With the cold weather, holiday crush, and pile of party invitations, now’s a great time to get out your slow cooker. It’s the perfect appliance for making comfort food while you do other chores. And it's great for preparing a dish for a potluck supper.

"The beauty of a slow cooker is its ability to cook food unattended yet safely," wrote the editors of the newly revised "Joy of Cooking." To adapt some of your favorite recipes for a slow cooker, they advise that for every 30 minutes of cooking time in the original recipe, figure 2 hours on low or 1 hour on high.

In Consumer Reports’ tests of slow cookers, our experts found that models didn’t differ significantly in how well they cooked. Where one rose above the other was in its convenience features, such as a locking lid, electronic controls, and easy cleaning.

Here's the short list of what to look for in a slow cooker.

Slow-Cooker Features to Consider

About 85 percent of households already own a slow cooker. If you’re thinking of replacing your own or buying one as a gift for someone, consider these features:

  • Shape. Slow cookers are typically round or oval. An oval pot can more easily accommodate a whole chicken or other cuts of meat. But round is fine for soups and stews.
  • Glass lid. A transparent lid will help you resist the temptation to open the pot. Each time you do can add 15 to 20 minutes of cooking time.
  • Locking lid. For folks who routinely hit the potluck circuit, a locking lid with a tight gasket is key, so you don't spill the beans in transit.
  • Stovetop-safe insert. A metal insert allows you to brown meat and veggies on the stove before transferring them to the slow cooker.
  • Oven-safe insert. Ceramic oven-safe inserts allow you to reheat your dish in the oven. You shouldn’t reheat leftovers in the slow cooker. Instead, heat them to an internal temperature of 165° F in your oven or microwave.
  • Electronic controls. They let you program a dish—usually in 30-minute intervals—then automatically switch the cooker to the warm setting.

A Smarter Slow Cooker

Crock-Pot, a name almost synonymous with slow cookers, has introduced the WeMo-enabled Smart Slow Cooker, the first one you can control and monitor from your smartphone. The $150 slow cooker was a respectable performer in Consumer Reports' tests, but you can find a capable cooker for a fraction of the cost if you forgo the internet-enabled bells and whistles.

More on Countertop Appliances

Consumer Reports also tested six multi-cookers, which are like souped-up slow cookers that allow you to brown ingredients, then switch to slow cook, with no extra pots and pans to clean up.

In addition to slow cooking, browning, steaming, baking, and keeping food warm, some multi-cookers can cook rice. Removable steaming baskets can be positioned above the rice while it cooks.

Slow Cooker Recipes

Recipes for slow cookers have become a lot more sophisticated than those in the past that called for canned soups and other packaged ingredients. Instead of chunks of beef and cream of mushroom soup, you’ll find Slow-Cooked Ratatouille Over Goat Cheese Polenta on Epicurious or Moroccan Brisket with Red Onions and Apricot Couscous on the Food Network. If you're giving a slow cooker as a gift, throw in a cookbook, too. America’s Test Kitchen’s "Slow Cooker Revolution" is a good choice—or just buy it for yourself.