Considering buying a slow cooker? Here's how they can help change the way you eat, what features to look out for when buying and some good value options to buy.
Why a slow cooker encourages healthy eating
It makes cooking easier
The key to healthy eating is to make the healthy option the easiest one, especially when you're most likely to be tired and hungry. Cooking from scratch with fresh ingredients is much harder work than sticking a ready meal in the microwave and waiting for the ping. Or slumping on the sofa until your delivery food arrives.
If you’re hangry and exhausted at the end of the day and you still have to prep your ingredients and wait for them to cook, you’re much less likely to eat well.
A slow cooker allows you to prepare your food in advance so that it’s ready when you need it. In addition, there are plenty of slow cooker recipes that only require you to chop your ingredients and put them in the pot. You don’t need to be on hand for the cooking stage at all, so it can be much less labour-intensive.
Your food will be richer in nutrients
Slow cooking means that fewer nutrients are broken down in the cooking process.
You can cook food in batches
Slow cookers allow you to cook a big batch of food that will give you several meals for the week. If you’re not a fan of eating the same thing for dinner three nights in a row, you can freeze the food in portions. It’ll then be there for those times when your willpower is at a low ebb and you’re about to reach for the pizza menu. Stick your frozen food in the microwave and your dinner will be ready long before a pizza could arrive.
It improves the taste of food
Food that has been slow cooked tends to be tastier than something you have just prepared as the flavours have time to mingle and infuse.
It’ll save you money
People associate healthy eating with expense. But a slow cooker will give you health benefits without adding to the cost of your shopping, by making the most of less expensive meats and pulses. And you'll start to save money once you get a repertoire of recipes you love. For example, you can make really delicious curry, chili, risotto, casserole, beef bourguignon, lamb tagine and soup, all very simply.
You'll be able to buy cheaper cuts of meat for your slow cooker dishes, as they’ll become tender and tasty with the longer cooking time.
Cooking with beans and pulses is cost-effective but it can be boring. A slow cooker can change that. Over the hours of cooking, they’ll pick up the flavour of meats, vegetables and sauce. One thing to note: if you’re cooking with kidney beans, either use the tinned variety or, if you’re using dried beans, cook them before adding them to your slow cooker meal. Improperly cooked dried kidney beans can make you very ill.
Preparing food in larger batches tends to be more cost-effective and you can use up odd ingredients in stews and casseroles, leading to less waste.
A slow cooker is much more energy-efficient than your oven. Even when left cooking all day, it’ll still use less electricity than cooking the same meal in your oven for an hour. It’s a greener, less expensive cooking option (although the effect on your electricity bill will be small and you shouldn’t hope for big savings).
You can get away from processed food
Because cooking is so much less effort for better results, you’ll find yourself eating less processed food.
What should you look for in a slow cooker?
You can spend as little as £20 or as much as £120. But what will you be compromising on if you opt for a less expensive model? And what will you get if you spend more?
Here are our recommendations for essential features.
The given internal capacity of a slow cooker is a bit misleading. If it says 3 litres, you’ll probably get 2 to 2.5 litres of cooking space.
It's also a bit hard to estimate volume in terms of how much food it’ll provide you, as it depends on what you’re cooking. A 1.5 litre slow cooker will easily make a chili for two, but you might want a separate side with it and you probably won’t be freezing any leftovers.
If you’re deciding between two sizes, we’d suggest opting for the larger one. One of the pluses of a slow cooker is the ability to make a big batch of food that you can portion out into several meals, so even if you’re cooking for one, a 3.5 litre slow cooker will serve you well.
Nonetheless, here are some rough guidelines:
- 1.5-3 litre capacity will provide enough space to cook a main course for 1-2 people.
- 3-5 litres will get you a large meal for 2-4 people.
- 5+ litres is family size. The largest slow cookers tend to be about 6.5 litres.
Most slow cookers have these now so it shouldn’t be a problem. But even if you’re opting for a £20 model, make sure that the cooking pot in the centre can be removed. If not, it’ll be a nightmare to clean and you’ll never use it.
The cooking pot will either be made of metal (for example, aluminium) or it'll be ceramic. If you have the option, go for ceramic. In our opinion, metal cooking pots are hard to handle as they get very hot, which can be dangerous when they're full.
Ceramic pots don’t have a non-stick surface, so you don’t have to worry about it wearing away over time, or leaching into your food. Ceramic pots are also easier to clean as they can go in the dishwasher (whereas the surface finish of metal pots may be affected).
Confusingly, some metal slow cooker pots have a ceramic coating. These may not be dishwasher-safe, so bear that in mind.
Many pots can also be brought to the table to serve from, and ceramic pots tend to have the edge in terms of style. However, they are heavier, which is something to consider as once they’re filled with curry or stew, they’ll be a lot to manage.
Some pots can also be used on the hob, which allows you to sear meat and veg in advance of cooking.
Go for width over height
Unless your cooker has a heating element that runs up the side of the pot, in which case it’ll cook more evenly, the heat will all come from the bottom of the pot. This means that the taller the cooker, the less evenly the food inside will be done. A wider base and less height is best for even cooking. Otherwise you’ll have to stir it, which somewhat destroys the point of being able to leave it to cook by itself.
A large footprint also means that you can cook fillets of fish and similar items, although make sure you have enough counter space for it. A 6.5 litre slow cooker takes up a lot of room.
To get the most from a slow cooker, get one with a timer. Even the most basic slow cookers tend to have three heat settings (low, high and keep warm are all you’ll need) but not all have a timer.
The advantage of a timer is that you can cook food perfectly. You’ll be able to delay the start of a cooking cycle so that your food is ready as soon as you walk in the door. It’s safe to leave your slow cooker on all day while you’re out but if it doesn’t have a timer, it’ll keep cooking until you return and turn it off – which means your food may be a bit mushy.
It also means that if you’re having people over for dinner, you can sort out a recipe hours in advance and have a perfect poached salmon ready on their arrival. Or a batch of baked potatoes for your family.
If you want a slow cooker with a timer, look for one with a digital display.
There are further features that we don't think are essential to a great slow cooker but which will either improve your cooking experience or make a difference to some households, depending on what it's most often used for.
A glass lid
A glass lid is a nice touch, so you can check on the progress of your food without affecting its cooking. If you see one with a hinged lid, it’s even handier as you don’t have to find a spot to land it when you’re ladling out your dinner.
An oval shape
Oval shaped slow cookers can better accommodate whole chickens, fillets of fish and joints of meat. However, most smaller cookers are round. This doesn’t matter as much because they don’t have the capacity to hold an entire chicken, regardless of shape.
Some slow cookers have a pot that can go on the hob and can be used to sear meat and veg before cooking, which is a great flavour boost.
You can also find multi-function cookers that can also work as a pressure cooker, a steamer or a sous-vide. If you have limited space and are considering buying a slow cooker, it may be worth investing in a multipurpose appliance.
Some of the higher-end slow-cookers, and usually those with multiple functions, will have pre-sets. These are one-touch cooking programmes that will adapt the heat and time to the type of food you're cooking, simplifying and taking the guesswork out of cooking popular items.
Our slow cooker picks
The Morphy Richards Accents 3.5 litre slow cooker is a solid, budget-friendly option that has most of the features we like in a slow cooker. It’s available from Amazon in the UK for £28 in brushed stainless steel, although you can get other colours for small price variations.
It has a 3.5 litre capacity, so it’s a good option for all but very large families. It’s oval – which is useful in a medium-sized pot as it can accommodate joints of meat or fillets of fish better. It also has a glass lid. And although the inner cooking pot is non-stick metal, it’s dishwasher safe. You can also use the pot on the hob to sear met and veg before cooking.
However, it does lack a timer and that’s a really great feature to have.
If you can spend a bit more, the Crock-Pot 5.6 litre TimeSelect digital slow cooker has almost everything on our key features wish list. It costs £69 from AO.com. At 5.6 litres, it’ll make enough for an entire family. It has a glass lid and a black ceramic inner pot that’s dishwasher safe and that you can serve food from. It has a digital timer and a keep-warm function, to help you time your cooking perfectly. Even better, it has four pre-set programmes (for meat, poultry, soup and vegetables) to give you more cooking help.
You can read our hands-on review of the Crock-Pot TimeSelect to find out more.
The Crock-Pot Express 5.6 litre cooker has 12 pre-set programmes to simplify cooking common items. The pre-sets include meat/stew, beans/chilli, rice/risotto, poultry, soup, yoghurt and dessert. The Express can function as both a slow cooker and a pressure cooker, so you get the best of both worlds. It also has steam and inbuilt saute functions.
It’s available for £74.96 from Amazon in the UK.
It’s an unusual combination but this Russell Hobbs Slow Cooker also functions as a sous-vide. It’s also ideal for cooking meat and comes with a meat probe. Because of its size and shape, you can roast an entire chicken in it.
It has a 6.5 litre capacity, it’s oval and has a glass lid and a ceramic inner pot that’s dishwasher safe. You can buy it for £99.99 from Russell Hobbs.
We tested it out and think it’s a really fantastic piece of kitchen equipment. It’s ideal for foodies who want to be able to make very high-quality meals. However, bear in mind that it’s absolutely huge, so if you want it, measure your counter space first.