You’re looking for ways to cook food low and slow, help tenderize meat, and produce some of the best soups and stews around. You can go old school with a cast iron dutch oven, or you can upgrade to a slow cooker with everything you need contained in one appliance. Of course, you can have both, but if you’re as curious as we are, you’ll want to know what the real difference is. Let’s take a look.
What’s a Slow Cooker?
Sometimes called “Crock Pots” after the most famous brand name, slow cookers function like self-contained dutch ovens. They have their own heat source and allow you to adjust settings to cook on low, high, keep warm, and sometimes others. Plus, you can often set a timer for how long you want to cook and if you want to turn it off after or continue to warm.
Slow cookers are great if you don’t want to heat your whole oven, or if you’re planning to be gone while your food is cooking. They’re safe to leave on and help cut down on some of your electric bills by not having to heat a large appliance just for a single dish.
What is a Dutch Oven?
Dutch Ovens are the original slow cooker. They’re made of cast iron and typically have an enamel coating to help with cooking and prevent food from sticking. They require an external heat source, the oven, or your stovetop for example, but also cook low and slow.
They’re versatile and can be used in the microwave or dishwasher in many cases. People often like to use a Dutch oven when going somewhere that requires a presentation of food (church potluck, for example). They offer the same roasting capabilities and help keep food moist, just like the slow cooker. It got its name from the Pennsylvania Dutch, who were big fans of one-pot dishes.
So What’s the Difference?
The concepts are the same, but the results can vary wildly depending on what piece of equipment you buy. Let’s break it down to see which one might be more suitable for what you need.
Good dutch ovens can set you back hundreds of dollars while a great slow cooker may set you back less than $100. Some brands are even less than $50, making getting started a whole lot easier. If you want to add other cooking features such as browning or rice cooking, it could add to the budget. Top of the line slow cookers could be as expensive as a top of the line dutch ovens.
Cast iron cookware has been around forever, however, so a few budget options are available. Typically they’re mass-produced, but several budget brands do offer a lot of great features. However, the overall cost of investing in a higher-end dutch oven is outweighed by things like lifetime guarantees. Many people can even pass the oven down through their families.
Slow cookers will inevitably fail because electronic components don’t last forever. However, with the lower price point, it’s far easier to get into slow cooking even at the higher end of the market.
Control and Flexibility
Slow cookers offer you the flexibility to leave the appliance on overnight or leave the house while things are cooking. Many people feel too nervous about leaving the whole oven on while a dutch oven is cooking, so you won’t get stuck in your house waiting for that cook time to happen.
However, dutch ovens offer more flexible cooking options. If you have an oven recipe, you can do that with a dutch oven. You can use it on your stovetop or in your microwave, too. You can switch between methods halfway through your cook time to help finish things off.
There are two types of cast iron for home use.
- Bare cast iron – Without a coating, cast iron can absorb flavors from cooking for a complex flavor each time you create a recipe. It puts iron back into your food for a healthy mineral, but you must season it before use to help it become nonstick.
- Enameled cast iron – the enamel coating helps prevent food from sticking to the bottom and makes it easier to clean. You don’t have to season it before using it, and it’s typically easier to check on food, especially if the coating is light on the interior.
Slow cookers come in a variety of model types.
- Basic – Basic slow cookers have three settings, low, high, and off. You have to set a manual timer to remember to change settings, but they’re simple to use. They use a ceramic crock and a simple glass or metal base.
- Mid-tier – These models typically add a warming feature and introduce a timer function. The timer ensures that your slow cooker turns off after the cooking time is over or switches to warm so that it’s always ready to eat. Some offer material upgrades such as stainless steel.
- High-end – High-end slow cookers have all these features, but introduce other options into the mix. Some can cook in other ways besides just slow cooking, and others have upgraded materials such as stainless steel and LED displays
Here’s what you want to know. How do they compare when cooking? Here’s what I found out when I used both.
The slow cooker was an excellent tool for creating hearty stews and tenderizing tough cuts of meat. The option for turning the appliance on and leaving the house or leaving it on overnight is a game-changer. When you’re super busy, that time is valuable, considering some dishes take several hours to cook.
The controls are excellent too because you aren’t bound by how slow your oven is to heat and reheat. Plus, since it’s self-contained, you might end up using less energy since you won’t have to heat a large appliance for just one thing.
The slow cooker wasn’t so great at cooking nuanced foods or things that needed to be browned. Everything was a bit uniformly moist, which is excellent for some meats but leaves a bit of a soggy feeling in others.
In contrast, a dutch oven provides an excellent cooking experience in a variety of ways. First, you can brown meats directly on the stovetop while using less heat than a typical frying pan. In the oven, meats and stews simmer to a hearty finish with not too much moisture and a really deep flavor. The materials of the dutch oven offer more vibrant flavors and seasonings, especially with tough cuts of meat that don’t need to end up soggy.
You don’t have the option of leaving the dutch oven, however, and with some, you may have to add moisture back to the dish as it cooks. Making sure the lid fits tightly enough to keep the right moisture in without fitting so tight things end up watery is a delicate balance.
However, the option to brown your meat on the stove and transfer to the oven can’t be beat. You can also rewarm a dish in the microwave (if it’s big enough) and it goes straight into the dishwasher when you’re done.
Cook these dishes in the slow cooker:
- things you shred such as barbecue or taco meats
- meals that need to cook overnight
Cook these dishes in a dutch oven:
- whole chicken or poultry dishes
- meals that require different stages of cooking
Converting Dutch Oven Recipes to Slow Cooker (and Vice Versa)
If you plan to use one of your tried and true dutch oven recipes in your new slow cooker or vice versa, you’ll need to adapt the recipe just a bit to account for the differences in the cooking process. Let’s look at a few things you’ll need to do to make sure your food tastes just as good as it did initially.
If you’re converting to a slow cooker:
- Add less moisture. Slow cooker lids tend to fit much more tightly, so you’re at risk of soggy dishes. Cut down the moisture by a third and watch the recipe closely. You can always add moisture back in as you go. Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, you’ll know how to proceed.
- Leave larger pieces. The extended cooking times can sometimes scorch or shrivel meat if it’s cut too small.
- Sear your meats on the stovetop. If you have a particularly tender cut of meat, searing it just before putting it in the slow cooker can help preserve some of the flavors.
- If your recipe calls for 300 degrees or higher, it’s best to use the high setting on your slow cooker. 300 and under typically works best with the low setting.
If you’re converting to a dutch oven:
- Add more moisture into your recipe and check the levels frequently. Moisture cooks off much faster, which can leave you with a dryer cut of meat.
- Use smaller pieces, especially if it’s tough meat. Unless you’re roasting a whole bird, some of your stew meats will need to be in smaller pieces.
- Adjust the time. A dutch oven takes about 25% of the time to cook, if you’re cooking for ten hours in your slow cooker, reduce that time down to two hours and frequently check until you’ve got the hang of it.
The Verdict – It Depends
Your style of cooking is going to determine which option is best for you in the long run. Dutch ovens are highly versatile and typically produce a richer flavor because of their materials and cook times. They’re easier to store and offer excellent capabilities for all kinds of meat dishes and incredible stews.
Slow cookers are convenient because you don’t have to wait around for them to finish. If you’ve got a terrible cut of meat, they’re practically magic, causing the meat to fall off the bone in a matter of hours. They’re great when your schedule is swamped, and cooking is the last thing on your mind. You can practically add foods straight from the freezer, and soon, you’ll have a piping hot meal on the roster when you get home.
Many people have both types for versatility. Since both have a wide range of budget options, you wouldn’t have to spend hundreds of dollars to get both. As you discover which one you prefer, you can upgrade to a higher-end model to suit your needs.
Both options can up your cooking game and help you get meals on the table with regularity. They’re great tools and easily some of my favorite things in the kitchen. They offer a lot of versatility if you have both, so consider that option to expand your kitchen possibilities.