Cooking

Slow Food

Road testing the best slow cookers for any budget
Slow Cookers
Photo: Lizzie Munro/Tasting Table

A slow cooker is a true lifesaver for busy people: Throw everything in in the morning; walk home after 12 hours at the office (plus a happy hour drink or three) to a ready-to-eat dinner. Or use it for entertaining (fondue!), breakfast that's ready before your alarm goes off and even baking bread.

When it comes to choosing a slow cooker, there's a lot to consider: shape and size, locking lid versus hinged, manual settings or newfangled smartphone controls, among other things.

We've tested a variety of slow cookers and narrowed the field to four that represent the best-quality models at a range of prices and functions. To put the models through their paces, we cooked up a storm (stock, ropa vieja and chicken potpie) to see if food heated evenly and reached a pleasantly tender (but not mushy) texture, and tested temperatures to make sure the cookers weren't running too hot or too slow (according to author and slow cooker expert Beth Hensperger, the ideal temperature for the low setting is from 180 degrees to 200 degrees and 280 degrees for high).

  • Lid: Typically glass with a heatproof handle, so you can see through it, and often has one or two tiny holes to allow steam to escape. This prevents the lid from rattling from the pressure.

  • Cooking Vessel: Made of glazed stoneware or, in some cases, stove-safe cast aluminum, these inserts are removable for cleaning. The most common complaint about slow cookers is when the stoneware inserts crack and need to be replaced, so take care when handling them. When you're using a slow cooker, the vessel should be at least halfway full, so its contents don't overcook, with an inch or two of space from the top to allow for simmering.

  • Control Panel: Basic slow cookers have a knob that can turn the cooker on and adjust the temperature to low, high or sometimes warm, while programmable versions have a digital timer, as well as temperature settings. Timers can usually be set in increments of 30 minutes up to about 20 hours, and most programmable slow cookers will switch to "keep warm" once the cooking time ends.

    Note: No slow cooker on the market has a "delay start" timer for one good reason: It's not safe to let food sit out at room temperature for hours before cooking. If you can, start the cooker on high for about an hour or until it reaches a temperature above 140 degrees, then turn it to low to help your food reach a safe temperature more quickly.

  • Base: The base has the heating element and the power cord. Watch out—on most cookers the exterior will get hot! Usually these have stay-cool handles in case you need to move the cooker, as well as a stay-cool base or feet that keep the cooker elevated, so the heat doesn't damage your countertops. Some models have stay-cool exteriors as well.

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Here's the lowdown:

All-Clad 7-Quart Slow Cooker, $250

Why We Like It: All-Clad's cookware is renowned for its quality, but the question is whether its electronics follow suit. In many ways, this cooker doesn't disappoint: The base is polished stainless steel with riveted handles, making it feel sturdier than many other lightweight models. All-Clad was the first company we're aware of that has incorporated a stove-safe insert (though others have since followed); the cast-aluminum vessel can be used on a gas or electric stove to brown meat before starting the slow cooking, or used on its own in an oven up to 400 degrees, meaning you can brown beef right in the pan then add the rest of the ingredients and slow-cook ropa vieja for hours. With its nonstick coating, it's also far easier to clean than ceramic crocks. At seven quarts, it's one of the largest slow cookers on the markets, which is great if you often cook for a crowd.

The Drawbacks: The metal lid means you can't peek at the contents without lifting the lid, which gets very hot. And the programming has many limitations. For instance, you can only set the cooker for a minimum of two hours and a maximum of eight hours for cooking on high, and on low, a minimum of 4 hours or a maximum of 20 hours. What's more, once the cooker is programmed, the temperature or cooking times setting can't be changed without shutting off the power first.

All-Clad Slow Cooker | Crock-Pot Smart Slow Cooker with WeMo

Crock-Pot 6-Quart Smart Slow Cooker with WeMo, $130

Why We Like It: With Crock-Pot's Smart Slow Cooker, the cooking process can be set and adjusted with a mobile app. The cooker uses Belkin's WeMo home automation technology, and though it might seem gimmicky at first, it can come in handy. You can start the cooking on high to quickly bring ingredients up to temperature, then turn the temperature down later while you're out running errands, or extend the cooking time from afar if need be. The programming is very versatile: Set the cooker for as long as 23 hours 45 minutes (great for making chicken stock overnight) or as little as just 15 minutes. As for the design of the slow cooker itself, it's a six-quart, oval-shaped ceramic crock with a glass lid.

The Drawbacks: Setup can be a little frustrating, and we found that sometimes our phone had trouble connecting with the appliance or the appliance wouldn't pick up the wireless signal. It would be nice if you had the option to program the slow cooker directly, as opposed to relying on your smartphone (there is, however, a button on the appliance to turn it on and adjust the heat setting).

Hamilton Beach 6-quart Programmable Stovetop Slow Cooker, $80

Why We Like It: If you can't afford the All-Clad model, Hamilton Beach's slow cooker is the next best thing and our top choice in terms of quality and value among the cookers we researched. Like the All-Clad, it has a cast-aluminum insert that can be used on the stove, which comes in handy when making something like chicken and dumplings: Brown the meat on the stovetop before moving it to the slow cooker base with broth and vegetables, then finish on the stovetop again to thicken with roux. The cooker can be programmed for up to 10 hours or as little as 30 minutes, at any of the three temperatures.

The Drawbacks: The exterior and the handles of the cooker get very hot, so grab a pot holder if you need to move it.

Hamilton Beach Programmable Slow Cooker and Set & Forget

Hamilton Beach Set & Forget 6-Quart Programmable Slow Cooker, $60

Why We Like It: What sets this slow cooker apart is that it comes with a thermometer probe that lets you program the cooker not just by time (though you can do that, too) but also by temperature reached. If you want to use your cooker to make whole roasts or chickens, this is a great option—and a safe one, too--that allows you to ensure your meat isn't underdone without cooking it into shoe leather. As with the timer feature, once the contents reach the programmed temperature, it switches to the "keep warm" setting. This model is available in a smaller, five-quart size, as well as a version that has a spoon that fits in the lid and one with a lid that clips tight to the cooker.

The Drawbacks: This model cooked a bit hotter than others on the market, even on the low setting, so don't be surprised if your meals are ready earlier than expected. It would also be nice if the probe was a little longer, to reach smaller cuts of meat.

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