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Slow cookers

Slow cooker buying guide

Last updated: February 2014
Getting started

Getting started

Consumer Reports' past tests found that slow cookers, with a 6- to 7-quart capacity, turned out tasty spare ribs, pulled pork, honey chicken wings, and apple brown Betty. Prices ranged from $40 to $250 but didn't predict performance. Even small differences were overshadowed by what and how much was being cooked. What made one slow cooker better, or more convenient, than annother was the features. Since we found little difference in overall cooking performance we no longer provide slow cooker Ratings. But if you're looking for buying tips that are useful and that you can trust, Consumer Reports is your best resource. One thing to keep in mind while you're shopping, is that replacement parts can cost almost as much as the slow cooker itself so do a price-check before choosing a model.

The more hectic your life, the better slow cookers look. Stir together your ingredients in the morning then tackle all the other things on your list while the slow cooker prepares dinner. A slow cooker not only helps you save time, but can save you money too as cheaper, less tender cuts of meat are better suited for slow cookers than expensive cuts. You'll have to experiment with recipes, adapting along the way, with spices, herbs, and more. Vegetables usually cook slower than meat so the owner's manual may suggest putting them on the bottom layer. If ever there was a time to read the manual this is it.

Slow cookers, often called Crock-Pots after the original, may seem like a throwback to the 1970s but it turns out that twice as many households use one today as did just a generation ago. Given the number of today's two-earner families and overstuffed schedules, that comes as no surprise. Perfect for soups, stews, and tough cuts of meat, slow cookers are designed to simmer food at a low temperature, generally between 170° and 280° F, for an extended period of time. The newer models feature electronic controls that let you program cooking time, usually in 30-minute intervals, and that automatically switch to warm when cooking is done. Another advantage over the 1970s is all the slow cooker recipes you can find online.

Types

Basic slow cookers have an on/off button and not much more and tend to be less expensive. If you spend more, you can get a programmable slow cooker that lets you choose the cooking time. In our performance tests, there wasn't much difference between one type and the other but the added features provided added convenience. Here are the types of slow cookers to consider.

Programmable

Electronic controls and a digital timer let you choose the cooking time--some allow you to program the slow cooker for up to 24 hours in 30-minute increments and the digital display shows remaining cooking time. Many of these models automatically switch to a keep-warm setting when set time is up and can keep food warm for hours. Some programmable slow cookers also have a manual mode that lets you select from high, low, or warm without choosing a cooking time.

Mechanical

Just turn the control to the desired setting--low, medium, high--but there's no timer so you'll have to monitor the cooking, especially for smaller quantities of more delicate foods, and you'll have to turn the slow cooker off. Some have a keep-warm setting but you'll have to switch to this mode.

Features


Sturdy handles are a must, but today's slow cookers offer more options, like roasting racks that let you roast meat and poultry or steam vegetables, wrap-around cord storage, and insulated carrying bags. Here are the slow cooker features to consider.

Inserts

Most slow cookers we've seen have a removable ceramic pot. Some are metal and the West Bend models have a metal cooking pot that rests on a heating base that looks similar to a hot plate. You'll see models with nonstick coatings and some that can safely be used in the oven, microwave, or on the stovetop.

Ease of cleaning

An easy-to-clean insert and lid can go into the dishwasher. Touchpad controls are easier to clean than knobs and buttons. Slow cookers with a stainless-steel exterior might look sleek but can be more work to keep shiny.

Lids

Lifting the lid to take a peek lets some heat and moisture escape and is usually only suggested when you're adding ingredients or the minimum cooking temperature has been reached. A glass or clear plastic lid lets you look without removing the lid, and some slow cookers have a split lid that's hinged--this lets you check on your food by lifting one side while the other stays shut (retaining the heat). This feature comes in handy when serving too. Some slow cookers have a serving ladle that fits snugly into a notch in the lid. A locking lid helps keep food from spilling while in transport to potlucks and parties.

Capacity

Capacities typically range from 1.5 to 8.5 quarts. But here's something to consider: In some of the owner's manuals we reviewed it says to fill the pot 1/2 to 3/4 full to avoid under- and over-cooking and to prevent spillovers. Several manufacturers told us that a 5- or 6-quart slow cooker is recommended for a family of four that uses the slow cooker for whole chickens and roasts.

Shape

Slow cookers are round, oval, or oblong--the oval shape can come in handy if you plan on cooking roasts and other large cuts of meat. Even slow cookers with similar capacities can vary in size. The bulky ones are more difficult to store and transport, and of course they eat up more counter space.

Temperature probes

Insert the probe into a large cut of meat, choose the temperature you want the meat to reach, and when the temperature is reached the slow cooker will switch to the keep-warm setting.

Slow cooker safety tips

As easy as they are to use, slow cookers can pose a health risk if the food is not cooked properly. The federal Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends the following.

  • Keep perishable foods refrigerated until prep time. If you cut meat and vegetables in advance, store them separately in the refrigerator.
  • Always thaw meat or poultry before putting it into a slow cooker.
  • Match the amount of food to the capacity of the slow cooker; check the owner's manual for suggested amounts. Make sure you add the right amount of liquid.
  • Never place a cold stoneware insert into a preheated slow cooker. Let them heat up together.
  • If the power goes out during the process and you are not at home, discard the food even if it looks done. If you are at home, finish cooking it by some other means such as on a gas grill or at a neighbor's.
  • Don't put a hot stoneware pot into the refrigerator, a sudden change in temperature can lead to cracks. It's better to transfer any leftovers into a shallow container and store that in the refrigerator.
  • Don't reheat leftovers in a slow cooker. Instead use a conventional stove or microwave and heat to an internal temperature of 165° F. After that, you can return the food to the slow cooker for transport or serving.
   

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