Hamilton Beach Set'N Forget 33967
Hamilton Beach Set'N Forget 33967

Best programmable slow cooker

The top-rated Hamilton Beach Set'N Forget 33967 programmable slow cooker lets you designate cooking times, unlike basic slow cookers that must be switched on and off manually. It can also switch automatically to a keep-warm setting when cooking is done, so you don't have to worry about overcooked meals. This model includes a built-in temperature probe, a special feature that lets you cook meat to the ideal internal temperature. The 6-quart Set'N Forget is less expensive than most programmable models, and it generally does well in both professional tests and user reviews.
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West Bend 84915 5-Quart Oblong Slow Cooker
West Bend 84915 5-Quart Oblong Slow Cooker

Slow cooker with stovetop insert

The West Bend 84915 isn't programmable -- so you can't set it to start cooking at a particular time -- but it does do a couple of neat tricks. Because its insert can be used on the stovetop, you can brown meats and onions before slow-cooking. Plus, its base unit can double as a small electric griddle, which is handy for cooking extra bacon or pancakes for breakfast. This 5-quart oblong slow cooker also comes with an insulated travel tote with handles. The nonstick crock insert is freezer-, dishwasher-, stovetop- and oven-safe. There's no light indicator to determine whether the unit's on or off, however, and a few owners say the 84915 takes several minutes to heat up to the highest setting. It's important to follow temperature guides provided in the manual to avoid overcooking foods.
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Hamilton Beach 3-in-1 33135
Hamilton Beach 3-in-1 33135

Multi-size slow cooker

Singles and small families will appreciate the versatility of the Hamilton Beach 3-in-1 33135, which comes with three interchangeable stoneware crocks in 2-, 4- and 6-quart sizes. Experts say this model serves up tasty, tender meals and allows you to cater to crowds of all sizes. Users warn that the bowls are heavy but say they stack neatly, which is convenient for those with limited storage space. However, the 3-in-1 slow cooker doesn't have programmable features such as a timer and automatic warmer.
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Rival Crock-Pot 3735-WN
Rival Crock-Pot 3735-WN

Basic slow cooker

The Rival Crock-Pot 3735-WN is nothing fancy; rather, it's a basic, mid-sized slow cooker with a nonstick stoneware insert. The oval shape is ideal for cooking cuts of meat, and users say the classic 3.5-quart size is adequate for families of three to four. Reviews advise following temperature settings recommended in the manual to avoid overcooking, as this unit tends to cook hotter than other slow cookers. Overall, owner-reviewers say the Rival Crock-Pot 3735-WN is a good buy for those looking for a simple slow cooker without advanced features.
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Evaluating reviews of slow cookers

Slow cookers have been around for nearly 40 years. This simple appliance, first introduced as an electric bean cooker, has evolved into a versatile kitchen tool capable of cooking soups and stews, beans and meats, even breads and desserts -- all with minimal preparation. Slow cookers make it possible for busy families to come home to a ready-made hot meal. They also use less electricity than an oven and give off far less heat, making them convenient even in the summer. It's no wonder that slow cookers command such devotion from their owners.

ConsumerReports.org has the most comprehensive review of slow cookers, in which editors prepare four different dishes in 15 models with 6- to 7-quart capacities. The article also includes tips on choosing a slow cooker. Another good source is Cook's Illustrated magazine, where editors prepare pot roast, French onion soup and a meaty sauce in seven slow cookers. Models are evaluated based on how well they cook and the efficiency of their design. The Good Housekeeping Research Institute presents a comparison of 13 slow cookers based on how well they cook a beef stew, ease of use and the quality of the company's customer service. Testers also check each model to ensure it will cook food to a safe temperature, even on its low setting. Of all the reviews we read, these three are by far the most credible and detailed.

Real Simple magazine also reviews slow cookers, but the editors don't say much about their methods. About.com's guide to cooking equipment, Jessica Harlan, rates three slow cookers based on her personal use, and lists the pros and cons of each. (Note: ConsumerSearch is owned by About.com, but the two don't share an editorial affiliation.) We found several other sources of slow-cooker recommendations, including Woman's Day magazine, Babble.com, and the About.com guides for busy cooks and Southern food. However, they don't specify testing methods and it's sometimes unclear if editors personally examined the machines.

In addition, we found comments posted by owners of slow cookers at retail sites such as Cooking.com, Viewpoints.com, Amazon.com and Epinions.com to be quite valuable, particularly with regard to reliability and cooking performance. Fewer reviews are found at Target.com and Walmart.com. Chowhound.com, an online forum for foodies, is typically helpful when it comes to recommendations for kitchen gadgets. However, we found only one thread dedicated to slow cooker options, last updated in 2009.

Slow cookers are commonly known as "crock pots," but the name Crock-Pot is actually a trademark of industry pioneer Rival. Despite this legacy, Rival Crock-Pots earn lukewarm reviews from professionals and users. Among Crock-Pot slow cookers reviewed on Amazon.com, we found numerous complaints that they run too hot and burn food. While we found a few recommendations for Crock-Pot models, competitors like those made by Hamilton Beach consistently earn higher marks from reviewers. And it's worth noting that some units that generally perform well in reviews failed the Good Housekeeping Research Institute's food-safety test. When staffers tested 13 slow cookers by heating water in them for three hours on the low setting, seven models failed to heat the water to 160 degrees Fahrenheit -- a flaw that editors say could prevent food from reaching a safe temperature when the machines are set on low. We haven't disqualified any models based on these results, but we note in our full report which slow cookers failed to pass this basic food-safety test.

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