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.