Best Slow Cookers of 2018

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First available in the 1970s, the slow cooker was a kitchen gadget that quickly became a must-have for people who wanted a convenient way to produce tasty meals at a low cost and with minimal effort. Now, they’re back in fashion.

With slow cookers costing anywhere from around a tenner up to a whopping $120, it can be hard to know where to start. The bottom line is that some cheaper models do the basic task of slow cooking just as well as the fancy machines – it’s just that they don’t have extra features such as a timer, digital controls, keep-warm function and inner bowl that can be used on the hob first. That said, some of the more expensive models can feel better-made and see you through more years of slow cooking.

When considering what size you need, remember that even if it promises 5L capacity, you won’t get five litres’ worth of dinner out of it. That’s because you can’t fill it to the top, with the usable cooking space generally around two-thirds of the stated capacity. As a general rule of thumb, a 1.5-3L slow cooker will feed one or two people; a machine that’s 3-5L will serve three or four people; and anything between 5-5.5L will feed four to five people; while a 6.5L machine will feed six to eight people.

The super-simple, closed design of the slow cooker is at the heart of its strengths and its weaknesses: It excels at any dish that requires low, moist heat. Obviously, that includes anything braised or steamed, but it can also gently poach delicate fish, or be deployed as a water bath for making foolproof custards and cheesecakes. It uses less energy than the stove or oven (most require about the same wattage as a lightbulb or two), and you can leave it on all day without worrying you’re going to burn your house down.

However, a slow cooker can over-cook your food. Modern models run considerably hotter than the originals from the ‘70s, because of concerns about food safety. (The rule of thumb is that cooked food should not be held between 40˚ and 140˚ for more than four hours.) And there’s no standard temperature for the low, hot and warm settings. They can vary by as much as 30 degrees from model to model. That’s why it’s so important to choose the right machine: If you are using the slow cooker for all-day cooking, you want one that runs as low and slow as possible.

So, out of the hundreds of slow cookers on the market, I tested some of the most popular to find out which one performs the best. I started with these three guiding principles:

1. The most useful size for a slow cooker is a five- to seven-quart oval. A six-quart oval slow cooker can make a recipe that serves four, but it will also accommodate large roasts or whole chickens. A two-quart souffle dish or a loaf pan can fit inside, for making bread pudding or cheesecake. There’s nothing you can do with a four-quart slow cooker that you can’t do with a six-quart, but the reverse is not true. There’s no question that if you’re going to buy one slow cooker, it should be this size and shape.

2. Programmability is a must-have feature. A programmable slow cooker allows you to set cook time and heat level (say, 4 hours on low) and after the time has elapsed, the cooker will automatically switch to warm, decreasing the temperature. The warm setting shouldn’t be abused—you can’t just leave chicken on warm for four hours and expect it to still be juicy. But it’s a lifesaver for a gap of a few hours between when a recipe is done and when you get home. Dishes like marinara sauce and polenta can sit on warm for hours without suffering. The older and simpler models just run on whatever heat level you’ve set it to until you get home and switch it off, making overcooking much more likely.

3. It is nice, but not necessary, to have the ability to sear or brown in the slow cooker insert. Many recipes call for sautéing aromatics and/or browning meat before slow cooking. If you can do this in the slow cooker insert, you don’t have to use a separate skillet on the stovetop.

Starting with those parameters, I tested seven popular slow cookers from six different brands, four with browning ability, to see which offered the best user experience and low, even cooking.

The Slow Cookers

Abby Hocking / Food & Wine

Basic models

Bella 5-Quart Programmable Slow Cooker

KitchenAid 6-quart Programmable Slow Cooker with Glass Lid

Hamilton Beach Set ‘n Forget Programmable Slow Cooker with Temperature Probe, 6-Quart

Cuisinart 6.5 Quart Programmable Slow Cooker

Models with the ability to brown

Hamilton Beach 6-Quart Programmable Stovetop Slow Cooker

Crock-Pot Programmable Slow Cooker with Stovetop Safe Cooking Pot

All-Clad 7-Quart Gourmet Slow Cooker with All-in-One Browning

A note on one omission: I did not include the best-selling slow cooker on Amazon, the Crock-Pot 6-Quart Programmable Cook & Carry Slow Cooker, because, over months of use, I have found that it runs unacceptably hot, reaching a full, rolling boil when set to low for even a few hours.

The Criteria

Temperature stability: Can the slow cooker hold a low temperature (well below a boil, which is 212˚) for at least six hours?

Warming: When switched to warm, does the heat drop precipitously to a very low (but still food-safe) temperature?

Even cooking: Does it cook evenly on both high and low, or does it have hot spots that will scorch delicate dishes, like stratas, that are cooked directly in the insert?

Controls: Is the control panel intuitive and easy to program and read?

Alarms: Does it have an alarm when the cook time has elapsed?

Comfort: How hot do the insert handles and lid get when cooking?

Searing: For those with searing ability: Does it sauté an onion and brown chicken skin just as well as a skillet does?

The Tests

To answer those questions, I performed three tests on all of the cookers.

Temperature tracking: I filled each cooker with 12 cups of cold (around 50˚) water. I then set them to cook on low for six hours and tracked the temperature of each one with an identical probe thermometer to see how low the low setting really was—ideally, it should not rise much above 200˚. (In reality, the cookers ranged from 180˚  to 205˚ after four hours on low. For braising, I prefer a bare simmer, with a bubble breaking the surface of the liquid every now and then, which happens around 190˚.) I then let them switch to warm for four hours to see how quickly and dramatically the temperature would drop—the lower the better, as long as it stays above 140˚.

Beans: To check the evenness of the high heat setting, I cooked one pound of soaked black beans with 6 cups of water in each slow cooker on high heat until they were tender, which took between three and six hours. I was looking for beans that were all nicely tender at the same time, rather than beans that overcooked around the edges before the ones in the middle were done.

Strata: Making a braise is too easy; any slow cooker can do that. A strata—essentially a savory bread pudding—is a more revealing test. Slow cookers can make lovely, delicate-textured stratas, but some models have hot spots along the wall of the insert, where it’s closest to the heating element. Those spots will cause uneven browning and scorching on the edges of the strata. I lined each slow cooker with parchment and then assembled this strata in each one, adapting the recipe slightly by upping the egg quantity to six for extra structure and swapping the Gruyere for cheddar, because, well, that’s what I had. I then cooked it on low for 4 hours.

I added one more test for the three cookers with stovetop-safe inserts:

Browning and sautéing: Stovetop-safe inserts should perform as well as a skillet, so I tested their ability to sauté and brown. In each one, I sautéed one large yellow onion in one tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, to see if it would get evenly soft and translucent within 10 minutes. I also browned skin-on chicken thighs over high heat in one tablespoon of canola oil, leaving them undisturbed for 8 minutes before flipping. I was looking for deep, even browning on the chicken skin and some fond (browned bits) left behind in the insert.

  • Best Overall: Hamilton Beach Set ‘n Forget Programmable Slow Cooker

    This slow cooker checks all the boxes on your wish list. It’s programmable or you can operate it manually. There’s a temperature probe to check the temperature of your food as you cook it. And at six quarts, it’s the perfect size for most uses.

    When the cooking time or temperature is reached, the cooker switches to a warming setting that will keep the food at a safe temperature.

    For anyone needing to travel with their slow cooker, this model has sturdy handles, and the lid has a gasket to eliminate spills. The lid also clips on tight so you can take it to a potluck or family dinner. For serving, there’s a spoon that clips on to the unit to keep it from getting lost in transit.

    There are three settings: program (which allows you to set a cooking time) probe (which uses the temperature probe to determine doneness), and manual (which lets you set high, low, or warm temperatures without setting a cooking time).

    If you live in an area with frequent power glitches, you’ll appreciate that this model will stay on during brief outages and keep cooking, or keep your food warm and safe, until you get home.

  • Runner Up, Best Overall: KitchenAid Slow Cooker with Easy Serve Glass Lid

    This slow cooker is designed for perfect cooking and easy serving, with a glass lid that can be opened on hinges on either side of the handle – perfect for buffet serving while keeping foods warm and covered.

    The 6-quart cooking insert is oval shaped, to fit foods like whole chickens or roasts, and it’s removable for serving and for easy cleanup. Unlike cookers that only have high and low temperatures, this has settings for high, medium, and low cooking as well as a keep-warm setting. It can be programmed for up to 24 hours of cooking, in 30 minute increments, for unattended cooking. If you’re not available when cooking time is up, it automatically switches to keep-warm for four hours. The easy-to-read digital display shows how much cooking time is left, as well as the temperature setting.

    For storage, the cord stores on the bottom of the cooker. If you don’t need to use your slow cooker on a buffet, there is a similar model with a solid glass lid.

  • Best High-End: All-Clad Programmable Oval Slow Cooker

    A high-end slow cooker that’s built to last, this oval model holds 6 1/2 quarts and has a black ceramic insert, a glass lid, a digital display, and sturdy stainless steel handles.

    The timer is programmable for up to 26 hours, and there are settings for warm, low, or high temperatures. It automatically switches to a keep-warm setting when cooking time is up.

    The polished stainless steel exterior looks elegant enough to sit on your buffet (after you wipe off the smudges and fingerprints), or you can remove the ceramic insert and use that as a serving dish at your dinner table.

  • Best Budget: Crock-Pot 6-Quart Cook & Carry Oval Manual Portable

    Slow cookers don’t need to be digital or fancy, and this 6-quart oval unit proves it, with great style. It has high, low, and warm settings, a dishwasher-safe stoneware cooking insert, and a dishwasher-safe lid.

    While the operation is as simple as the first slow cookers, this has extra features, like the locking lid and handles that make this slow cooker easy to transport across the room or across town for a potluck. If you prefer, the stoneware crock can be removed from the cooker for serving at the table.

    The polished stainless steel exterior and black accents look attractive and are easy to clean when you’re done cooking.

  • Best Programmable: hOme 6 Quart Slow Cooker Pot

    This roomy 6-quart oval-shaped slow cooker is large enough to fit a 6-pound roast, a whole chicken, or enough chili or soup for a crowd. The cooking insert is stoneware that provides excellent heat retention and has a nonstick surface for easy cleaning, no matter what you’re cooking.

    The digital controls let you set the cooking time for up to 10 hours and set the heat for minimum, maximum, and keep warm. After the cooking time is over, the slow cooker automatically switches to keep-warm, so you if you’re late coming home you won’t have overcooked food, or worse yet, food that’s been sitting at dangerous lukewarm temperatures for hours.

    The cooker has a stainless steel exterior that’s easy to keep clean and a glass lid so you can see what’s cooking without lifting the lid and letting heat escape. The stoneware cooking insert is removable for easy cleaning. It should be washed by hand.

  • Best for Buffets: Crock-Pot Hook Up Connectable Entertaining System

    While most slow cookers can be used on a buffet, this cooker — and the other cookers in this style — are designed for buffet serving, whether it’s for a family taco night or for a holiday event. This unit holds two 1-quart crocks that are great for dips, sauces, and small servings, so you can keep your cheese dip or mushroom gravy warm for hours or keep the soup bubbling. Set them for low, medium or high, for cooking or for serving.

    There are two other sizes available in this style, with units that hold a single 2- or 3 1/2-quart crock. The units connect, and up to six units can share a single power outlet so it will be easier to find space for all the hot dishes on the buffet.

    These come in a variety of metallic colors to add some sparkle to the table. For storage, the cords store inside the base and the units stack neatly on top of each other. The connecting outlet used to join the cookers is included.

  • Best Large Capacity: Nesco 18-Quart Professional Roaster Oven

    While this is sold as a roaster oven — which makes sense since you can fit a 20-pound turkey — it also functions as a slow cooker for those times when you need to cook for a big crowd.

    It’s great for making batches of food for freezing or canning, or for making enough food for parties, church suppers, or that big holiday potluck.

    Besides roasting and slow cooking, you can bake (it even holds a 9- x 13-inch baking pan), warm, steam, and use it for serving. The temperature is adjustable from 200 to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.

    The removable insert is porcelain-enameled steel that resists scratching. There’s a steel rack that makes it easy to remove hot foods from the cooker.

    The controls are simple, with a dial to set the temperature and a small light that indicates when the temperature has been reached, but there is no timer or automatic setting to keep your food warm.

  • Best High Tech: Crock-Pot 6-Quart Wifi-Controlled Smart Slow Cooker

    Wouldn’t it be great to check the slow cooker without having to stop another task? With this wifi enabled slow cooker, you can monitor and control the cooker from a distance. You can use the app to see how much cooking time is left, or you can adjust the cooking time or temperature, switch to warm, or turn the cooker off. No need to leave couch to speed up or slow down a recipe when you’re involved in a great novel. Then, when you’re in the kitchen, you can ignore the app and adjust the cooker in person.

    This has a 6-quart capacity and an oval shape to fit roasts and longer cuts of meat. The glass lid holds in heat and moisture while letting you peek at the food without lifting the lid. The stoneware insert and lid are both dishwasher safe.

 

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