Slow cookers come in two pretty distinct configurations: electronic and mechanical. Electronic models are typically somewhat more expensive, say between $100 and $250. They have the added advantage of being programmable, though. This means you can preset the time and any temperature drops, like from high heat to low heat to warm. This can be a pretty nice deal if you're not sure when you'll get home. The warm setting will keep the dish ready and waiting until everyone meets up at the table. The other option is a simple mechanical model that can shift from high heat to warm, say, but a person will have to do the honors, since the slow cooker won't do it automatically. If you can use a cell phone, you can program an electronic slow-cooker, but if you're buying for a technophobe or someone who doesn't want all the bells and whistles, and you want the lowest price possible, go with a mechanical unit.
There are a few other features you should consider before you buy:
- Dishwasher safe - You probably want a slow cooker to save you effort in the kitchen, so make sure cleanup will be simple by purchasing a unit with a dishwasher-safe pot.
- Oven safe - Although slow cooking ingredients is safe, reheating refrigerated leftovers in a slow cooker isn't. To serve an encore performance of last night's scrumptious meal, choose a slow cooker with a liner you can pop into your oven for safe reheating.
- Stovetop safe - Some recipes recommend browning meats before slow cooking them. If your slow cooker has a stovetop-safe liner, you can use it to brown ingredients as well as slow cook them, saving you having to drag out -- and clean -- a skillet.
- Locking lid - Replacement lids for slow cookers can be pricy, so it's always nice to make sure that the lid stays where you put it. If you plan on transporting your meals outdoors or to potluck gatherings, spending a little more for a model with a hinged, locking lid is a good idea.
After you get your slow cooker home, there are some things you can do to hedge your bets for meal prep:
- Be prepared - Quick preparation at mealtime comes down to good planning. If you're loading up the slow cooker for poker night's chicken wings, get everything together the evening before. That way, the 10 minutes you allow yourself to get the slow cooker going in the morning won't turn into a mega-disaster.
- Get the proportions right - You know it's important to get recipe proportions right, but slow cookers typically have a recommended capacity you should pay close attention to. It will be listed in the instructions and recommendations. Under-fill the pot and you may overcook your meal; over-fill it and you could be creating the right breeding conditions for nasty bacteria. Slow cooking is typically safe, but be sure to read the operating instructions before you make your recipe choices.
- Leave the lid in place - If you had an aquarium or a terrarium as a kid, you know that self-contained environments are precisely balanced. The universe inside a slow cooker is like that, too. Condensation forms on the lid and then slowly drips back into the pot, helping to maintain a moist environment and reinforce the seal around the lid. When you pop the lid to take a quick peek, you undermine that delicate balance. Tampering can result in a dried out meal or one that isn't finished on time. Save yourself the headache, and leave the lid alone during cooking. Everything's okay in there. Take our word for it. If you do have to fiddle with the lid to stir or add ingredients, add a few minutes to the cooking time to balance out the heat loss.