For those who complain that they don't have enough time to cook, the slow cooker has always been a tried-and-true solution in the cooler months, churning out flawless beef stew while you're away for the day at work or at school.
But for anyone who is looking for a new slow cooker or just giving it a shot for the first time, it can be overwhelming to sort through all of the options available on the market these days. "Do I really need all the bells and whistles?" you may ask yourself. That's why we've boiled it down to five key things to look for when shopping for a slow cooker.
Slow cookers range in size from about 1 ½ quarts to enormous 9-quart models. The most popular size among consumers is somewhere between 6 and 7 quarts. Keep in mind that slow cookers work best when halfway to three-quarters full, so choose accordingly based on how many people you usually serve. A 6- to 7-quart model works pretty well for four to six people, but this depends on whether you plan on having leftovers and what you're making.
For the truly indecisive, some of the most interesting models out there have multiple inserts that fit inside each other for easy storage.
The most popular slow cookers, the 6- to 7-quart models, usually weigh anywhere between 8 and 20 pounds. If you plan on lugging it around to parties, this should definitely be a major consideration.
The most basic slow cookers typically only have a low or high setting, both of which reach the same temperature — somewhere between 200 and 300 degrees. 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 have electronic controls and can be programmed to start and stop cooking at specified times, and change automatically a warm or simmer setting to keep food at the ideal temperature for serving once the cooking process is complete. Lower-priced models may still have a simmer setting, but require manual switching.
The best models not only allow you to set the unit to either high or low for a specific amount of time, but also to cook at each setting for a set amount of time; high for two hours followed by low for six hours, for example.
At the very least, the insert should be dishwasher-safe. As an added bonus, microwave-safe and oven-safe pots make it easy to pop it into the refrigerator and reheat leftovers later on. The most versatile inserts can be placed directly over the stove — say to brown meats for stew before adding the vegetables.
A hinged lid can help keep cleanup to a minimum when serving at parties — it's attached to the unit, and not having to set it down means not having to wipe down a messy countertop afterward. Also, a locking lid can keep food from spilling out when on the move.
Will Budiaman is the Recipe Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow him on Twitter @WillBudiaman.