Forget air fryers for a moment – when it comes to truly helpful kitchen appliances that will save you time, money and even help you boost the nutrition in your family's diet, it has to be the slow cooker.
Sure, they've been around forever, but there are many reasons to love cooking 'low and slow' with this unsung kitchen hero.
If you don't yet own one, allow us to share why a slow cooker is a great addition to your kitchen arsenal.
1. It'll save you money
One of the best things about a slow cooker is its ability to turn cheaper cuts of meat – chuck steak, oyster blade steak, silverside – into succulent, substantial and sustaining dishes.
A quick price comparison as an example: Coles No Added Hormone Beef Scotch Fillet is currently $47/kg and the Coles No Added Hormone Oyster Blade Steak is currently $26/kg so swapping out your steak night for a slow-cooked steak dinner night is saving you more than $20 per kilogram on your meat.
Swapping out your steak night for a slow-cooked steak dinner night can save you more than $20 on your meat
If you have a larger slow cooker, it's easy to make meals such as soups, stews and curries in large batches, leaving you plenty of leftovers or stock for the freezer, which means you're less likely to resort to expensive takeaways.
And as it's easy to bulk out these kind of meals with cheaper grains and legumes (as opposed to meats), that can mean even more savings on your grocery bill.
You can make your own cheap and nutritious stock that only has the flavourings you decide go in it
Sick of paying around $4 per litre for supermarket chicken stock that's full of sugar, salt and additives? With a slow cooker, you can make your own cheap and nutritious stock that only has the flavourings you decide go in it.
Use a leftover chicken carcass or ham bones and add to your slow cooker with leftover veg – carrots, onion, garlic, celery, leeks (doesn't matter if they're a bit wilted) – then cover with water and simmer all day. It costs a fraction of the price, tastes better and is much better for you.
Slow cookers make mealtime magic with cheaper cuts of meat.
2. It's convenient – great for both entertaining and everyday
Dinner that basically cooks itself is a no-brainer for busy people. Many slow cooker recipes require minimal prep – you just have to chop up a few ingredients and add to the bowl, top with water, add the lid and off you go, no stirring or monitoring required.
The beauty of a slow cooker is that you can literally leave the house and go about your day while it cooks on a low setting, coming home to a kitchen full of tempting aromas and dinner ready to go. If this is your dream, it's best to choose a slow cooker with a timer setting that will switch to 'keep warm' (as opposed to a manual switch-off) so your dinner doesn't get overcooked if you're stuck at the office.
For a Christmas in July party, you can even keep a warmed, aromatic batch of mulled wine on the go
This also makes a slow cooker the perfect helping hand for when you're entertaining. Prepare your impressive korma curry in the early afternoon and have it cooking away while you prepare everything else or get ready, then it will keep your food warm throughout the night until you're ready to serve your guests. For a Christmas in July party, you can even keep a warmed aromatic batch of mulled wine on the go.
Some slow-cooker meat recipes require you to sear the meat first (this helps seal in the juices and add flavour). While you can easily do this in a frying pan and transfer to your slow cooker, some models such as the Breville Searing Slow Cooker let you do this straight into the pan or bowl of the cooker. This saves on washing up and helps keep all those delicious flavours in the one pot. Check out our expert slow cooker reviews to find out which models have a sear function.
You can pick up a recommended slow cooker for less than $100.
3. They're not expensive to buy
Slow cookers cost from around $20 to $250 (or more), depending on the brand and features. CHOICE home economist Fiona Mair has put dozens of slow cookers through their paces and has found you can buy a decent model that will perform well for under $100.
We're able to recommend eight models that cost under $100, and several of these cost less than $50CHOICE home economist Fiona Mair
"If you just want a very basic slow cooker, there are good options available even if you're on a budget. In fact, we're able to recommend eight models that cost under $100, and several of these cost less than $50," Fiona says.
"These are very basic models that won't include some of the features that more expensive models have, such as 'keep warm' or searing settings, but they still score well in our tests on cooking performance."
4. You'll expand your recipe repertoire
The breadth of recipes you can make in a slow cooker is endless. You probably know they're great for stews, soups and casseroles, but they're also excellent for vegetarian dishes such as dhal or things such as jacket potatoes, porridge, desserts such as sticky date pudding, or even drinks such as hot chocolate (and a delicious mulled wine as mentioned above).
Some models come with recipe booklets, and there are hundreds of dedicated slow cooker cookbooks around to give you inspiration.
"Slow-cooked food has a beautiful depth of flavour that you just can't get any other way," says Fiona. "Slow cookers are excellent for making hearty, sustaining dishes in winter but you can also use them to cook a pot roast or one-pot meal in summer, or corned beef for sandwiches, without heating up the kitchen like an oven does."
Be inspired to add more nutritious veg, grains and pulses to your diet.
5. Easy-to-make, low-fuss healthier meals from scratch
If you're looking to eat less meat to reduce the impact your diet has on the environment, or you just want to increase the nutrients in your diet, a slow cooker will be your new best friend. The style of foods it cooks low and slow to perfection – curries, soups, stews, casseroles etc. – are perfect for bulking out with extra nutritious (and cheap!) legumes, beans and pulses. Or you can ditch the meat completely.
You could slow cook carrots with lentils and spices to make a soup, for example, or slow cook tinned kidney beans and black beans with a range of vegetables, spices, stock and tinned tomatoes to make a vegan chilli. The possibilities are endless.
If you add spices and aromatics such as bay leaves and garlic, you'll still get gorgeous rich flavours even if you're not adding meatFiona Mair, CHOICE home economist
"If you add spices and aromatics such as bay leaves and garlic to your slow cooker, you'll still get gorgeous rich flavours even if you're not adding meat," says Fiona. "Be mindful that long hours of cooking may make your food look dull and pale, so add colourful garnishes of herbs to serve, or yoghurt if you're making a chilli or curry."
Fiona also advises: "If you're looking to make big meals for a family, you should opt for a larger 5 to 8 litre model. If you'll be cooking for two, all you'll need is a 3 to 4.5L model."
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.