What the best slow cooker has
- Simple, intuitive controls: A slow cooker is a simple appliance. Whether your slow cooker has manual or digital controls, they should require a minimum of fussing or button-pushing to operate.
- A durable, versatile insert: Look for a slow cooker insert that is dishwasher-safe, which can ease mealtime cleanup. Some are also cleared for use in the refrigerator, on the stovetop, or in the oven, all of which can make cooking and storage more convenient. A stoneware insert may be more durable than a metal insert with nonstick coating, but note that cracked or peeling inserts are among the most common slow-cooker complaints, regardless of the model.
- A see-through lid that fits snugly: Your food will reach the proper temperature only if heat doesn't escape from the slow cooker, so a tight-fitting lid is a must. You also want to be able to see through the lid to monitor progress without lifting it and losing heat.
- Sturdy handles that don't get too hot: Owners commonly complain that the exterior of their slow cooker gets very hot to the touch. While this might be unavoidable, make sure the handles stay cool enough for you to transfer dinner to the dining room table -- or at least keep your oven mitts handy.
- An automatic warming function: If you opt for a programmable slow cooker, make sure it will automatically switch to "keep warm" once your meal is done cooking. This isn't a luxury you'll have with basic manual controls, but it's a must if you will be leaving the slow cooker unattended all day.
- Additional functions to boost versatility: Some slow cookers offer additional cooking modes, such as brown/sauté, roast and steam. They're not at all necessary if you just want a basic slow cooker, but if you're cooking more complex meals, they may be able to save you from washing extra pots and pans.
Know before you go
What will you be cooking? If you'll be cooking large pieces of meat such as whole roasts or chickens, make sure you get an oval slow cooker that can accommodate them. Round slow cookers, on the other hand, are just fine for soup, stew, chili, pasta and the like.
What capacity do you need? If your household is smaller -- up to a few people -- you can get away with a smaller slow cooker that's less than 4 quarts. A family of four is going to want at least a 4- to 5-quart slow cooker; larger groups will probably want at least a 6-quart model. Remember to consider how much space you have, too. Models with larger capacities have a larger footprint, so you'll need enough counter space (or storage space) to accommodate them. Whatever size you choose, note that adding too much or too little food can lead to less-than-ideal results.
Will you be taking the slow cooker on the go? If you're a regular at neighborhood potlucks or game-day parties, you may want to bring your meal contribution in the slow cooker so you can keep it warm during the event. Be sure to look for a model with a locking lid that seals completely. A retractable cord and easy-to-grip handles are also handy features on a portable unit.
If your insert or lid cracks, can you replace it? A quick scan of owner reviews shows that the inserts and glass lids are the most vulnerable parts of a slow cooker. See whether you can buy replacements without ponying up for an entirely new slow cooker.
Will you be around to monitor your slow cooker? Many busy families like slow cookers because they don't have to babysit them, but you don't want to run afoul of food safety guidelines by letting food sit too long at low temperatures. According to the Food and Drug Administration, bacteria can be a risk once temperatures drop below 140 degrees. If you're working long hours, opt for a programmable model with a longer timer that will switch your food to "warm" once it's done -- it will keep your food at a safe temperature but reduce the risk of overcooking.