When it comes to a reliable, easy-to-use slow cooker, I'd invest in the $50 Hamilton Beach 6-Quart Programmable Set 'n Forget.
Maybe you’re surprised by this pick. My editors were. Sweethome’s sister site, The Wirecutter, hasn’t had great experiences testing Hamilton Beach products in the past. Yet the Set ‘n Forget out-performed much more expensive models, and once I started asking experts, it kept cropping up as a favorite.
Before I get into why I chose this model, I should mention that I don’t think there’s a perfect slow cooker on the market. After more than 40 hours of research and testing, I found that every model has particular flaws, and most of these machines—ranging from $30 to $180—seem to cook too hot.
Slow and low is the name of the game for braising, which gives these meals their unctuous, fork-tender consistency. Yet I read overwhelming editorial and Amazon reviews complaining about tough pot roasts and burnt stews due to cooking liquid coming to a boil when it should barely simmer.
If you’re a product of the 1970s or ’80s, you may wonder what distinguishes modern slow cookers from those classic Crock-Pots made ubiquitous in suburban homes and at church potlucks. (Of course, the name “Crock-Pot” really belongs to the brand of slow cooker that Rival first introduced in 1971). Old-school models used all-manual controls, whereas today you’ll find that many are programmable; you choose the heat—either low or high—and the cooking time. When the time is up, the machine kicks over to the warming setting.
Manual models, with just an on-off switch, and high and low settings, are still available. The simplicity of these can be appealing, since there are no electronic interfaces to program and, theoretically, less can go wrong with a simpler device. Yet programmable cookers tend to be more convenient, because you can prep your food in the morning and go to work without worrying about your meal overcooking.
Other newer options include inserts made of metal (instead of ceramic or stoneware), cookers with an oval rather than round shape for fitting large roasts, and locking lids. I found some of these features helpful; others not so much.
Slow cookers come in a range of sizes, from 1- to 7-quart capacity. Those diminutive 1-, 2-, and 3-quart cookers work best for making appetizers, such as dips. Most of these small pots only have manual controls. The next step up are 4- to 5-quart cookers, which work well for singles and couples who want to make one meal, and maybe a round of leftovers. Most of these are manual machines, although some are programmable (see “The Competition,” below).
I focused my research on programmable 6- to 7-quart models, because they’re big enough to make a meal for a family of four, with leftovers to spare. America’s Test Kitchen and Consumer Reports also focused their reviews on this size cooker.
What to look for
To lock down the essential features a slow cooker should have, I called Phyllis Pellman Good, author of the New York Times best-selling Set-It And Forget-It cookbook series. Since 2000, Good has logged countless hours developing slow cooker recipes and sold over 11 million copies of her 12 cookbooks. She also co-owns The Good Cooking Store in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where she sells slow cookers.
Programmable slow cookers have timers that range from 12 to 26 hours. At first, I thought the longer timer would be an advantage, but Good pointed out that the longest slow cooker recipes last around 8-10 hours, so a 12- to 15- hour timer should be sufficient. If food sits at the warming setting too long, you could completely dry out your dish or possibly run into food safety issues.
“People make a big deal about glass lids,” says Good, because you can theoretically see your food cooking without lifting the lid and releasing the heat. “My experience is that so much condensation collects inside the lid that it’s hard to see, so I end up lifting the lid anyway.” Instead, she says a domed lid—regardless of what it’s made of—allows you to fit round cuts of meat and whole chickens in the crock and have the lid fit. This may be a moot point, since most models do have domed lids. Still, some are more convex than others.
I also considered models with stovetop-safe inserts made of die-cast aluminum and other metals. Theoretically, you can brown your meat in the crock on the stovetop and save yourself an extra dish to wash. However, aluminum doesn’t conduct heat all that evenly. I’d rather sear a roast in a cast-iron skillet, and then transfer the meat to the crock. Even if you did brown the meat in the insert, you’d probably transfer the meat to another dish to drain off the fat from the crock, negating that extra saved dish.
Nonstick coatings are also an issue for metal inserts; if the coating isn’t really tough, it can scratch off, creating safety issues. Cooking for Geeks author Jeff Potter recommends washing any insert before using it. “There’s a difference between compounds that make things smell/taste bad (but may be harmless), and compounds that you don’t discern, but can be harmful. Realistically, though, it’s both the dosage and frequency of exposure that truly matters. I personally would look for an insert that’s glazed [stoneware or ceramic].”
If you attend barbecues or other communal functions, a model with a locking lid and silicone gasket to prevent spills is a definite bonus. “I have an outlet in the back of my minivan, and I’ve had readers say they actually cook on road trips, and then they just pull over and eat on the way. Certainly for tailgating or potlucking it works great,” says Stephanie O’Dea, author of the New York Times best-selling Make It Fast: Cook It Slow cookbook series and the blog A Year of Slow Cooking. O’Dea is actually a spokesperson for the Ninja Cooking System, a multi-use cooker. (It’s mentioned in “The Competition” section, below.) But we spoke about slow cookers in general, not the Ninja specifically. O’Dea also points out that you can purchase travel bags for many slow cookers, if they don’t come with a clamping lid.
A simple on-off light, so you can tell that the machine is actually cooking, can also save headaches. Many of the programmable cookers don’t have this, and sometimes it can be hard to determine at a glance whether the cooker is on. I still think the advantages of a programmable cooker outweigh this feature, though.
To my surprise, Good recommended using a model with a heat probe. I’d only found this feature on the Hamilton Beach Set ‘n Forget, and had initially discounted it as a gimmick. Yet Good explains: “I hate overcooked meat, I always encourage people to use a meat thermometer to test a roast to see if it’s done. If you don’t need to lift the lid, it’s really helpful because lifting the lid lets heat out.”
Like many small home appliances, most slow cookers come with a 1-year limited warranty. All of the machines I tested, including the Hamilton Beach Set ‘n Forget, come with this warranty, so it didn’t really factor into my overall decision-making process.
Whittling down the choices
Armed with my new shopping criteria from Good and O’Dea, I scoured every review I could find and read up on more than 40 top-rated models. Not surprisingly, the most thorough reviews of slow cookers came from America’s Test Kitchen and Consumer Reports. Both had the clearest methodology and reviewed the most cookers.
America’s Test Kitchen seemed to run the most rigorous testing, trying three different recipes—pot roast, meat sauce, and French onion soup—in each cooker, as well as measuring the precise temperatures at which each ran on the high and low settings. The editors were particularly mindful that modern slow cookers seem to generally cook too hot, and they found that the best models heated above 190 degrees, but below 212 degrees (the boiling point). Based on their findings, they highly recommended Crock-Pot’s 6½-Quart Programmable Touchscreen ($79), with All-Clad’s 9009 6½-Quart Slow Cooker ($180) coming in second. Neither of these models come with locking lids or gaskets.
Consumer Reports, on the other hand, tested four recipes—spare ribs, pulled pork, honey chicken wings, and apple Brown Betty. They found that the price of cookers didn’t seem to predict performance. Editors chose All-Clad’s 9009 6½-Quart Slow Cooker as their top pick with the Crock-Pot 6-Quart Programmable Hinged Smartpot Slow Cooker (no longer available on Amazon) a close second, and the Hamilton Beach 6-Quart Simplicity Slow Cooker ($46) coming in at third.
Although All-Clad’s slow cooker was recommended in both reviews, at $180, I found the price a bit exorbitant. Multiple Amazon reviews mentioned the black ceramic insert cracking and the machine mysteriously breaking. And when I asked O’Dea about her thoughts on cookers, she said that of all the models she’d tried, All-Clad’s was one of her least favorites. “I think All-Clad made a mistake. They need to stick to high-end, and slow cookers don’t need to be high end.”
Indeed, in my own research, I found that programmable models in the $50 to $80 range fared just as well, if not better, than pricier machines made by All-Clad, KitchenAid, and Cuisinart. The more expensive models tended to have a sleeker design, but not much beyond that.
Based on Pellman and O’Dea’s suggestions, along with what I’d read in reviews, I narrowed my choices to cookers that were highly rated in editorial and by Amazon reviewers. I was intrigued by Crock-Pot’s 6½-Quart Programmable Touchscreen because America’s Test Kitchen had recommend it so highly, and it has every feature I wanted (except the locking lid) at an affordable price. Hamilton Beach’s 6-Quart Programmable Set ‘n Forget, on the other hand, has a sturdy latching lid, the heat probe, and handy cord storage (a feature lacking in many cookers).
These were the two to test.
Earlier, I mentioned that a universal complaint for most modern slow cookers is that they run too hot, even on the low setting. Ideally, the cooking liquid should simmer between roughly 190 degrees and somewhere below the boiling point of 212 degrees (America’s Test Kitchen found this to be the best range). This low, moist heat helps dissolve connective tissues in tougher cuts of meat, and breaks down fibrous vegetables and beans. Boiling is a sure path to stringy roasts and dried out sauces.
I contacted Crock-Pot to see if I could get an answer on why so many editorial and Amazon reviewers complain about programmable slow cookers heating up more than the older manual versions. (I also asked Hamilton Beach, but they didn’t respond.) Crock-Pot sent an email stating, “Design changes were brought into slow cookers when the programmable controls were first introduced. Changes made to the wattage at this time did lead to some increased temperature experiences. These temperatures have been reduced and now the wattage and heat varies depending on the size of the slow cooker.”
The heating elements in slow cookers work in a couple of ways, depending on the model. Slow cookers that have low and high settings heat through a series of coils that wrap around the interior sides of the metal shell. Low wattage runs through these coils continuously, heating them, and thereby heating the insert. When the slow cooker flips to a lower setting (low or warm, for example), the machine reduces the output of the heating element. Some other cookers work more like traditional ovens. The coils in these machines, which have precise degree dials, are located at the base of the metal shell. Electricity cycles on and off to maintain a constant temperature. The cookers I’m covering here (besides the multi-use cookers I’ll mention in “The Competition,” below) all fall into the first category.
Right out of the box, I could see that the Crock-Pot Touchscreen is more compact and sleeker overall than the Hamilton Beach Set ‘n Forget. The Touchscreen’s electronic interface is also just a little more elegant than the buttons on the Set ‘n Forget. However, because the Touchscreen doesn’t have a locking lid or gasket, the lid rattled around, even when moving the cooker slightly on the counter.
I appreciated that I could clamp down the Set ‘n Forget’s lid and securely move the cooker from one part of my apartment to another. I did notice a plastic smell coming off the silicone gasket on the lid. (Many Amazon reviewers also complained about this.) Once I cooked in the machine the gasket absorbed the odors of the food—slightly unpleasant, but not a deal breaker.
In each machine, I cooked a 4-pound rump roast. I tested the heat probe in the Hamilton Beach Set ‘n Forget and, like some other reviewers, I found the probe a little awkward; the probe isn’t very long and I had a hard time determining if I’d reached the center of the roast. This could be a problem for smaller cuts of meat. However, the probe would be particularly useful for a whole chicken that needs to be cooked through. After 8 hours, the roasts from both cookers were fork-tender.
Next, I tested a three-bean vegetarian chili. I wanted to make sure both machines would evenly cook presoaked pintos, cannelinis, and black beans. After 6 hours on the low setting, the beans were still pretty tough, so I cranked the heat up to high. After about an hour, both cookers were simmering, with perky little air bubbles forming at the edges of each crock. In another hour, the beans from both crocks came out tender and the chili quite tasty.
Still itching to find the exact temperatures where these cookers work, I filled each crock with 4 quarts of water and measured the temperature of the water every half hour on both the low and high settings. After six hours on low, the water in the Set ‘n Forget leveled out at 192 degrees, while the Touchscreen hovered at 185 degrees (America’s Test Kitchen found the Touchscreen reached 190 degrees on low). On the high setting, after four and a half hours the Set ‘n Forget leveled out at 207 degrees and the Touchscreen at 205 degrees.
Both machines passed the heat test.
A Step Down
I did find promising reviews for several other 6- and 7- quart cookers (beyond Crock-Pot’s 6½-Quart Programmable Touchscreen), a couple smaller machines, and a few multi-cookers. Yet for various reasons none of these really competed with the Hamilton Beach 6-Quart Programmable Set ‘n Forget.
In terms of 6- to 7-quart models, the Crock-Pot 6-Quart Programmable Cook & Carry ($49.50) has a locking lid with a gasket, a 20-hour timer, and predominantly positive reviews on Amazon. Yet a Wired review complained that the insert doesn’t fit into the heating element snuggly, which one Amazon reviewer echoed: “The bowl also moves around quite a bit—it doesn’t seem to be sized correctly and because of this, the heating isn’t very uniform.”
The Hamilton Beach 6-Quart Simplicity Slow Cooker ($46) comes with a 14-hour timer and dial for heat settings—a nice compromise if you want a programmable cooker with the simplicity of manual controls. This model also has a silicone gasket and comes with a strap to secure the lid. Yet this feature doesn’t seem as sturdy as an actual locking lid, and I could imagine myself easily losing the strap.
You’ll also find multi-use cookers that braise, roast, sear, and steam, such as the West Bend Versatility Slow Cooker ($60) or the much pricier Ninja Cooking System ($160). I didn’t find that these competed purely as slow cookers, but a hybrid machine could be nice if you live in a small space—such as a boat, small apartment, or dorm room—where you could use an extra burner.
Wrapping it up
Regardless of which slow cooker you ultimately choose, both Pellman Good and O’Dea recommend first using the machine while you’re home. “Pay attention to how it’s working,” says Pellman Good. “If you’ve got a hot, fast one, you’ll know you need to adapt your recipes and habits in using it.”
With its locking lid, heat probe, and $30 cheaper price tag, the Hamilton Beach 6-Quart Programmable Set ‘n Forget ultimately wins out over the Crock-Pot’s 6½-Quart Programmable Touchscreen. Save the extra cash and buy yourself a pot roast.
"Slow-Cooker Revolution", America's Test KitchenA slow cooker should produce perfect results on all settings. We simmered pot roast on low. Nine hours later, we variously uncovered dry, tough meat; meat that disintegrated; and juicy meat in rich, beefy sauce. On high, we prepared a meat sauce full of tomatoes, sausage, flank steak, and pork ribs—what Italian-Americans call Sunday gravy. As well as extra-thick sauces and watery ones, we encountered moist, tender ribs and beef, and shrunken, tough meat. We reasoned that heat variations probably were responsible for the differences.
"Slow Cookers", Consumer Reports, March, 2012The slow cookers that we tested (all with a 6- to 7-quart capacity) turned out tasty spare ribs, pulled pork, honey chicken wings, and apple brown Betty. Prices, which ranged from $40 to $250, didn't predict performance.
"New Takes on Slow-Cooking Tech", WIRED, August, 2011If you already have a slow cooker, there's a good chance it used to belong to your parents. Because older models consist of little more than a pot and a heating element, they tend to last forever. Newer designs with programmable electronics and other added features may wear out faster—especially units with nonstick metal pots. Those surface treatments can be damaged by metal utensils, eventually wear off, and can be toxic if they get into your food. Of course, stone pots will shatter if dropped. So before buying, it's good to look into the availability of replacement pots; some manufacturers are better about that than others.