Basic slow-cooker design has changed little since Rival introduced its first Crock-Pot models in the early 1970s. A modern slow cooker has two parts: the base and the removable insert, which may be stoneware, ceramic or stainless steel. Electric coils in the base transmit heat to the insert. Slow cookers are designed to emit very little steam, so food braises in its own juices along with any added cooking liquid.
We found a few basic slow cookers recommended in expert reviews, but most of these models have been discontinued, and the price difference between simple cookers and those with more features (like a timer, which experts say is imperative), is often as little as $10. Still, if you need only a very basic slow cooker, a couple of models stand out in reviews.
Babble.com describes the Rival Crock-Pot 3060-W (*Est. $30) as "one of the best deals in kitchen appliances period." It's said to be a remake of older Crock-Pot models, and some cost-saving measures have been implemented. For example, the all-glass lid has been replaced with a plastic composite lid, meaning it can no longer go in the microwave. However, reviewer Jim Murnighan says the most important feature of any slow cooker -- a removable inner crock -- is still present. The 3060-W also earns positive remarks from owners, with an average rating of 4 stars out of 5 in nearly 80 owner-written reviews at Amazon.com. Most reviewers say it's a great basic slow cooker with ample capacity, and its low setting is perfect for soups or stews. The 3060-W is white with a clear plastic lid and a 6-quart capacity.
A main complaint in user reviews for the Crock-Pot 3060-W is common for a lot of slow cookers: The low setting is too hot and food can boil rather than simmer. For that reason, quite a few owners say you need to keep an eye on your slow-cooked meals to avoid burnt food.
Another medium-sized slow cooker that fares well in reviews is the Rival Crock-Pot 3735-WN (*Est. $30) . Woman's Day magazine describes this 3.5-quart, oval-shaped model as the ideal size for three to five people, and notes that the stoneware insert has a stick-resistant coating to make cleanup easier. Linda Larsen, the About.com guide to busy cooks, agrees that this Rival model is the "classic crockpot size for most families." She says her basic Rival Crock-Pot is still going strong after 15 years, although she warns that newer models tend to cook hotter and may need to be watched carefully. (Note: ConsumerSearch is owned by About.com, but the two don't share an editorial affiliation.)
The 3735-WN also scores higher than most Rival models in user reviews at Amazon.com, earning an average 4.1 stars out of 5 in more than 60 reviews -- just slightly higher than the Crock-Pot 3060-W. Owners say the unit is easy to clean and is a good size for single people or smaller families. However, the machine also receives its share of complaints, including that it cooks too hot, the lid doesn't fit and the handle on the lid tends to break off. One particularly alarming criticism describes a 2-year-old unit emitting sparks and flames that burned right through the power cord.
Although it's more expensive, the Hamilton Beach 3-in-1 33135 (*Est. $65) has all the basic features but no programming ability, so you can't set it to start or stop cooking at a particular time. But this model does come with a stainless-steel base and three interchangeable crocks in 2-, 4- and 6-quart sizes, making it ideal for singles and small families who occasionally cook larger meals. Larger families will also appreciate the ability to create smaller dishes, such as dips and appetizers.
Users posting at Amazon.com love the versatility of the 3-in-1 33135 slow cooker, while experts at Good Housekeeping say the machine delivers "tender and tasty" meals. They describe the interchangeable crocks with their single lid as microwave-, oven- and dishwasher-safe, stackable and "attractive enough for table service," but caution that the entire unit is quite heavy to lift. Linda Larsen, the About.com guide to busy cooks, loves the interchangeable crocks; Jessica Harlan, About.com's guide to cooking equipment, says the unit performs well but lacks "bells and whistles," such as a timer and an automatic warming feature. (Note: ConsumerSearch is owned by About.com, but the two don't share an editorial affiliation.) This model doesn't fare particularly well in a professional test, however, earning mediocre scores for both cooking performance and convenience.