It's an ingenious appliance because it's simple. It cooks slowly — really slowly. It can take up to 8 hours to prepare a meal, whereas other methods take 30 minutes. But unlike that 30-minute meal, a slow cooker doesn't need to a babysitter. There's no coddling required. You can just throw the ingredients in, set the timer and walk away.
But that's not all. A slow cooker requires very little energy. On average it costs 21 cents to run a slow cooker for 10 hours. If you cook a pork roast for in the oven 2 hours it costs $2.51 for an electric oven and $1.49 for a gas oven. Over the course of an entire year, the low operating cost of a slow cooker will really help you save.
There's one more thing: A slow cooker doesn't heat up the kitchen the way a stovetop or oven can. This time of year when temperatures are soaring right along with the cost of air conditioning, that's a big deal.
Slow cookers are pretty basic. Some have programmable timers, but they generally have "On" and "Off" buttons and a dial to tell the thing how many hours to cook.
What you'll want to pay most attention to when selecting a slow cooker is the size. For peak performance it should only be about three-quarters of the way full while cooking. That means a 7-quart model would be too big for, say, a family of 2. Conversely, a family of six would not be happy with a 1.5-quart model.
For your consideration, here are the three best inexpensive slow cookers on the market today, plus a fourth that is not that inexpensive, but has all the bells and whistles.
Proctor Silex 33015YA 1-1/2-Quart Round Slow Cooker. This small slow cooker, suitable for two or three people, has regular temperature settings — high, low and warm. The removable crock and glass lid go in the dishwasher. It costs about $18.
Crock-Pot SCV401TR 4-Quart Oval Manual Slow Cooker. This beautiful red slow cooker (it also comes in silver and black) is your basic workhorse. It has high, low and warm settings, and the removable stoneware and lid are both dishwasher-safe. It's perfect for four or more. It handles a 4-pound roast well. This one costs about $25.
Crock-Pot SCV700SS 7-Quart Oval Stainless Steel Manual Slow Cooker. This beauty is the cooker of choice for a large family — perfect for nine or more. A 7-pound roast fits well. This slow cooker has the same features as those above. It's just bigger. It sells for about $35.
Cuisinart MSC-400 3-In-1 Cook Central 4-Quart Multi-Cooker. This is more than a slow cooker. With the press of a button it can brown, steam and saute, too. It has an extra-large blue, backlit LCD display so the time and temperature settings are easy to read. As a slow cooker it has the typical high, low and warm settings. With a 4-quart capacity, this great appliance is perfect for a family of four to six. It costs about $100. For links to these crockpots and more please visit www.everydaycheapskate.com/slowcooker.
Mary invites questions, comments and tips at [email protected], or c/o Everyday Cheapskate, 12340 Seal Beach Blvd., Suite B-416, Seal Beach, CA 90740. This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Mary Hunt is the founder of www.DebtProofLiving.com, a personal finance member website and the author of "Debt-Proof Living," released in 2014. To find out more about Mary and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
Photo credit: Franklin Heijnen