What Is a Slow Cooker?

A slow-cooked meal, minus the cook

What Is... a Slow Cooker?
Jane Bruce

The Crock-Pot has become synonymous with the slow cooker, in the same manner that people "Xerox" documents instead of "copying" them and ask for a "Kleenex" instead of a "tissue." The only problem is, sometimes people think that they’re two different things when they’re really not; despite the company’s marketing, which claims that they are the original inventor of the device, a slow cooker is a slow cooker and the Crock-Pot is just a brand.

A slow cooker is a convenient way to cook food while you’re away at work, school, or just going about your day. The appliance is similar in appearance to a casserole, and gently cooks foods at temperatures between 200 and 300 degrees over the course of two to eight hours, depending on what you’re cooking and how much of it there is. (Photo courtesy of flickr/senorleroy)

Most slow cookers typically have a low or high setting, both of which reach the same temperature; foods will cook more quickly on the high setting because the slow cooker will reach the maximum temperature more rapidly. Some of the nicer models can be programmed to start and stop cooking at specified times, and have a warm setting to keep food at the ideal temperature for serving once the cooking process is complete.

What kinds of foods can you cook in a slow cooker? The obvious (and probably most popular choices) are soups, stews, and chili, but roasts and chops work pretty well, too, and the more adventurous can attempt things like mac ‘n’ cheese, bread, and cake. You can even cook breakfast in it. (Photo courtesy of Vegetarian Times)

Although it’s pretty much a “set it and forget it” method, there are some tips to keep in mind for superior-tasting food. If you’re cooking any kind of meat, as in normal cooking, you’ll want to sear the meat first for a more complex flavor and uniform cooking. It’s an extra step, but if you’re willing to put in the time and effort, it’s worth it.

If you’re cooking meat and vegetables together in a dish, consider how much fat there is in the meat; if the meat is lean, it will cook more quickly and you’ll want to the cut the vegetables into smaller pieces. Root vegetables should be arranged along the edges of the pot or at the bottom since they take longer to cook; chop them into chunks no larger than 1-inch. (Photo courtesy of flickr/photobunny)

Most importantly, slow cookers work best when at least one-half to three-quarters full. They do not necessarily require a lot of liquid since very little evaporation occurs, but if there is too much liquid at the end, it’s easy enough just to reduce the extra liquid into a sauce on the stove top; a little cornstarch slurry will speed the process up. 

So, if you’ve made up your mind to start cooking more and eating out less, or perhaps if you’re just sick of heating up frozen TV dinners every night, a slow cooker might just be the solution. It does all the cooking while you’re away so you don’t have to.

Click here to see the Slow Cooker Challenge story.


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