine its shape. If you are going to cook ribs or roasts, oval slow cookers will suit you best. For soups and stews, round shapes will work just as well.
- Timer – if you are going to be home all the time while cooking, a mechanical slow cooker will be fine for you. Set a separate timer to remind you when the cooking time is up. However, if you will not be around when the food is done cooking then you need an automatic timer to switch to “warm” so that the meal doesn’t turn into mush. A 10-hour timer is enough for most meals. You need a longer timer only for large, complex recipes.
- Searing Function – more expensive slow cookers may come with a searing function built in. This allows you to sear food to seal in juices prior to slow cooking without the use of a stove. Some slow cookers have an insert to put on the stove and sear meat without dirtying another pan.
- Warming Function – consider a “warm” setting, either on a programmable automatic timer or on a mechanical slow cooker. This feature keeps food at a lower temperature until ready for serving. If a “warm” setting is not available the food must be served immediately or transferred to a pot to be kept warm on the stove. This is to avoid food cooling slowly and developing dangerous bacterial cultures.
- Mechanical or Programmable – the advantage of programmable slow cookers over mechanical is their “set and forget” capability. Set the timer and the unit will switch over to “warm” when cooking is done. This allows you to do other things or even be out of the house without the worry of overcooking. However, if that is not a concern for you then the extra expense is not necessary, go ahead and enjoy the cooking experience of the simple “crock-pot”.
Leave a comment about your thoughts or experiences with any of the types of slow cookers.