If you’re addicted to Pinterest like me, chances are good that you’ve stumbled upon hundreds of recipes for slow cookers. But what exactly are they? How do you use a slow cooker and above all, what are the main slow cooker benefits when it comes to home cooking? Read on to discover how these kitchen appliances can seriously change your culinary life (and why you need one).
A brief history of slow cookers
Slow cookers became popular around the 1970s, when women were working more outside the home (because, well, inside the home we’ve always worked!).
They simply switched on these convenient appliances before going to work, and when they got home, the food would be ready. Just like magic!
But around the 1980s, the use of slow cookers began to decrease dramatically. It’s speculated that it may be related to the introduction of microwave ovens into the market.
Today, slow cookers are back and better than ever. I bought this slow cooker when my daughter was a couple of months old, in order to lighten the load of household chores a bit so I could spend more time with her. Working parents: I see you: I am you!
Anyways, my slow cooker has ended up being such a time saver! I’ve been able to make everything from lasagna to pizza, soups and casseroles, overnight breakfasts, baked potatoes … I’ve really put it to work! So let’s dive right in and see just how a slow cooker works, and how to cook with one of these babies.
How does a slow cooker work?
Slow cookers are as easy to use as just pressing a button. Literally! These appliances cook similarly to how we cook on a conventional stove: the heat begins to rise from the base of the container to the sides, heating up the food inside.
The difference is that with a slow cooker, the food is cooked in a removable ceramic or stoneware container. This container is inside a metal base which creates heat and controls the cooking temperature. The steam that is generated inside the pot helps keep the food juicy. That’s why slow cookers are excellent for stewed and braised dishes.
Additional slow cooker functions
In addition to being able to cook a full meal at the touch of a button, many slow cookers also have a Warming mode. This option allows you to keep your food at an optimal serving temperature once it’s cooked. However, it should be mentioned that if you leave it on Warming for too long, the food will continue cooking and may become overcooked.
There are models that also have an AUTO mode, which is useful to cook foods that are very cold, or even frozen (however, it’s NOT recommended to cook frozen meat in the slow cooker since it won’t cook properly). During its first hour of operation, the slow cooker will cook at a high temperature, then go to a lower setting, until cooking is complete. Cool, right?
An additional function, but available only on certain models, is the programmer. This operation varies depending on the brand, but its use is the same: to program the cooking time and shutdown once it’s done. This is super convenient for people who are away from home for long periods of time and can’t manually turn off the slow cooker.
Are slow cookers safe?
In short, yes – with certain precautions. Slow cookers are designed to run all day unattended without posing a fire hazard. However, there are some measures you can take to improve the safety of doing so:
- Always place your slow cookers on top of a flat surface where there’s no danger of it tipping over.
- Make sure flammable objects are not left touching or too near the slow cooker.
- Move the slow cooker away from the wall and any curtains.
- Always have a working smoke alarm and electrical safety switch in your home so that if you are home, you and your family can be alerted in case something happens.
Do slow cookers use a lot of electricity?
One question people frequently have about slow cookers is whether they use a lot of electricity, especially since they’re operating for long periods of time. However, this appliance requires only a small amount of electricity only to do its work . Compared with a standard oven, a slow cooker uses a lot less energy, and it won’t heat up an entire kitchen the way an oven does.
According to this article, “Modern slow cookers consume as little as 150 Watts per hour at Low setting. So in 6 hours on a low setting, the total use is 900 -watt-hours. This is a much lower consumption than an electric stovetop or an oven needs to get a meal cooked. Even a pressure cooker will consume much more electricity”.
It also mentions that “The average electricity rate in the US is 13.19 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). So the electricity cost of cooking a meal in an average-sized slow cooker is just around 20 cents”. So there you have it: slow cookers are not just healthy, they’re energy efficient as well!
How to use a slow cooker in 3 easy steps
The use of these appliances varies a little depending on the food we are preparing, and the particular model, but in general terms, the steps to cooking with a slow cooker are pretty basic:
- Do all your ingredient prep: This may include chopping, slicing, mixing, pre-cooking certain meats, seasoning, or marinating.
- Place the ingredients inside the cooking insert: Depending on the recipe, there may be some ingredients that need to be added at the end of the cooking process to avoid overcooking them. For example: vegetables, cheeses, pasta and fresh herbs.
- Program the cooking time: This will vary according to the recipe. I recommend (in capital letters) using a slow cooker that is programmable. Those that have manual controls don’t offer as much freedom. The programmable cookers automatically turn off when the cooking time ends and/ or keep cooked food at a safe temperature. So, all you have to do is enter the cooking time and temperature, turn it on and go! Continue about your day, and once you’re home, your food is ready!
Slow cooker time conversions
Slow cooker recipes average 6 to 10 hours of cook time. If you want to convert your favorite recipes to the slow cooker, use the following guidelines:
- One hour in the oven at 350 degrees F is equivalent to about 4 hours on high or 8 hours on low.
- Three (3) hours in the oven at 350 degrees F is equivalent to 4-6 hours on high and 8-16 hours on low.
Slow Cooker Time Conversions Chart
|Traditional Recipe||Slow cooker: Low||Slow cooker: High|
|15-30 minutes||4-6 hours||1-2 hours|
|30-60 minutes||5-7 hours||2-3 hours|
|1-2 hours||6-8 hours||3-4 hours|
|2-3 hours||8-10 hours||4-5 hours|
|4 hours||12 hours||6 hours|
7 main slow cooker advantages
Using a slow cooker has many advantages. Not only does it save us time spent cooking, but it also lends itself well for preparing healthy and balanced meals. Let’s check it out:
1. They require just a little of your time in terms of food preparation and cooking. Yes, you have to do a little prep work, but after that, all you have to do is press a button and that’s it. The slow cooker will do the cooking for you and you no longer have to worry about “what am I going to cook when I get home from work and can barely stand up?”
2. Since food cooks slowly and at a stable temperature, it’s less likely to burn in a slow cooker. The cooking results with these appliances are pretty consistent.
3. They’re a great option for cooking less expensive cuts of meat. These cuts tend to have a lot of connective tissue and collagen; thus, they’re usually tough. When cooked slowly, at a low temperature and with enough liquid, the meat is so tender that it falls off the fork.
4. They save time in terms of dishwashing, since everything is cooked in one container. This advantage also helps to save on electricity, since there aren’t multiple appliances on at the same time. Plus, slow cookers use less electricity than ovens.
5. They generate almost no external heat; it stays concentrated inside the pot. And I don’t know about you, but with the heat here in Puerto Rico lately, cooking in front of a hot stove doesn’t appeal to me much!
6. They come in different sizes to better match your personal needs. They’re also available at different price points, depending on your budget.
7. A slow cooker also travels well. Take it from your kitchen to a family gathering or a party. Just plug it in and serve.
Slow cooker disadvantages
There are a few factors to consider when using or investing in a slow cooker. It’s important to be aware of them for better planning when it comes to cooking.
• If there are frequent fluctuations in the electrical power system, the cooking process may be affected. Depending on the slow cooker you have, it may not automatically turn back on when the service is restored, or it may stay in “Warming” mode.
• Planning is required before cooking. For example, you have to know what exact ingredients are going to be used and pre-prepare them properly. You also have to defrost meats well so that they cook completely. Finally, you may have to stick to specific recipes and cooking times (there aren’t many chances for improv when it comes to slow cooking). Not all dishes are suitable for this cooking method.
• There are foods like vegetables that can lose nutrients when subjected to prolonged heat. However, most of those nutrients remain in the sauce or liquid in which the food was cooked. You can also add them at the end of the cooking time, which also helps retain their texture.
• Canned foods, such as vegetables, can become too mushy in a slow cooker. It’s better to use them fresh or frozen. But, frozen veggies tend to make the texture of the dish more “watery”. Defrosting and draining the extra liquid before cooking can help minimize this.
Best affordable programmable slow cookers on Amazon
In case you’re shopping for a slow cooker, here are some affordable options from Amazon that have great reviews, most have Prime delivery options, and don’t require you to leave your house to buy:
As we’ve just seen, there are many slow cooker benefits that you can reap. Slow cookers are extremely convenient for making easy and healthy meals with just the touch of a button! Plus with the time they save you in the kitchen, a slow cooker is a must have appliance for any home cook.
Nutritionally speaking, they allow you to use lower-fat cuts of meats, a wide variety of vegetables and grains, plus it’s a cooking method that requires almost no added fats.
With just a few simple ingredients you can prepare delicious main entrees, as well as soups, sauces, desserts and drinks. There are thousands of cookbooks, not to mention recipes on the web, that can help you create any kind of dish you can imagine. And these meals can also respond to your particular nutritional needs: vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, diabetic, heart healthy recipes, etc.
Also, with the popularity of “dump meals” (which I hope to cover more in a future post), it’s just a matter of pouring a ziplock bag with all the pre-prepared ingredients into the slow cooker, turning it on and getting on with your day. It couldn’t be easier and more convenient!
And now I’d love to hear your thoughts: have you used one of these appliances before? Are you curious to cook with one of them if you haven’t yet? Do you think they’re worth it? Let’s chat below in the comments section.
Hi! I’m Melissa, Registered Dietitian and mother of two dragons. When I’m not talking nutrition you can find me rolling around the floor with my kids, sewing, crafting, cooking or missing the 90s (seriously, music just isn’t the same). Read More…