Slow Cooker Buying Guide
Low, Slow, and Go

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 a feast. 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.

Keeping Meals Simple

Prices for the slow cookers we bought in past tests ranged from $40 to $250, but the cost of the cooker didn't predict performance. Specific features helped make one slow cooker better, or more convenient, than another. The newer models feature electronic controls that let you pre-program cooking time, usually in 30-minute intervals, and that automatically switch to warm when cooking is complete.

Because there is so little difference in overall cooking performance we no longer test slow cookers or provide slow cooker Ratings. But if you're looking for buying tips, check out this guide.

Slow Cooker Types

Basic 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. In our past tests there wasn't much difference in performance between types, but the added features provided added convenience.

Photo of a 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. Many of these 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.

Photo of a mechanical slow cooker.

Mechanical Slow Cooker

All you have to do is just turn the control to the desired setting—low, medium, or high. Mechanical models don't 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.

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 seen have a removable ceramic pot. Some are metal. Some 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 that can go into the dishwasher is handy. Touchpad controls are easier to clean than knobs and buttons.

A glass or clear plastic lid lets you watch your progress without removing the lid and releasing heat. 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 is 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.

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. Several manufacturers recommend a 5- or 6-quart slow cooker for a family of four that uses the slow cooker for whole chickens and roasts.

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. 

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 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 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.
• 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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