With a programmable slow cooker, you can truly "set it and forget it." These models have timers that mean you don't have to be present when your food is done cooking -- the slow cooker will automatically switch to "warm" until you're ready to eat. Most have digital displays instead of a simple knob, and some may have additional temperature or cooking functions. While there are a handful of smaller programmable slow cookers, most have capacities of at least 5 to 6 quarts and up.
If you're looking for an all-around strong performer in this category, the Crock-Pot Programmable Touchscreen Slow Cooker (Est. $65) is a top pick for much less than some of the other contenders in this category. It has a 6½-quart capacity -- enough for a substantial meal, including a 7-pound roast. Of course, the bigger capacity means this unit will take up more space on your counter. The polished stainless steel and sleek touchscreen are easy on the eyes for décor-conscious cooks.
This Crock-Pot has a timer that you can set for 30 minutes up to 20 hours -- much longer than many slow cookers allow. (While owners seem to appreciate this option, it's worth noting that most people will never need anything approaching a 20-hour cooking time, and using a slow cooker for that long could also pose food-safety issues.) The control panel is described by experts as "easily understood and attractive," and the removable stoneware insert is safe to put in the dishwasher, refrigerator, microwave, or oven.
John Kirschner of Techlicious.com made the Crock-Pot his top pick in a test of six competing models, citing its consistent performance and low price. He does note that the exterior and handles can get "burning hot," however; and, in another expert test, the unit ran "slightly hot" and scorched caramelized onions in a test. While hundreds of owners give the Crock-Pot good reviews, praising its performance and the variety of features for the money, a number say the lid doesn't fit snugly enough. Others also mention the hot exterior.
If you aren't sold on the Crock-Pot Programmable Touchscreen Slow Cooker, one worthy competitor is the KitchenAid 6-Quart Slow Cooker (Est. $90). This unit has a slightly smaller 6-quart capacity and a slightly larger price tag than the Crock-Pot, but it also bested that model in another expert test. It has a sleek stainless-steel exterior, but it has a slightly larger footprint than the Crock-Pot if space is a concern.
If you thought the Crock-Pot's 20-hour timer was generous, the KitchenAid's 24-hour timer may really wow you. Again, this is probably overkill for most cooks, but it could come in handy in special circumstances, such as complicated holiday meals. Testers say controls are easy to use. Something else that sets this model apart is the presence of a "medium" setting -- most slow cookers only have "low," "high," and "keep warm." The removable stoneware insert is dishwasher safe, but KitchenAid does not recommend using it on the stove or in the microwave or oven.
The KitchenAid performed admirably in one expert test, turning out "juicy and tender chicken, turkey, pork, and chili, and caramelized onions were evenly cooked." On the flipside, a possibly faulty unit failed to bring food to an acceptable temperature in Techlicious' tests. The unit gets strong ratings in owner reviews for reliable performance and versatile controls, but some complain that the insert cracked under normal use.
If you're willing to spend more for a model that does more than your average slow cooker, the Cuisinart MSC-600 3-in-1 Multi-Cooker (Est. $115) has a lot of devotees. This Cuisinart has three modes: slow cook, steam, and brown/sauté. This 6-quart unit is a bit bigger than the Crock-Pot and KitchenAid, so you'll need ample counter space. Four- and 7-quart units are also available, and the 7-quart unit has an additional roasting function.
The Cuisinart MSC-600's versatility earns it a top rating in Good Housekeeping tests, and it finishes second to the Crock-Pot Programmable Touchscreen Slow Cooker in Techlicious.com's tests, "producing beef chunks that were slightly dry but still pretty good." The backlit blue LCD screen is easy to read, and you'll also get a 24-hour timer on the slow cooker. The Cook Central has a dishwasher-safe nonstick aluminum insert instead of stoneware. Techlicious.com notes that while this feature made the unit easier to clean than others, it may not be quite as durable in the long run.
Owners give the Cuisinart MSC-600 top marks in more than 1,600 Amazon reviews. Most love the ability to sauté, brown, steam, and slow cook food in one unit, saying it cuts down on cleanup. Several of the negative reviews focus on the insert's nonstick coating, saying it bubbled, flaked off, or otherwise deteriorated, sometimes within a few months of purchase.