Roundup
By Scott Packard
on 1.29.13

There’s a magic cauldron for preparing food — one you’re likely not using — that combines convenience, a near-guarantee against overcooking and the ability to transform inexpensive, tough cuts of meat into tender, flavorful dishes. This fire-and-forget-it tool? The slow cooker.

A slow cooker, as the name suggests, takes low heat, moisture and a long cooking time to create delicious culinary alchemy. Pork butt, beef brisket, chuck eye roast, short ribs, or chicken thighs: a cooker’s Africa-like moist heat works wonders on them all. Combine a bunch of ingredients before work and come home five, six, seven or more hours later to a sumptuous sultry stew, perfect pulled pork, or a moist, meat-falling-off-the bone capon. With a slow cooker, you’ll eat better, save money and time, and add endless possibilities to your kitchen repertoire. Here are five great choices, from simple to multi-functional, inexpensive to high-end. Now get cookin’.

KitchenAid Six-Quart Slow Cooker with Easy Serve Lid

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The KitchenAid is big at six quarts, with plenty of space to fit a good-sized roast or chicken. The oval shape means you won’t have to trim a four pound pork shoulder, and with four temperature settings (low, medium, high, and “keep warm”) you have an array of options to adjust cooking time. The “keep warm” setting is convenient for picnics or parties where you want to avoid ptomaine poisoning the guests. They’ll appreciate it. The KitchenAid’s key feature is a hinged flip lid for ease of serving and access while constructing your brew. The weighty ceramic liner will hold plenty of heat, keeping the contents warm even if someone leaves the lid in the upright and locked position.

Hamilton Beach Set and Forget 6-Quart Slow Cooker

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The Set and Forget from Hamilton Beach is an inexpensive option chocked full of features. Like the KitchenAid, this cooker holds six quarts; however, in addition to simple manual settings, the Hamilton Beach adds time and temperature presets. A probe inserted into a large cut of meat adjusts the cooker to warm once a set temperature is reached. With a clip lid that prevents spills during transport, this low-cost leader gives you a lot of bang for your buck.

The Science of Slow Cooking

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Collagen, a.k.a. connective tissue, is the tough unchewable part of meat that’s concentrated in the regions used for mobility: the shoulder and hip. Work makes the meat more flavorful, albeit tougher. The three woven protein strands in collagen begin to relax at 140 degrees Fahrenheit until the individual strands form gelatin. Capable of holding ten times its weight in liquid, the gelatin adds a silky richness to food. After three hours of temperatures in 160-180 range, your once chewy cuts will have a consistency to make any French chef green with envy. The key here is the tough cuts — tender, expensive cuts have little collagen and will only dry out, lacking the absorptive capacity of the resultant gelatin.

Cuisinart 3-In-1 Cook Central Multi-Cooker

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The Cuisinart is the ultimate multi-tasker of this group. It’s also the most expensive, certainly, but this is the tool for the serious chef. “3-in-1″ refers to the ability to slow cook, saute/sear, and steam (using the included steamer rack). This is vital. A conventional stew or braised roast recipe often calls for sauteing “mirepoix”, a mixture of carrots, onions, and celery (all commonly known as aromatics), after searing the meat. Both mirepoix and searing are essential for full flavor; browning meat at high heat results in glutamate, or umami, from the Maillard reaction. The brown bits that remain behind, called fond, combine with the oils from the vegetables to gives deep flavor to any sauce. The Cuisinart allows you to tap into that flavor without switching from one pan to the slow cooker — making preparation and clean-up faster and easier. Isn’t what we’ve been after from the start?

Crock-Pot 6.5-Quart Touchscreen Slow Cooker

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Crock-Pot is synonymous with slow cooker. The largest of our picks, this puppy has enough space to hold chili or chowder for eight or nine people at your Super Bowl party (could that cheer up the fact that everybody hates both teams?), along with a programmable timer/temperature setting. The Crock-Pot is mid-range in price, but full of the essential features most guys need in a slow cooker. Unless you need all the versatility of the Cuisinart, you can tap into the benefits of low and slow at half the price.

West Bend 5-Quart Oblong-Shaped Slow Cooker

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The West Bend cooker only holds five quarts, but this smaller option is perfect for space-constrained chefs, or for use in an oft-forgotten slow-cooker realm, camping. The cooker is light at five pounds — about a third of the weight of the others on this list — so it’s more portable. With a heating base that doubles as a small non-stick griddle and a cooking pot that’s oven, range and freezer safe, the West Bend offers inexpensive versatility. After hitting the surf, you can come back to your camp site for hot oatmeal AND scrambled eggs. As always, there are compromises: the thinner, lighter cooking pot won’t retain heat as well as a 15-pound piece of stoneware. Still, oatmeal and eggs after surfing… come on.

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