Choosing the Best Slow Cooker

    Choosing the Best Slow Cooker

    Home-cooked meals are often the first casualty of a hectic schedule. But if you’re not willing to sacrifice everyday gourmet, a slow cooker can take the frenzy out of preparing dinner. Perfect for soups, stews, and tough cuts of meat, slow cookers are designed to simmer food at a low temperature for an extended period of time.

    CR bought and tested over a dozen slow cookers from All-Clad, Black+Decker, Calphalon, Crock-Pot, Crux, Cuisinart, Elite, Hamilton Beach, KitchenAid, and Pioneer Woman.  

    Prices for the programmable slow cookers range from $50 to $170, but the cost of the cooker didn’t predict performance. The manual slow cookers we tested sell for $30 to $40.

    Lab Tested for Your Kitchen

    Past tests found that any slow cooker we tested could turn out tender, delicious garlic honey chicken. The real challenge? Beef stew with potatoes and carrots, which is why in our latest tests we cooked pots and pots of beef stew with on high heat for 5 hours, and then cooked this same dish on low heat for 8 hours. Staffers sampled the results, weighing in with their opinions on taste and tenderness.

    We also evaluated convenience, such as the clarity of the controls, and how easy it is to program the slow cooker. We noted whether models have a lid that locks, a feature that prevents food from spilling when you want to transport it to potlucks and parties.

    Slow Cooker Types

    Basic manual slow cookers have an on/off button and not much more. If you spend more, you can get a programmable slow cooker that lets you choose the cooking time, and more. 

    Programmable Slow Cooker

    Programmable Slow Cooker

    Electronic controls and a digital timer let you choose cooking time. Some let you program the slow cooker for up to 24 hours in 30-minute increments and the digital display shows remaining cooking time. All of the tested models automatically switch to a keep-warm setting when set time is up, and can keep food warm for hours. Some also have manual mode.

    Slow Cookers Ratings
    Manual Slow Cooker

    Manual Slow Cooker

    All you have to do is just turn the control to the desired setting—low, medium, or high. Manual models do not have a timer so you’ll have to monitor the cooking, especially for smaller quantities of more delicate foods, and you’ll have to turn off the slow cooker. Some have a keep-warm setting, but you’ll have to switch to this mode.

    Slow Cookers Ratings

    Features to Consider

    Sturdy handles are a must, but slow cookers also offer features you might find useful, like roasting racks to let you roast meat and poultry or steam vegetables, wrap-around cord storage, and insulated carrying bags.

    Most slow cookers we’ve tested have a ceramic pot that’s oval, a shape that accommodates roasts or other large cuts of meat better than a round slow cooker can. 

    A glass or clear plastic lid lets you watch your progress without removing the lid and releasing heat. Some slow cookers have a hinged lid—handy when serving up food—though none in our current ratings do. A lid that locks helps keep food from spilling while in transport to potlucks and parties, and some cookers have a handle on the lid that makes the slow cooker easier to carry.

    Capacities can range from 1.5 to 8.5 quarts. But some owner’s manuals say to fill the pot 1/2 to 3/4 full to avoid under- and over-cooking and to prevent spillovers. Most of the slow cookers in our ratings are 6-to-7 quart models, a popular size. 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. Note that the tested models weigh between 7 and 17 pounds.

    Temperature Probes
    Slow cookers aren’t loaded with new features, but temperature probes pop up on some. Insert the probe into a large cut of meat, choose the temperature you want the meat to reach, and when it does, the slow cooker will switch to the keep-warm setting. The owner’s manual for the Hamilton Beach Temp Tracker we tested includes tips on using the temperature probe and hold-temp mode to cook using the sous vide method.

    Ease of Cleaning
    An easy-to-clean pot and lid that can go into the dishwasher is handy. And keep in mind that touchpad controls are easier to clean than knobs and buttons.

    Set It and Forget It

    Slow cookers can deliver melt-in-your mouth meats, and stunning soups and stews with minimal kitchen prep. Watch our video below for more.

    Keep a Lid on It: 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 USDA 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.
    • Check the owner’s manual for suggested amounts. Make sure you add the right amount of liquid.
    • If the power goes out during the cooking 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.
    •Transfer leftovers into a shallow container and store in the refrigerator.
    • Don’t reheat leftovers in a slow cooker. Instead, use a stove or microwave and heat to an internal temperature of 165° F. After that, you can return the food to the preheated slow cooker for transport or serving. 

    Slow Cooker Brands in CR's Ratings

    This major high-end brand offers a collection of small appliances and cookware. Their slow cookers are available online at Amazon and at retailers such as Bed Bath & Beyond. They’re also sold at specialty stores such as Williams Sonoma, Crate & Barrel, and Sur La Table.

    This major brand of countertop appliances boasts a variety of slow cookers in various sizes and types. These slow cookers are sold online at Amazon and at major retailers such as Walmart, Target, and Best Buy. Prices range from $30 to $60.

    This well-known brand of kitchenware sells in the mid-to high-price range. Slow cookers are available online at Amazon and at major retailers such as Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, Best Buy, and department and specialty stores.

    Crock-Pot has long been synonymous with slow cookers, offering a wide selection of models in a variety of sizes and styles. Prices are well under $100. They’re sold online at Amazon and at major retailers such as Walmart, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Best Buy.

    This mid-priced brand sells for $50 to $100 and is available exclusively at Macy’s.

    A popular brand of countertop appliances, Cuisinart offer a selection of slow cookers between $60 and $100. They’re sold online at Amazon and Bed Bath & Beyond, and at specialty stores such as Williams Sonoma and Crate & Barrel.

    This is a low-to-mid-priced brand with wide distribution and offerings of various model sizes and features. Prices range from $30 to $100. Available online at Amazon, and at major retailers such as Walmart, Target, Best Buy, and various department stores.

    This major brand features a wide selection of slow cookers in various styles, designs, features, sizes, and price points. Models are available online at Amazon and at major retailers such as Walmart, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, and department stores. Prices range from $20 to $130.

    A major brand with mid-to-high-end slow cookers that are available online at Amazon and at major retailers such as Bath & Beyond, and department and specialty stores. Prices range from $80 to $130.

    Ree Drummond, known as the Pioneer Woman, is a Food Network star and lifestyle blogger. She’s lent her name to a number of products for the home, including slow cookers. They’re from Hamilton Beach, and come in various colors and designs. Prices range from $20 to $75, and they’re sold online at Amazon and at major retailers such as Walmart.