While the calendar says there are four seasons in a year, in my house there are two: barbecue season and slow-cooker season. Once the clocks turn back in November, we cover up the grill and break out the Crock-Pot, serving up chili, soups, and stews all the way through April.
Recently, I decided to do some investigating. Though I love my 6-year-old workhorse, I wondered what a newer model could offer.
Research suggests I’m not alone, as slow cookers have seen recent sales gains, according to the information company NPD Group, based in Port Washington, New York. Barbara Thau, housewares editor at Gourmet Business, says one of the reasons for this growth is “the healthy-eating trend. Slow cookers are said to allow you to get the most nutrients out of food while retaining the most flavor.” She also says that slow cooking offers a “time-saving, hassle-free method for time-starved people.”
I start my research with a visit to the family-owned Charles Department Store in Katonah, where President Jim Raneri (who owns the business with his brother David) tells me that electronic controls are among the newest innovations in slow cookers. These let you program your preferred cooking time—meaning that, if you’re especially busy, you can arrange for a dinner to be ready the morning of the meal. By contrast, many older models force you to choose among a few preset times, such as four or eight hours. Other new features include attractive stainless-steel finishes that look great in a remodeled kitchen, and inserts that can be used on the stovetop, so you can brown meat and then slow-cook it with no need to break out an extra pan. Models with these features generally run between $100 and $250.
For even more convenience, some merchandisers point to the multi-cooker—a relatively new and extremely versatile take on the slow cooker that can perform a range of cooking functions in addition to slow cooking, including sautéing, pressure cooking, steaming, and, in some cases, even yogurt-making. “One multi-cooker can replace multiple items in your cabinet,” says Jacob Maurer, senior vice president and general merchandizing manager with Sur La Table, which has stores in White Plains and Yonkers.
Multi-cookers generally cost between $100 and $400—and Ron Eisenberg, founder of Chef Central, which has a store in White Plains, says they provide excellent value. “We carry a Fagor model that actually does a good job of pressure cooking, slow cooking, and cooking rice,” he says.
Alternatively, my friend Ronnie Brockman, a school administrator, vegetarian, and devoted environmentalist from Rye, advises me to forego an electric countertop appliance and opt for a stovetop pressure cooker instead. “I can’t stand the thought of running a slow cooker for all those hours and using all that electricity,” she says. “And the best thing about a pressure cooker is that it cooks grains and beans—things that typically take an hour or more—in 12 minutes, tops.”
Raneri of Charles Department Store is also a pressure-cooker fan, noting that this cooking process is extremely quick and great for locking in flavor. He also points out that shorter cooking times mean that more nutrients remain in the food. Beef stew and chili con carne are among his favorite pressure-cooker dishes, and these can be cooked in 25 minutes; macaroni-and-cheese and risotto are also top choices and take just five to six minutes under pressure.
Noting that some potential customers feel intimidated by pressure cookers, Raneri says today’s models are very safe, provided you follow the directions and never overfill them. “Using a pressure cooker is like driving a race car,” he says. “Your confidence increases the more you do it.” While small, basic pressure cookers can cost less than $80; high-quality 8-quart models generally run between $100 and $300.
Armed with this information, I clearly have some good choices. I don’t yet know which cooker I plan to select—but considering how much tasty food I plan to make, it may be June before we uncover that grill.
Why it’s hot: Slow cookers are simple and relatively affordable, and many like their “set it and forget it” functionality.
Why it may get you steamed: Environmentally conscious consumers may hate the thought of running an electric appliance for hours—and some people don’t like to leave an unattended cooking device on.
Brands and prices: At the lower end, Crock-Pot, Hamilton Beach, and West Bend are among the brands that offer small and/or basic models between $40 and $60; at the higher end, brands like Cuisinart, Breville, All-Clad, and KitchenAid market step-up models for about $100 to $200.
Why it’s hot: Multi-cookers are versatile and functional, plus they can save you counter or cabinet space since they combine the functions of several products in one.
Why it may get you steamed: They can be pricey, compared with basic slow cookers.
Brands and prices: Breville, Cuisinart, All-Clad, KitchenAid, and Fagor are popular choices, with prices generally running between $100 and $350.
Why it’s hot: It cooks super quickly, and proponents say it turns out flavorful, nutrition-packed dishes.
Why it may get you steamed: Pressure cookers can be pricey—and some people are uncomfortable with using a pressure-filled appliance.
Brands and prcies: All-Clad, Breville, Cuisinart, Fissler, Kuhn Rikon, and Presto are well-known brands; prices start below $80, and go up to $200 or more, depending on size, quality, and features.