The 30-Second Review
The Best Slow Cookers can create a lot of home-cooked goodness with very little effort. Whether you “set-it and forget-it” every day or only once a month, your slow cooker should be easy to use and it should cook your food well without burning it. We did hours of research, spoke with experts, and tested a collection of slow cookers to find the ones that will fit best with your lifestyle — and your kitchen.
How We Found the Best Slow Cooker
Slow cookers are simple machines whose design hasn’t changed much since 1940. They all look alike, with an electric base, an insert (or ‘crock’), and a glass lid. And they all operate by maintaining a low simmer over a long period of time. Because slow cooker technology is so simple, any slow cooker can achieve the same core function — heat food slowly. Consumer Reports has even stopped testing them “because there is so little difference in overall cooking performance.”
Yet there’s still a deluge of slow cookers on the market, all with various features that aim to appeal to slightly different audiences. So, how do you know which features you should be looking for? And do any actually cook food better?
In order to answer these questions, we spent hours researching product specs, reading user writeups, and testing slow cookers ourselves to figure out what — if anything — makes a slow cooker “the best.”
We set some initial standards for convenience and good cooking.
A slow cooker should make cooking more convenient. The whole philosophy behind these appliances is that you can dump in ingredients before work and have a homemade meal waiting when you get home. Set n’ forget, right? A really great slow cooker should also cook food evenly without creating “hot spots” that burn food around the edges.
To determine which features lead to convenience and better-cooking, we dug into slow cooker specs and sought expert advice. Based on that research, we learned that the best slow cookers would meet the following standards:
The original slow cookers were all manual, meaning they had a dial that could could be set to “high,” “low,” or “warm,” and nothing else. These are still popular because of their low price tag (some are under $20), but they don’t quite allow you to “set and forget.” You must be present to turn the machine to “off” or “warm,” otherwise it will continue cooking indefinitely and food dry out or burn. Programmable slow cookers, on the other hand, allow you to set the heat and cook time. When their timer is up they automatically switch to “warm” so that food stops cooking but stays hot and ready to eat. This feature was universally recommended by the experts we consulted, including slow cooker cookbook authors Leigh Anne Wilkes, author of Holiday Slow Cooker, and Cheryl Alters Jamison.
As chef Hugh Acheson puts it in The Chef and the Slow Cooker, “the real key is to find a model with a heavy porcelain or weighty enameled insert” instead of “a crappy aluminum one.” Some of the newer models have metal crocks that can be used for browning on the stovetop, but these tend to heat faster and hotter than traditional stoneware inserts. As a result, it’s harder for the aluminum models to maintain the low and steady heat that is necessary for slow cooking. Ceramic warms up more slowly and retains heat more evenly, which helps to protect against hot spots and uneven or overcooked food.
6- to 7-Quart Oval
Slow cooker users and experts agree that if you only own one, this is the most useful size and shape. An oval-shaped slow cooker can accommodate any dish a circular one can, in addition to whole chickens, larger roasts, and oddly-shaped cuts of meat. Six or seven quarts is enough to feed a mid-size family (4-6 people) or cook larger shareable dishes. Stephanie O’Dea, best-selling blogger and cookbook author, also notes that most recipes are tailored to a six-quart crock.
We brought in 13 candidates to pit against each other.
We found a total of 29 slow cookers that met our three criteria. Then we went ahead and trimmed that list down to only the most promising players.
First, we got rid of any ‘multi-cookers’ with added functions for in-pot browning, searing, and sautéing. We spoke with Cheryl Alters Jamison, the author of Texas Slow Cooker, and she explained why this feature isn’t necessary. You often have to swap out the order of ingredients after browning meat, or drain excess grease from the pan, so searing inside the slow cooker doesn’t save time or dirty dishes. Our verdict: Brown or sear meat first to improve its flavor, but don’t pay on average $60 extra to do it in the same pot.
We also cut slow cookers with gimmicky features like the Crock-Pot iStirTM. After looking at over 200 slow cooker recipes, we can tell you that none require stirring except to add an ingredient at the end. So we don’t recommend paying an extra $20 for a built-in stirring mechanism on your Crock-Pot. It’s not worth it.
After weeding out multi-cookers and unnecessary features, we ended up with a list of 13 slow cookers we wanted to test in person. This group represented every brand and major feature on our list. We wanted to know which cookers could go beyond ‘good’ and take slow cooking to the next level. We also wondered if any would surprise us with shortcomings. This is where we came to a fork in the road.
We sorted our candidates into two camps: Portable and Performance slow cookers.
We discovered a divide between two important attributes: convenience and perfect cooking. Because so many people take their slow cookers on the go, we knew that portability was an important part of convenience. We also knew from user reviews that people often struggle with hot spots and overheated cookers, so we wanted safeguards against these issues. We ended up with some slow cookers that have great portability features, and some that truly maintain low and even heat all the time. Unfortunately, we didn’t find a machine that could do both things perfectly.
Depending on what you’ll use your slow cooker for most often, your search should be geared towards one category or the other. If you attend a lot of potlucks, chili cook-offs, or sporting events, you’ll most likely want a slow cooker that emphasizes portability features. If your slow cooker is a weekday warrior that lives permanently on the kitchen counter, you should invest a little extra in one that’s sure to cook perfectly every time.
- Crock-Pot — 6 Qt. Slow Cooker with WeMo® Technology
- Crock-Pot — 6.5 Qt. Countdown Touchscreen Digital Slow Cooker
- All-Clad — 6.5-Quart Electric Slow Cooker
- Gourmia — SlowSmart Express 7 qt. Digital Programmable Slow Cooker
- KitchenAid — 6-Quart Slow Cooker with Easy Serve Glass Lid
- Cuisinart — 6 Qt. Electric Multi-Cooker
- Crock-Pot — Single Hand Cook & Carry® 6-Quart Oval Slow Cooker
- Hamilton Beach — Programmable Stay or Go® 6 Quart Slow Cooker
- Hamilton Beach — Simplicity™ 6 Quart Slow Cooker
- Hamilton Beach — Set & Forget® 6 Qt. Programmable Slow Cooker with Probe
- Hamilton Beach — Stay or Go IntelliTime 6 Quart Slow Cooker
- BELLA — Portable 6 Quart Programmable Slow Cooker
- Elite — Programmable Stainless Steel Slow Cooker
We looked for insulation and internal thermostats to ensure top-notch performance.
Insulation means even cooking.
America’s Test Kitchen did some of the dirty work for us, actually taking slow cookers apart and studying what makes them tick. Their top pick had an added layer of insulation surrounding its heating element. This extra layer acted as a buffer between the crock and heating element to prevent hot spots. Models without it tended to overcook food at the narrow ends of the oval, where heat is more concentrated.
We called every manufacturer on our list to ask whether they use insulation. Only two did: KitchenAid and All-Clad, which explains why they produced the most evenly cooked results in professional kitchen tests.
Thermostats prevent overcooking.
Internal thermostats work to maintain a steady simmer. Slow cookers should hold a very low cooking temperature; Cooking Light puts the simmer point as low as 180 – 190°F. If that temperature goes above the 212°F boiling point, food will overcook and dry out.
In tests performed by America’s Test Kitchen and Food & Wine Magazine, cookers with internal thermostats constantly tweaked the heat to keep it below boiling. These slow cookers maintained the lowest temperatures, ensuring that food cooked slowly without being overdone.
We did our research and, yet again, KitchenAid and All-Clad were the only two brands with this feature. One of our cookers did offer an external thermometer. The Hamilton Beach Set and Forget with Probe can be programmed to switch to ‘warm’ once the thermometer detects a certain temperature. This method isn’t as foolproof as an internal thermostat, but it does help to prevent overcooked meats.
We tested portability features to find the most travel-worthy slow cookers.
Latching lids should prevent chili spills.
We looked for portable slow cookers with awesome lid-locking systems that were both effective and easy to use. Some brands, like Elite and Bella, used chunky front-side locks that were difficult to open and close. Some simply failed at keeping liquid inside. We liked the locks on Hamilton Beach’s Set & Forget and Crock-Pot’s Cook and Carry with a few reservations. The Set & Forgets lid locks work perfectly, but only if you latch both sides at the same time. The Cook and Carry was a tossup — sometimes it held everything in without losing a drop, but sometimes we tipped it and water poured out from under the lid. Unlike our easy solution for the Hamilton Beach, we couldn’t figure out a trick to keeping the Cook and Carry sealed.
Cool-touch handles make for safe carrying.
We were pleased to find that all the handles we tested stayed touchably cool. However, some of their designs were much more comfortable to carry than others. For instance, Hamilton Beach’s handles felt awkward. They’re small, solid, and have lid clasps right in the center so you can’t really get a good grip. Crock-Pot’s Cook & Carry, on the other hand, has spacious side handles. They are wide enough for a comfortable grip, and allow generous space between your hand and the pot.
Cord storage reduces hassle.
We loved the slow cookers with a smart way to wrap or stash their cord. It’s awkward (and potentially dangerous) to juggle a dangling cord and a steaming hot cooker at the same time. Cord storage on the bottom of the unit was incredibly hard to maneuver with a full crock, making it basically useless. On the flip side, Crock-Pot’s Cook & Carry had cord-wrapping on the back, which was wonderfully hassle-free. We even looked at some with retractable cords, but none had locking lids so they were out of the running for portability.
Easy-to-use controls are important.
We got rid of slow cookers with poor or unintuitive programming. One model could only be set to two, four, six, or eight hours, which sacrifices a lot of wiggle room for recipe tweaking and time setting. Another had only a single dial for setting both time and temperature. It was unmarked and totally confusing to program. We kept only the cookers with clear, easy settings that didn’t send us running for the manual.
What we found.
After making cuts for poor portability features and controls, we were left with two contenders: Crock-Pot’s Cook & Carry, and Hamilton Beach’s Set & Forget. Crock-Pot stood out for its awesome handles and thoughtful cord-wrapping design; Hamilton Beach’s handles were uncomfortable, and its cord storage was not ideal. However, the Set & Forget won us over for having the best locking mechanism of the bunch.