Slow cookers make homemade meals easy for busy households
Though its name might not sound terribly convenient, a slow cooker is a busy family's best friend. Dump your ingredients into the slow cooker before heading off to work, and your meal will simmer at a low temperature all day long. By the time you get home, your meal is ready to eat, with little to no additional prep work required.
Slow cookers are beloved for their simplicity, but that doesn't mean there's no learning curve. For instance, it's best to use fattier cuts of meat in slow cookers since they won't dry out too much. You want to go easy on alcohol, which won't "burn off" like it does on a stovetop, and hold off on adding dairy products until your food is almost done so they don't curdle. And regardless of what you're cooking, resist the temptation to pop the lid off for a quick stir -- otherwise, you'll let heat out and slow the cooking process even further.
If you're wondering if there's a difference between slow cookers and Crock-Pots, it's simple: Crock-Pot is the brand name of one type of slow cooker first introduced in the 1970s. However, Crock-Pot's longtime dominance in the market has made the terms "Crock-Pot" and "slow cooker" synonymous for many.
Slow cookers are your kitchen's jack-of-all-trades: They can do a lot of things well, but there are also certain circumstances where you may want a more specialized appliance that can do one thing even better. If you eat a lot of rice, you'll probably want a dedicated rice cooker that can turn out perfect, fluffy grains every time. And while you can technically make bread in a slow cooker, a bread machine will prove more versatile if you're a dedicated baker. Finally, a pressure cooker can be a great choice for a homemade meal that doesn't require the forethought of a slow cooker, although it can take more trial and error to use one correctly.
Slow cookers can be basic, portable, or programmable
Basic slow cookers will turn out a meal as tasty as their pricier counterparts, but you won't have as many features. For instance, you won't have a timer or any cooking modes beyond the basics: low, high, and keep warm. You may also be limited to a smaller capacity, and it can be harder to find the sleekest stainless-steel designs in this category. But many owners prefer the simplicity of these models, and they certainly prefer the cheaper price.
Portable slow cookers may be basic or programmable, but they have a few additional features that make it easier to take them on the go. Locking lids and rubber gaskets help keep food in the slow cooker during transport. Some may have a smaller capacity so a full unit isn't too heavy to lug to a party. Others will have rubberized handles that are easy to grip on the go.
Programmable slow cookers boast a few more bells and whistles than basic models. For a little more money, you'll get up to a 24-hour timer that will automatically keep your food warm once it's done cooking. You'll also typically have a digital display. If money is no object, you may also get additional slow-cooking modes or even a model that can sauté, brown or steam your food, too.
How we chose the best slow cookers
There's no shortage of expert and owner reviews of slow cookers, including tests by TheSweetHome.com and Techlicious.com. Good Housekeeping and Cook's Illustrated are also good sources for hands-on tests, as are roundups from magazines including Real Simple and food blogs such as TheKitchn.com. Finally, user reviews at Amazon.com and BestBuy.com provided crucial information on how slow cookers stood up to day-to-day wear and tear. In all of these reviews, we focused on ease of use, durability, features, and performance to choose the top slow cookers for your kitchen.
The best basic slow cookers
Basic slow cookers will satisfy the majority of casual cooks. If you're concerned that a less expensive model won't turn out food as delicious as pricier programmable slow cookers, don't be: ConsumerReports.org has found that features, not cooking performance, account for the price difference between models. For that reason, the website no longer rates slow cookers, as they explain in this free-to-the-public buying guide.
So what will you miss by going with a more basic slow cooker? There are two main differences: Capacity and controls. Smaller units are cheaper, as are those with manual controls (meaning you'll have to monitor the food a bit more closely). However, as you'll see below, spending just a little bit more can get you a few extras if you want them.
The Hamilton Beach Set ‘n Forget 6-Quart Programmable Slow Cooker (Est. $50) is the runaway winner among basic slow cookers. Though a bit pricier than other models in this category, reviewers say you get your money's worth with a plethora of additional features. For instance, the 6-quart capacity means enough room for a sizeable family meal. The included temperature probe, a feature unique to the Set ‘n Forget, lets you monitor the food's temperature if you're trying to be sure it's not either over- or under-cooked. A top handle provides a handy spot to rest the included serving spoon. Finally, a locking lid makes the slow cooker easy to move around or even to take to a party, though some may find the handles a bit skimpy for gripping.
Reviewers say the Set ‘n Forget is easy to use, allowing cooks to use pre-programmed or manual settings. TheSweetHome.com's Christine Cyr Clisset says the unit cooked food reliably during testing "at or just below a modest simmer," though she did wish the power cord and probe were a bit longer. CNET's Megan Wollerton also found that the Set ‘n Forget performed reliably compared to pricier units. While the controls "aren't overly complex," she notes that they sometimes require more button-pushing than should be necessary, and owners will likely need to take a couple of spins through the manual before knowing their way around the display.
Owners of the Set ‘n Forget are similarly enthusiastic, giving it high ratings in nearly 1,000 reviews. They like the included features for the money, with most saying it's easy to program and doesn't burn food. A few complain that the unit simply wouldn't work after a few uses or say there was a foul odor during cooking.
If you're looking for a basic slow cooker without any bells and whistles, the Crock-Pot 4-Quart Oval Manual Slow Cooker (Est. $30) is a good pick at a great price. The unit is big enough for a small family and can handle a chicken or roast. However, as Real Simple's Lindsay Hunt and Brigitt Hauck note, it's still relatively compact, making it a contender for those with limited counter space.
At this price, you'll sacrifice a timer or any other sort of programmable controls. Of course, the upside of that is simplicity -- turn the dial to "low," "high" or "warm," and you're set. The removable stoneware insert and glass lid are dishwasher-safe. If you're looking for something portable, beware that this Crock-Pot lacks a locking lid with a rubber seal.
Most owners are more than satisfied with the Crock-Pot's performance, giving it high ratings in hundreds of reviews. They appreciate the value, too, saying it cooks the perfect amount of food just as well as pricier slow cookers. Some reviewers say the outside gets too hot and food is overcooked on the low setting, however. Others say the stoneware insert cracked under normal use.