A Slow Cooker is advertised as a great way of cooking meals while your away from the kitchen, the idea is that you put your meat veg etc... in them when you leave for work and come home to a delicious curry or pot of hot stew.
What is a Slow Cooker?
Russell Hobbs Compact Slow Cooker
A slow cooker is a cooking pot that sits in an outer sleeve containing heating elements. You put in your ingredients and pop a lid on the pot. The food slowly cooks over a few hours at about 79° – 93 °C (174° – 199 °F).
The lid keeps the heat in and stops the liquid (from stock and the food) from escaping as vapour, allowing it to circulate inside the pot transferring heat to the food.
Using a slow cooker :
Warning: A slow cooker does not boil food, do not use them to cook foods which need boiling to make them safe for eating (such as kidney beans).
Slow Cookers are money savers as you can use cheaper cuts of meat with high collagen (connective tissue) content such as rib eye, short ribs, Brisket and similar cuts of beef.
This is because the slow cooking process breaks down the collagen turning tough chewy cuts of meat into succulent, tender, melt in your mouth morsels (as long as you don't overcook and lose the flavour).
Another benefit is that as food stays warm for a long time after switching off, your food can be taken to be eaten elsewhere without re-heating.
Slow cookers work well with soups, stews, curries and other braised (cooked in liquid) dishes, but be careful of overcooking as there are very few recipes that need cooking for 6+ hours.
Cooking for too long will make vegetables tasteless and mushy (cook leeks or turnips for 6+ hours and they will dissolve into the liquid) and meat will go from juicy & tender to soft tasteless lumps if cooked for too long.
Lamb stew made in my vintage slow cooker, a 1970's stoneware Prestige Crock-ette
Most slow cooker recipes require some prep' work, such as searing the meat before cooking or making the curry paste, some ingredients may need to be added near the end of the cooking cycle.
Timing is essential for best results, set the slow cooker to turn on 5 hours before you get home and you will have a tasty dish, turn it on before you go to work in the morning and leave it cooking until you get home 10 hours later and you will get a bowl of mush. This might be OK if you want a soup but not if you're expecting a chunky vegetable or meaty stew or braised short ribs.
You will have to experiment a little to find the cooking time that suits your taste.
What to look for:
As with most modern appliances, slow cookers come with a range of features, some are useful, some are unnecessary gimmicks.
Size: The capacities given are for the inner bowl when full, the manufacturers recommend that you only fill your pot to a maximum of 2/3, so a 3.5-litre pot will cook about 2.3 litres of stew.
The smallest Slow Cookers are more suitable for warming dips or making single portions of soup, a 6-litre pot can feed a family of six, choose the size that suits your needs.
Our research shows it's better to have a larger one as they are more versatile and you can use it for smaller portions as necessary. We recommend a minimum size of 3.5 litres. We have also included a smaller recommended best buy for single or smaller households.
The two shown here are the same VonShef models one is 1.5 the other 6.5 litres, both available from Domu with free extended 2 year guarantees.
Shape: Slow Cookers come in 2 shapes, oval and round. If you are going to be cooking whole chickens, pot roasts, joints and ribs than an oval shape is best, for stews, soups etc... shape doesn't matter, pick one you like or one to fit your space.
A dishwasher safe ceramic pot and glass lid are the perfect combination
Material: The inner pot should be removable, dishwasher safe and preferably made of ceramic or porcelain.
The lid should be seen through glass so you don't have to open it to see how your food is cooking, as opening the lid releases heat and increases cooking time.
With a Metal pot, you can sear meat on the hob then load it straight into the slow cooker.
However, metal pots do not distribute the heat as well as ceramic and can cause thicker stews & sauces to stick to the bottom also they don't last as long.
Typically you would expect a metal pot to last 2 - 3 years. Ceramics last a lot longer, I have been using my stoneware Prestige Crock-ette for over 40 years.
The temprature control on the Russell Hobbs compact cooker
Temperature Control: Most slow cookers have 3 temperature settings high, medium and low or keep warm, there is no need to adjust the set temperatures and few (if any ) have this function.
Timers: Basic slow cookers have to be manually turned on and off. Top end slow cookers have multi-function digital timers which allow you to delay the start of cooking and cook for a preset time.
As with any electric appliance, the more electronic gadgetry you have is the more likely it is to break down unless you really need the extras choose a good quality basic model
The minimum requirement you need is a timer to switch your slow cooker on and off, you can use an external plug-in timer to do this.
Indicator light: Slow Cookers cook silently, an indicator light is a good way to know that it is turned on and is working.
Auto Cook: This feature starts the slow cooker on high then drops to a lower temperature for the rest of the cooking period (e.g., 2 hours high, followed by 4 hours low, followed by keeping warm).
We've found that this style of cooking give much tastier results which is why our Recommended Best Buy Andrew James range has it.
Auto Stir: A few Slow cookers have a rotating paddle which slowly stirs the food as it is cooked, the idea is that it distributes heat more evenly and stops your stew sticking to the bottom of the pot.
We don't recommend these as the paddle it gets in the way if you want to cook large pieces of meat and stirring breaks up the vegetables.
Most slow cookers look the same and have the same controls, the similarities stop there.
- Loose fitting lids letting vapour escape and burning food
- Breaking down quickly
- Control knobs and handles that fall off.
The ones we have in our best buy selection all have a minimum 2 years guarantee have been tested by us and are proven, good performers.
You can buy small ones from around £10 with no guarantees, we don't recommend buying one. These are electrical appliances you are going to fill with liquid and leave unattended in your home!
Expect to pay around £25 ( Sept' 2018 ) for a decent 3.5 Liter slow cooker with a minimum 2-year guarantee. £10 to £20 more for ones with programmable timers.
Our recommended best buy range is the Andrew James Premium slow cookers. These have Stainless steel bodies, removable non-stick ceramic bowls, tempered glass lids, auto cook features and indicator lights.
They have a 2-year guarantee and are available in sizes up to 8 litres. These models do not have built in timers and we recommend using a plug-in timer with them.
Our best-selling slow cookers are the Morphy Richards seal and sear accents, which has a non-stick aluminium cooking pot you can use to sear food on the hob before cooking (available in different sizes).
Crock-Pots are time-tested and many of our users swear by them, we believe that other manufacturers have caught up and our best buys are just as good. Our recommended best buy Crock-Pot is the 4.7 Litre digital countdown model which has a timer.
Take a look at our Recommended Best Buy Slow Cookers, each has a short review on the product page