When it comes to ingenious kitchen appliances, the crock pot has to be near the top of the list. A favorite tool of busy parents, people with small kitchens and those who love to meal prep, there’s no telling just how many hours crock pots have saved people around the world. If you want to learn all about the humble crock pot, and even learn about some of our favorite brands, keep reading. This article is going to dive deep into the magical world of time-saving crock pots.
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What is a crock pot?
In this context, when we use the term crock pot, we are referring to slow cookers in general. The terms are often used interchangeably in today’s times. That being said, there is a specific brand of slow cooker called Crockpot that offers its own spin on the classic tool. But for the sake of this article, we will use crock pot and slow cooker interchangeably.
Quite simply, a crock pot, or slow cooker, is an appliance that sits atop most countertops and uses a low heat setting to slow cook whatever food is put within its stoneware container. This stoneware container (most often porcelain or ceramic) is then placed inside an electrical heating element which can be set to different heat levels depending on the needs of your recipe. A lid sits atop the container to keep in the heat.
The earliest version of the modern-day crock pot can be traced back to the 1940s. It rose to fame as an easy, hands-off way to transform tough cuts of meat into tender, delicious dinners that could fill the whole family. Wikipedia denotes that the slow cooker may have risen to fame at this time because women were starting to work outside of the home and needed a simple way to still get dinner on the table.
Nowadays, you can pretty much make any type of food you desire in these slow cooking vessels. Need something paleo? A crock pot can do it. How about a dessert? Yep, even cakes can be baked in the trusty ol’ crock pot. You can even find whole cookbooks dedicated to the wonders that you can create with the slow cooker.
Crock pot settings
One of the great aspects of a crock pot is the total versatility of the appliance. The sheer number and range of dishes that a crock pot can cook sometimes seems endless. That is due, in part, to the settings on which a crock pot can be used.
Have all day to cook a large piece of meat? Set the cooker on low and it will be nice and tener by the end of the day. Need something a bit more quickly? Turn it up to high and it could be done in three to four hours. Most crock pots also have a “warm” setting which keeps your food warm, but doesn’t cook it any farther.
The temperature range for most crock pots lies between 175 and 215 degrees Fahrenheit. Both the low and high settings fluctuate between these temperatures; the low setting hits the peak temperature less often than the high setting. This is how the crock pot cooks things slowly or more quickly depending on the setting. Generally, the time it takes to cook a certain dish on low is double the time it takes on a high setting.
The warm setting is between 165 and 175 degrees Fahrenheit. This function is great for keeping food warm that may be eaten later in the day or if you are serving food at a party where it needs to stay warm over an extended period of time.
Some higher-end crock pots may come with more advanced settings (please refer to the specific instruction manual to operate), but across the board, the majority of crock pots have at least these three settings.
Tips for cooking with a crock pot
While specific recipes for crock pot dishes will vary, there are some general tips that you can follow to ensure that your experience cooking with the crock pot will yield the best results.
- Don’t overfill your crock pot. Crock pots function best when the main cooking vessel is filled halfway to three quarters of the way full. Crock pots do come in different sizes, so you may need to consider how much food you will normally be preparing and buy the appropriately-sized slow cooker.
- Shut the lid and keep it that way. Resist the urge to peek inside to check your food. Every time the lid is opened, heat escapes and your total cooking time will need to increase. Keep the lid closed until the very end of your cooking time for the best results.
- Crock pots are great for meals with meat and vegetables, such as stews. If you are cooking vegetables in your crock pot, be sure that the vegetables are chopped to roughly the same size. This will ensure even cooking across all veggies. If you are cooking vegetables and meat at the same time, place the hearty vegetables (like carrots, onions or potatoes) on the bottom and the meat on top.
- Meat matters. Tougher cuts of meat, or those that are more fatty, will fare better in the crock pot. In fact, they’ll come out juicy, tender and delicious. Leaner cuts typically dry out.
- If you do have a particularly fatty piece of meat, be sure to trim the fat off before placing it in the crock pot.
- At the end of the cooking time, you may find that your dish has more liquid in it than you planned. Because the lid is shut tight throughout the duration of the cooking time, liquid has no place to evaporate. Instead of dumping out the extra liquid, pour it into a small saucepan, add your desired thickener (flour, cornstarch, arrowroot, etc) and turn it into a thick sauce or gravy. This will add loads of flavor to your dish and is less wasteful than just dumping it down the drain.
These are just a few tips that you can generally follow to ensure that your crock pot meals turn out deliciously.
Crock pot sizes – a breakdown
As we mentioned above, crock pots come in a variety of sizes. We recommend buying a crock pot that will most often suit your needs. If you’re still stuck on what size is best for you, keep reading as we breakdown the most common crock pot sizes and recommend our favorite brands.
Standard crock pot
The standard-sized crock pot is between five and six quarts. This is a great size for families or people who plan to use the crock pot for meal prep or who want leftovers. If you plan to make hearty stews or soups, this is a beneficial size to do so.
Recommended brand: Crockpot 6 Quart Slow Cooker with Locking Lid
With over 24,000 reviews on Amazon, and an average rating of 4.5/5 stars, this standard crock pot is an easy pick for our favorite six quart slow cooker. One of the best features, in our opinion, is the warm setting – which kicks on automatically once the set cooking time has expired. This one rings in at $79.99 (as of July 2022), which is a bit on the pricier side admittedly, but considering how long this appliance will last you and how much food it can cook at once, we think it’s worth it.
Budget brand: Elite Gourmet 5 Quart Stainless Steel Slow Cooker
A great option for those who want a sturdy, quality crock pot at an affordable price.
Small crock pot
Maybe you’re just cooking for yourself. Or perhaps you have a tiny kitchen or you live in a dorm room. If that’s the case, you definitely don’t need a standard size crock pot. Luckily, there are small crock pots available on the market. Sometimes referred to as “mini” crock pots, these appliances range in size from one quart to three quarts and are perfect for those who need just a little bit of food at a time.
Recommended brand: Courant 1.5 Quart Mini Slow Cooker
A great option for people who are cooking in smaller quantities. It’s great for a couple of servings of oats, quinoa or for taking dips to a party. Bonus: it’s a super affordable option on Amazon at just under $28 as of July 2022.
Backup brand: Crock-Pot 2 Quart Round Manual Slow Cooker in Black
This is a 2 quart option, so it can hold a bit more than the Courant. Easy to transport, easy to clean, and costs under $15. You really can’t go wrong with this one.
Large crock pot
If you’ve got to cook for a big group or you need to make a lot of food at once, a large-sized crock pot may be the best option for you. These are generally considered to be seven to eight quarts. The options on the market tend to get a bit smaller once you reach this size. Nevertheless, there are still quality products that can make your cooking experience a breeze.
If you’re looking for a crock pot that cooks food just as good as it looks sitting on your countertop, then we recommend this polished platinum Crockpot. It’s a bit pricy at $75, but it truly is a stunner.
Recommended brand: Crockpot 7-quart slow cooker with programmable controls and digital timer
Let’s say you just want functionality from your crock pot and that style points and programmable controls don’t matter. Then, your best bet is the Crockpot SCV700-KC in charcoal. It works just as well as the polished steel, just without the extra fancy exterior and digitized controls and timer. You can snag this one for just around $40.
Budget brand: Crockpot SCV700-KC Crock Pot, 7 quarts, Charcoal
Extra large crock pot
For any person cooking large amounts of food at once, an extra large crock pot is almost essential. Extra large crock pots are generally considered anything over 10 quarts. We love this one from Hamilton Beach. The locking lid is perfect for transporting it and making sure that nothing escapes on the ride to the destination. The fact that it’s dishwasher safe makes clean-up a breeze. For $90, we think this one is a steal.
Recommended brand: Hamilton Beach 10-Quart Portable Crock
Instead of a budget pick, we have a next level option. This 10-quart Hamilton Beach Sear and Cook Stock Pot Slow Cooker allows you to use it right on the stove top. That means you can sear meat directly in the removable pot to lock in the flavor of the dish, and then place the removable pot back in the slow cooker for easy cooking the rest of the day. For $94 (just $4 more than the version above), we think this is a great gadget for those home chefs who want to make life a little more convenient.
Next level option: Hamilton Beach Sear and Cook Stock Pot Slow Cooker
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