Choosing a Crockpot®
by Rebecca Underwood
7 Essential Appliances
Kitchen Appliance Culture
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I discovered crockpot® cooking when I was single and starting out on my own. It didn't take long for the crockpot to become as important in my kitchen as the stovetop or oven. At first, I used a smaller one; after marriage, I graduated to a larger version. And over the years I've raved to family and friends about the savings in time and money, especially since I work outside the home.
My mother never seemed as thrilled with her slow cooker, though. And after our experience with it last Christmas, I understood why. On Christmas Eve, I packed her crock with a pot roast and all the traditional veggies, looking forward to a lovely fuss-free Christmas Dinner. But the next morning, instead of awaking to the mouthwatering smells of pot roast, the house was permeated with the odor of burnt food, and the kitchen counter was a gigantic mess.
Luckily, the roast and veggies were still nicely cooked and our Christmas dinner wasn't ruined. But throughout the night, cooking juices had overflowed all over the cabinet and into the cooking unit. After removing the crock, the burnt-on mess inside looked like a roast had exploded in there. All our efforts to clean it were fruitless, and the slow cooker was finally deemed a lost cause. That's when my mother admitted that this wasn't the first time she'd had similar problems with her crockpot, though the unit had always been salvageable before.
Between my years of experience with various models and my mother's disaster, I've found that there are some things you should know before buying a crockpot. I still believe they're an absolutely wonderful tool in any frugal kitchen, as long as they're purchased wisely. The brand isn't necessarily important, but the following considerations are important when choosing a crockpot:
If you are single or have no more than two people in your household, the 3 to 4 qt. size works wonderfully. Most recipes are designed to fit this size, and you will usually have enough leftovers for 1 or 2 meals. If you have 2 or more people in your household, though, consider getting the 6 qt. model instead. Recipes double easily to fill it, and leftovers may be refrigerated or frozen. In fact, most recipes that can withstand the long, slow cooking of a crockpot will also survive freezing very well. The only real exceptions are pasta and potatoes, which may become grainy and/or mushy in the freezer. Otherwise, just a handful of small freezer containers will allow you to make good use of a larger pot and leave you with quick meal options on busy nights.
A removable crock is a must! It is far easier to clean, and allows for much easier refrigeration of foods before and after cooking. And the heavier the crock is, the better it will withstand bumps and bungles during washing and storage.
The design of the crock is very important. It should have rounded edges, since square edges and crevices are harder to clean. I've found that a rounded rectangular shape allows more space for wide roasts and turkeys than an oval. And, most critical of all, be sure to inspect the outer rim. It should be at least approximately 1 inch wide, and slant inward. This will allow a little emergency room for pooling of juices before forcing them back into the crock. Narrow and/or flat rims can allow juices to spill over into the cooking unit or onto your countertop.
Look for a one piece glass lid with a high dome shape. Lids that have plastic handles and/or metal rims will not withstand wear and tear as well, and can build up "food gunk" along their seams, which is almost impossible to clean. The higher dome allows more room for cooking tall foods like rump roasts and whole chicken.
The lid should also have an inner lip that fits down inside the rim of the crock. This forces collected steam to run back into the pot without pooling on the rim of the crock. If you need to see an example of this kind of lid, check out an old Corningware or Pyrex casserole dish; their glass lids were designed with the same kind of inner lip.
Be sure to look for a base that feels sturdy and will allow air flow underneath to dissipate heat. Solid handles are much sturdier than the open or "loop-shaped" handles. Heavy crocks and full pots can put stress on the delicate open handles, causing them to crack and break soon after purchase.
Lots of new "features" are now available, such as programmable delayed cooking timers and "Keep Warm" settings. These really aren't necessary, and can add to the cost of your crockpot. As long as the unit has a "Low" setting and a "High" setting, that's really all you need. Food cooks so slowly on the "Low" setting that you can usually start a recipe early and/or keep it warm without overcooking.
Used vs. New
I'm a big believer in buying quality used items. Be careful when buying a used crockpot, though. Unless it was owned by someone you know, you can't be sure of its performance. And if it doesn't work, like any other used electrical appliance, there's no way to get your money back.
Most new slow cookers come with a guarantee from the manufacturer, which will allow you to get a refund or replacement if yours is defective. And slow cookers can often be found at a good price near the holidays, at graduation time, and during the spring/summer wedding season. Because they make great gifts, many stores will advertise crockpots at sale prices in order to lure shoppers during these times. Cooking with a crockpot can be extremely easy as well as frugal. At our house, we use ours at least twice a week to put a hot meal on the table after a long day at work. If you choose a crockpot carefully before making a purchase, I know you'll be just as happy with yours!
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