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The must-have kitchen appliance

The humble, indispensable slow cooker lets you bake bread, roast meat, simmer stew, make yogurt and even fix dessert -- frugally.

By Donna_Freedman Mar 23, 2012 5:44PM
Image: Woman with empty plate (© Tara Moore/cultura/Corbis)Some people still have the idea that slow-cooker recipes invariably involve cream of mushroom soup. It ain't necessarily so. There's a slow-cooker approach to just about every kind of food you can imagine: meat-and-potatoes, Asian, low-fat, Italian, Mexican, vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free.

I haven't found recipes specific to the slow food movement, but I bet they're out there.

For as little as $20 -- and sometimes for a lot less -- you can get a machine that cooks for you during the day or while you're sleeping. Some life partners won't even do that.

The fancier (and more expensive) ones have bells and whistles such as programmable timers or "keep food warm" options. But you can get a basic model from the pre-Christmas sales, a thrift store or a yard sale. You could probably find one on The Freecycle Network, too. (Post continues after video.)
Or get one from a relative, the way I did: When my daughter received a bigger, better slow cooker as a wedding gift, she let me keep her old one.

Wherever you get the appliance, plan to use it to make some of the frugalest food ever. I use mine to:
  • Make yogurt for about one-fourth the cost of store-bought.
  • Bake potatoes, either regular or sweet -- I cook half a dozen at a time and turn the leftovers into potato salad, or fry them and serve with eggs.
  • Roast an occasional loss-leader pork butt for barbecue sandwiches (if you have kids, just the chance to say "butt" at the dinner table makes this recipe a hit).
  • Make soup stock from bones, pan juices and vegetable scraps -- producing extra meals from stuff that might otherwise get thrown out.
  • Cook dry beans, either plain or flavored with neck bones or ham ends.
  • Turn those plain beans into chili -- which doesn't scorch, the way it sometimes does in a pan on the stove (ditto spaghetti sauce).
  • Bake interesting squash varieties like sweet dumpling or delicata.

Plain and fancy
And if you think you can't cook? Sites like A Year of Slow Cooking and Slow Cooker From Scratch will walk you through the process.

So will sites like Allrecipes.com and FoodNetwork.com, which have sections devoted to slow-cooker fare.

You can graduate to fancier dishes, such as the Osso Bucco Milanese or Tunisian Lamb found in a cookbook called "The Art of the Slow Cooker." But author Andrew Schloss also includes a meatloaf recipe for those trying to keep costs down.

Slow cookers can save you money, and not just because long, slow cooking will tenderize the cheaper cuts of meat. You won't be tempted to pick up takeout on the way home from work if you start a meal before you leave in the morning. Bonus: It's wonderful to open the door and be delighted by the fragrance of a hearty stew.

The appliance may improve your quality of life in other ways, too. For example, doesn't a long, lazy Saturday or Sunday breakfast sound inviting? You won't have to get up and cook if you put the ingredients for breakfast potatoes with sausage into the machine before you go to bed.

A few ingredients plus time equals inexpensive and healthy breakfasts, lunches and dinners. What's not to like? Cream of mushroom soup is optional.

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11Comments
Mar 25, 2012 9:33AM
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This one of DW's treasured possessions. Our slow cooker is from Montgomery Wards and is over 34 years old and still works like a charm. This was a shower gift that my wife received from a Dear Aunt and Uncle who have since passed. Recently while cleaning out some old papers she found the original card that came with the gift written in our Aunt's hand. In the card she wished us well and hoped the "cooker" would "match" our kitchen.  I would have to say this is one of the most beloved appliances in our kitchen.. ...
Mar 24, 2012 12:41PM
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"Bonus: It's wonderful to open the door and be delighted by the fragrance of a hearty stew." -- So true! My husband and I love our slow cooker. When we're both at work during the day, I sometimes email him and say, "The crock pot called and said dinner will be ready by 5." 

Mar 24, 2012 9:38PM
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@tbb1975: I once interviewed a single mom who used a slow cooker and a bread machine in tandem. When she and her two kids walked through the door on a cold winter evening, the smell of waiting food made life a whole lot better -- and the fresh bread made whatever was in the slow cooker into the Best. Meal. Ever.
Mar 23, 2012 7:47PM
Mar 27, 2012 12:58PM
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I've had one for 30 years. They are the best thing for Chili, spaghetti, beans, etc. I've had a couple quit working but always they are worth getting a new one..!
Mar 24, 2012 12:42AM
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Just an added thought.  I loved my slow cooker for years and years.  Then, I met the electric pressure cooker!  Slow cooking---- FAST!  Fork tender roast that took me 8 hours now takes me 45 minutes.   I can't say enough about it other than, if you're looking for your first slow cooker---maybe think again and go for the electric pressure cooker.  I got mine new on ebay for 30 bucks w/ free ship and will be stowing that slow cooker of mine away for those old favorites or to keep something warm...but that's about it.
Mar 23, 2012 6:19PM
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Maybe I should break down and buy one of these!
Mar 25, 2012 10:14AM
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Thanks for the tip Donna! We have a breadmaker, but it never crossed my mind to use it with the slow cooker. I can almost taste the pot roast sandwiches...

Mar 24, 2012 3:51PM
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I really didn't think I used mine that much--and the most recent one had uneven heating--so last summer when I was going through a "too!much!stuff!" frenzy, I got rid of mine.  NOT having it this winter, and having to manually slow cook all the stuff I "forgot" about, made me realize that ...oh yeah...slow cooker and coffee maker are tied for first in the must-have department.:  cooker for actual use and coffee maker for warm fuzzy convenience.
Mar 24, 2012 12:48PM
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And mine just kind of died two weeks ago - I'm getting shocks every time I touch the left handle.
Mar 23, 2012 9:11PM
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@Mac7000: I encourage you to do so, and to check out some of those recipe sites. So many options!
@Susan195: I couldn't do without mine, either.

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Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.

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