Although the actual mechanics of slow cookers have changed little since the 1970s, their design and features have evolved considerably. Fancier slow cookers can cost as much as $250 and include such features as temperature sensors, computerized recipe databases, stovetop- and oven-safe crocks, and even griddle surfaces. Harvest gold and avocado color schemes have given way to sleek stainless steel, black and red.
The 6-quart Hamilton Beach Set'N Forget 33967 (*Est. $50) programmable slow cooker includes a feature that many experts and users say is genuinely useful: a temperature probe. With this built-in thermometer, meat can be set to cook to the ideal internal temperature and switched automatically to the keep-warm setting as soon as it's done. According to experts at the Good Housekeeping Research Institute, this makes cooking "foolproof." The Set'N Forget performs very well in one professional test, and is also extremely popular with hundreds of users at Amazon.com and Viewpoints.com, who appreciate its large capacity, ease of use, auto-warming feature and clip-tight lid with built-in spoon rest. Most reviewers say it performs well and is a good value, although a few owners had difficulty programming it. Overall, the 33967 averages 4.5 stars or better out of 5 on both sites, in about 550 reviews on Amazon.com and approximately 110 reviews on Viewpoints.com.
In tests performed by the Good Housekeeping Research Institute, however, the Set'N Forget 33967 took more than three hours to heat water to 160 degrees Fahrenheit when set on low. This poses a potential safety hazard, editors say, as foods cooked on the low setting may spend too much time in the "danger zone" between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. The Hamilton Beach Set'N Forget 33966 is nearly identical to the 33967, lacking only the locking lid and spoon rest.
The 6.5-quart Cuisinart PSC-650 (*Est. $95) also receives several positive reviews. This slow cooker has a stainless-steel exterior, an oval-shaped ceramic crock and a glass lid. It's programmable and offers touchpad controls, a 24-hour timer and four temperature settings: high, low, simmer and warm. When timed cooking ends, the machine automatically shifts to the warm setting, which it will hold for up to eight hours. The crock and lid are both dishwasher-safe and the unit comes with a three-year limited warranty, which is longer than most slow cookers.
Woman's Day names the Cuisinart PSC-650 -- along with its smaller 4-quart cousin, the PSC-400 -- as a top pick, saying the touchpad controls make it easy to operate. The Good Housekeeping Research Institute also recommends the Cuisinart PSC-650, saying it cooks well and that its simmer setting is handy for cuts of meat that require very long cooking times. Diana Rattray, the About.com guide to Southern cooking, says it's one of her favorite models. (Note: ConsumerSearch is owned by About.com, but the two don't share an editorial affiliation.) There's some ambiguity about whether she tested the PSC-650 or an earlier model, but since the one she describes has a timer and auto-warming feature, it appears the slow cooker she tested was the programmable version. However, two other professional sources don't recommend the PSC-650, giving it only average marks for cooking performance.
Another slow-cooker that does very well in professional tests -- but isn't as popular with owners -- is the All-Clad 99009 (*Est. $180) , a 6.5-quart slow cooker with a ceramic insert. This unit has many desirable features, including easy-to-read digital controls, a countdown setting that shows when food will be done and three heat settings. Testers at two publications give this unit high marks for design and ease of use, but another professional test gives it only so-so results.
Consulting the user reviews at Amazon.com, we found many complaints about the All-Clad 99009's durability; more than 120 users contribute to an average rating of just 2.5 stars out of 5. Owners say the ceramic crock insert develops cracks with normal use, and several add that All-Clad customer service was unresponsive to their complaints. Many users who love the unit's cooking quality and ease of use nevertheless pan it because of this major flaw. Overall, the All-Clad 99009 receives more negative reviews than positive ones at Amazon.com, although owner reviews at Cooking.com remain overwhelmingly positive.
Users report the same problem with the KitchenAid KSC700SS , a 7-quart stainless-steel unit that's among the largest models tested by our sources. It boasts a powerful 400-watt heating element, a 10-hour programmable timer, five cooking settings and a food temperature alert. The editors of Woman's Day recommend it, as does Diana Rattray of About.com. (Note: ConsumerSearch is owned by About.com, but the two don't share an editorial affiliation.) However, another publication gives it only a lukewarm recommendation, saying it produced a dry pot roast and unevenly cooked onions. Although the KitchenAid KSC700SS receives near-perfect ratings from about 60 owners posting to Cooking.com, users at Amazon.com are much less enthusiastic; more than 100 owners give it an average score of 3 stars out of 5. While they generally praise the cooker's size, performance and features, many complain about quality. Although customer service is generally cooperative, many users say they've had to replace multiple crocks.
Stovetop-safe inserts are the latest slow-cooker innovation, allowing you to brown meat in the removable insert, then transfer the crock to the base for further cooking. The West Bend 84915 5-Quart Oblong Slow Cooker (*Est. $55) , the West Bend 6-Quart Oval Versatility 84866 (*Est. $70) and the Breville BSC560XL (*Est. $150) all have this feature. Yet according to the Good Housekeeping Research Institute, a stovetop-safe crock doesn't heat as evenly as a skillet, so meat needs to be turned as it browns -- although this additional work is offset by the convenience of not having an extra pan to wash.
About 125 owners contribute to an average rating of 4.5 stars out of 5 for the West Bend 84915 on Amazon.com; nearly 50 consumers posting to Target.com give it a near-perfect average rating. Its sister model, the West Bend 84905 (the same unit but without the carrying case accessory), earns a similar average rating on Amazon.com in about 110 owner-written reviews. A few users say this slow cooker takes a while to heat up when placed on the hottest setting, but most rave about the functionality of these models.
Aside from its stovetop-safe insert, the West Bend 84915 has another trick: Its base unit can double as an electric griddle, which can be handy for frying extra bacon or small pancakes. Users say the machine is versatile and easy to clean. On the downside, there's no timer, so you can't set cooking times in advance. There's also no light indicating whether the unit is on or off, and no off switch; instead, users must unplug the unit, although some owners see this as a safety feature. A few mention that the West Bend 84915 cooks hotter than expected, so it's wise to check the manual's temperature settings to avoid overcooking foods.
A review in Woman's Day magazine recommends the West Bend Versatility 84866, which has similar features but a different shape and slightly larger capacity. This more expensive version also has a stainless-steel exterior. Editors praise it primarily for its griddle setting and base unit that doubles as a griddle, but user feedback isn't as positive. The slow cooker maintains a good average score of 4 stars out of 5 in more than 55 owner-written reviews on Amazon.com, but there are a number of complaints that it doesn't get hot enough to cook food and the nonstick finish scratches easily, even when using nylon utensils. The Versatility 84866 also earns the lowest combined overall score in one professional roundup.
The Breville BSC560XL 7-quart slow cooker is recommended with reservations by editors of one professional cooking magazine, although testers say it runs hotter than most slow cookers and its stainless-steel lid makes it difficult to monitor food during cooking. The BSC560XL has three temperature settings, a stainless-steel finish and domed lid. Like the slow cookers mentioned above, the insert can be used on the stovetop to sear and brown meat, but its base unit doesn't double as a griddle. Babble.com names the Breville BSC560XL as a recommended model in a 2010 roundup of the best slow cookers, noting the convenience of transferring seared meat to the slow cooker without making a mess. However, the insert is too large for a single burner and not quite large enough to span two, making it impossible for the temperature to be consistent across the bottom of the pan.
Comparable models with similar features are less expensive than the Breville BSC560XL, and editors of one foodie magazine point out that for the price, they'd expect a timer and a keep-warm setting, neither of which this slow cooker offers. Even so, fewer than 20 owners posting to Amazon.com contribute to an average rating of 4.5 stars out of 5. Some, however, complain about the nonstick finish peeling off prematurely or flaking off on arrival, and a number of users say the BSC560XL cooks too hot.