Are slow cookers worth it?

As a busy home cook who doesn’t always have tons of extra time for elaborate meals, I’ve long been intrigued by the promise of slow cookers. It seems too good to be true – just dump in all your ingredients before work or school, and come home to a finished, homecooked meal 8 hours later. But are these appliances really as magical as they seem? Are slow cookers actually worth the investment and precious counter space they require? After using them consistently for over 5 years, I’ve experienced plenty of highs and lows that help me answer those questions. Below I’ll share my honest thoughts on the benefits of slow cooking along with some limitations to consider before you buy.

What I Love About Slow Cookers

Convenience and Hands-Off Cooking Can’t Be Beat

Without a doubt, convenience is the number one reason I still pull out my slow cooker several times a month. Like many home cooks, I lead a busy life between my job, family, and other obligations. Finding the time and energy for elaborate cooking every single weekday night simply isn’t realistic. But being able to quickly prep and dump ingredients into a slow cooker bowl in the morning allows me to falsify having home cooked dinner ready by 6 PM.

I’ll admit the initial chopping and browning does require 20-30 minutes of effort upfront. But not having to worry about stirring, checking doneness, or last minute prep after a long day is an invaluable timesaver. I can focus on spending quality time with my family rather than chained to the stove. The hands-off cooking aspect also gives me flexibility during the day. If plans come up or I’m running behind schedule, it’s no problem since the slow cooker chugs along unattended.

On weekends when I’m not rushing out the door, using a slow cooker still provides benefits. I might spend a relaxing morning prepping components for Italian Sunday Gravy or Moroccan Chicken Tagine while sipping coffee and listening to music or podcasts. Then I can truly enjoy my weekend rather than babysitting dishes in the oven. My slow cooker allows me to be present rather than stuck cooking for hours on end.

Fantastic for Batch Cooking Multiple Meals

Another major pro is that slow cookers excel at preparing big batches of hearty dishes like stews, soups, chilis, pulled meat sandwiches, oatmeal, beans and more. My 6-Quart cooker can churn outenough beef stew, chicken tikka masala, or vegetarian lentil soup for 8 servings or more.

I’ll portion out half the batch for that night’s dinner, then pack the rest into individual Tupperware and freezer bags. This allows me to cook just 2-3 times per month rather than facing the kitchen every single night. On my busier weeks when energy is low, it’s a lifesaver having healthy, homemade meals ready to defrost and reheat. Freezing in individual portions helps reduce food waste since I can pull out exactly how many servings I need.

Clean up is easier too when I’m only using one pot instead of multiple pans. Less meal prep also means fewer piles of dishes cluttering my sink. The simplicity is so welcomed after a tiring day.

Difficult to Mess Up for Forgiving Hands-Off Cooking

Compared to finicky dishes requiring precise timing or temperatures like baked goods or pan sauces, slow cooker meals are pretty foolproof and flexible. Because of the low, gradual heat and moist environment, it’s nearly impossible for ingredients to burn or dry out. I’ve accidentally left dishes cooking for 2-3 hours longer than intended, but they still turn out tasty thanks to the forgiving nature of slow, moist heat.

As long as I add enough liquid like broth, tomatoes, or even water to the cooker, food comes out fall-apart tender at the end. While stovetop pressure cooker recipes often make me nervous with their warnings of scorching or explosions, my slow cooker reliably putters along drama-free. This gentler cooking method ensures consistent results without needing to hover and stir. I can relax knowing dinner will come out just fine rather than panicking over potential burns or boil overs.

The main keys are properly preparing your ingredients, adding enough moisture, and giving dishes long enough to become meltingly tender. As long as those bases are covered, it’s nearly impossible for slow cooker meals to fail altogether.

Energy and Cost Efficient

I also appreciate that slow cookers use less energy than running my electric stove or oven for hours on end. Because food cooks for so many hours, slow cookers need less power to maintain lower, gentler heat. This makes them more energy efficient for prolonged cooking tasks like braising meat or simmering stews.

Especially in the dead of winter when my gas heating bills creep higher, energy savings are important. My slow cooker draws about as much power as a single light bulb while churning out delicious hot meals. Leaving my home’s expensive furnace and oven powered on all day would rack up much higher energy consumption. So in cold months, using my slow cooker helps lower my electric and gas costs. Given rising energy prices, I imagine its low power needs will payoff even more.

Of course upfront costs play a role too – quality slow cookers generally run from $30 up to $200+. But considering how frequently I end up using mine, the years of reliable service have made it a worthwhile investment. Choosing an oval shape also maximizes capacity so I can cook for groups or bulk prep. All in all, slow cookers deliver pretty impressive bang for your buck. Just make sure to choose reputable brands known for durability and temperature precision.

Limitations and Considerations

While I’m clearly a big fan of slow cookers, they definitely aren’t perfect. These gadgets have some inherent limitations compared to traditional stove and oven cooking. As with any appliance, there is a learning curve too. Here are some important downsides and caveats to consider:

Lack of Browning and Caramelization

One huge limitation is the lack of browning and caramelized flavors that come only from higher dry heats. In a slow cooker, food essentially steams in moist environment rather than searing and developing complex browned notes. This tends to make dishes like roasts, shredded chicken, and potatoes seem one-dimensionally soft and bland.

Thankfully over the years I’ve learned some effective workarounds. The most obvious fix is taking those extra minutes upfront to brown meats, aromatics, veggies, etc. in batches on the stovetop before adding to the slow cooker. While not quite as good as true braising, this extra step makes a world of difference compared to simply dumping raw ingredients in.

For dishes like roasts, casseroles or gratins that need crispy, caramelized tops, I’ll transfer them to a hot oven or broiler right before serving too. Modern programmable cookers offer another solution with functions that let you sauté ingredients right in the ceramic vessel before switching to slow cooking mode.

Moisture Levels Can Be Tricky

Speaking of vegetables, getting the right moisture level poses an ongoing challenge in my slow cooker. Some dishes like hearty bean or meat stews end up too watery and diluted. Yet other recipes turn out unpleasantly dry and overcooked.

Unfortunately there’s no exact formula, so nailing down the right liquid ratio requires trial and error. Leafy greens always wilt down significantly, while winter squashes or root veggies retain their mass. I’m still learning as I go in terms of how much broth, tomatoes etc. different components soak up.

Adding pasta also remains tricky – I find I need to undercook it since it keeps absorbing liquid as dishes finish. On the flip side, grains like rice and farro tend to drink up all free moisture too quickly, turning dishes into a gloopy mush.

Thickeners like cornstarch, onion flakes, lentils, or pureed veggies help counter wateriness, but need precise timing. Now I taste test near the end and boil down excess liquid on the stovetop or stir in slurry if needed. But getting perfectly thickened consistency after 8-plus hours still proves elusive some nights.

Require More Forethought and Planning

Beyond finicky moisture levels, slow cookers simply aren’t well suited for spontaneous meals or whipping up something quickly on a weeknight. Their low heat and lengthy cooking times mean I have to plan dishes at least 8 hours in advance, if not 1-2 days ahead. While this matches well for chilling and prepping big batches on weekends, it does limit flexibility on busier nights.

Sudden dinner invite from the neighbors or a late night craving for my mom’s mac and cheese? Not what my loyal slow cooker excels at, unfortunately. Even for basic last minute pasta or frozen pizza, my temperamental oven sometimes heats faster!

So Are Slow Cookers Ultimately Worthwhile? My Verdict After Years of Use

Even with a few limitations and learning curves, my verdict is a resounding yes – I firmly believe slow cookers earn their spot as workhorse appliances for any home cook. Despite requiring more forethought than the stove or oven, they outperform both when it comes to hands-off convenience and batch cooking efficiency. I rely on my slow cooker up to 4 times per month to simplify meals.

While searing, deglazing, and braising on the stovetop creates marginally tastier results, I often lack the reality TV-level patience and attention those techniques demand. Maybe I’d excel at all-day oven simmering pots of Bolognese in another life! But for current reality as a busy home cook, grabbing ingredients from the fridge and dumping into my Crockpot allows me to multitask rather than play chef. Sure if I’m already spending my whole Saturday pottering around the kitchen, I’ll go the stovetop braising route. But choosing the ease of the slow cooker directly enables me to enjoy more of my limited free time rather than stirring pots for 5 hours straight.

Would I recommend slow cookers to other home cooks? Absolutely – but mainly for those leading similarly busy lives who value convenience as much I do. Or those newer to cooking intimidated by fancier techniques. What slow cookers lack in sophistication, they make up for in ease and flexibility. At the end of long stressful days, I’ll gladly take tender “good enough” stews over scorched pots of stressful perfection!

For me, the benefits absolutely outweigh any limitations:

Pros:

  • Convenience can’t be beat for busy weeknights
  • Great for batch prepping multiple easy freezer meals
  • Very difficult to actually fail or overcook dishes
  • More energy efficient than oven or stovetop
  • Allow flexibility if plans change unexpectedly

Cons:

  • Ingredients steam rather than brown or caramelize
  • Moisture levels can be tricky
  • Require forethought compared to stove or oven
  • Aren’t as versatile for some ingredients

I suggest giving slow cookers a try if most of these experiences resonate with you:

  • Seeking to simplify weeknight dinner routines
  • Want to prep multiple meals in bulk
  • Newer to cooking and intimidated by the stove
  • Appreciate energy efficiency and cost savings
  • Regularly tight on time but still want homemade dishes

Just go in understanding the limitations – be prepared to sear meats beforehand, test and adjust moisture during cooking, and add toppings like crispy breadcrumbs or cheese at the end. Don’t expect fancy Michelin star cuisine! But do expect tender, comforting casseroles, stews and curries without hours chained to the kitchen.

I hope breaking down my honest slow cooker experiences helps you decide if buying one fits your lifestyle and cooking needs! Let me know if you have any other questions.