The Best Slow Cooker
When it comes to a reliable, easy-to-use slow cooker, I'd invest in the $58 Hamilton Beach 6-Quart Programmable Set 'n Forget. We first picked the Set ‘n Forget last year, and the updated model won again in our recent tests. It’s not fancy, but the intuitive interface, locking lid, and modest price make it the best deal for your money. It’s also the only slow cooker that comes with a heat probe to monitor the doneness of roasts and check the temperature of any other dishes you make, which we think makes it especially practical.
We should mention that we don’t think there’s a perfect slow cooker on the market. After more than 58 hours of research and testing, we found that every model has particular flaws, and most of these machines—ranging from $30 to $180—seem to cook too hot. However, the Set ‘n Forget out-performed much more expensive models, and once we started asking experts, it kept cropping up as a favorite.
How slow cookers work
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 we’re covering here (besides the multi-use cookers we mention in “The Competition,” below) all fall into the first category.
If you’re a child 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.
Slow and low is the name of the game for braising, which gives these meals their unctuous, fork-tender consistency. Yet we 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.
We contacted Crock-Pot to see if we 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. (We 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.”
How we picked
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).
We focused our 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.
To find out what to look for in a slow cooker, we spoke to two bestselling slow-cooker cookbook authors: Phyllis Pellman Good, author of the New York Times best-selling Set-It And Forget-It cookbook series, and 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. They recommended programmable models with timers, locking lids, and a silicone gasket to prevent spills.
Armed with this criteria, we scoured every review we 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, we found the price a bit exorbitant. Multiple Amazon reviews mentioned the black ceramic insert cracking and the machine mysteriously breaking. And when we 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 our own research, we 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.
For our original testing, in the spring of 2013, we decided to test the Crock-Pot 6½-Quart Programmable Touchscreen and the Hamilton Beach’s 6-Quart Programmable (A33697A) Set ‘n Forget (which was highly recommended by both Good and O’Dea).
In the intervening year, Hamilton Beach introduced a new model of the Set ‘n Forget (the A33969A) and we read good things about the Crock-Pot Cook & Carry ($39), which also has a locking lid, and comes with a temperature gauge that’s supposed to show how hot food is inside the crock. We opted to include both of these in our second round of testing.
How we tested
Earlier, we 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.
To determine how hot each of the machines cooked, we 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.
We then tested for hot spots by cooking a batch of beans in each machine, noting whether the beans cooked evenly and how much liquid evaporated over a span of six to eight hours. In our original test, we also cooked 4-pound rump roasts in the Hamilton Beach Set ‘n Forget and the Crock-Pot Programmable Touchscreen.
Additionally, we judged whether the programmable timers were easy to use, whether the hardware felt sturdy, and if there were any quirks in the design that made the cookers difficult or impractical to use.
Although the Hamilton Beach 33939A Set ‘n Forget Programmable Slow Cooker isn’t the most luxurious slow cooker out there, it does everything it should at a very modest price. It has a great, intuitive interface, it cooks at true slow-cooking temperatures, the locking lid makes it super portable, and the heat probe sets it apart from every other slow cooker currently available. We also like that the Set ‘n Forget has an alarm that rings at the start and end of the cooking cycle.
The Set ‘n Forget’s digital interface was the easiest to program. On the manual setting, you simply enter a cooking time and temperature (low or high), and at the end of the cooking cycle the machine kicks over to the warming setting. If using the heat probe, the machine cooks until the meat has reached a specified temperature, then switches to the warming setting. We like how much flexibility this interface gives you, so you can cook for exactly the time specified in a recipe. In contrast, we disliked that the Crock-Pot Cook & Carry had preset cooking times (no manual setting). We also prefered the Set ‘n Forget’s buttons to the touchscreen control panel on the Crock-Pot Touchscreen.
The Set ‘n Forget has a 14-hour timer—meaning the machine will turn off after 14 hours, whether still cooking or on the warm setting. Some people want a slow cooker with a longer timer (those cooking for the Sabbath, for example), but for food safety reasons we wouldn’t recommend leaving food at the warming setting for too long. As Phyllis Pellman Good told us: “Most recipes I work with I would say have a maximum cooking time of about 8 hours. I am always nervous about food safety, and there are food safety issues to letting food sit at warm all day.”
In our tests, the Set ‘n Forget consistently cooked at or just below a modest simmer—perfect for braising meats and vegetables. After six hours on the low setting, water heated to a steady 190°; after 3 hours on on high it leveled off at 210°. (The other cookers we tested also passed our heat test.)
The Set ‘n Forget’s sturdy locking lid makes it great for travel, or even to safely move the full crock from one part of the kitchen to another. We also think this design will give you more peace of mind if you have small children or rowdy pets in the house. Although we also liked the locking lid on the Crock-Pot Cook & Carry, the instructions for this model say not to lock the lid while cooking (only while traveling). The Crock-Pot Touchscreen doesn’t have a locking lid or gasket and we found that it rattled every time we moved it slightly on the counter. We wouldn’t feel comfortable transporting this cooker anywhere.
Although we found the Set ‘n Forget’s heat probe a tad short to stick into small roasts, we do think this feature is really useful for cooking larger pieces of meat. One end of the probe plugs into the cooker and the other sticks through a hole in the lid so you can insert it into a roast. The internal temperature of the roast pops up on the digital interface, so you don’t need to continually lift the lid to take the temperature with a regular meat thermometer (as you’d need to do with any other cooker). We could see this being a very useful feature when cooking a whole chicken or other large cuts.
We appreciate the modest alarm that sound when the Set ‘n Forget starts and ends cooking. This made it easy to program the machine and know that the cooking cycle had actually started. We disliked that there was no such alarm on the Crock-Pot Cook n’ Carry; we didn’t know whether this machine had really started cooking until the first minute had counted down on the timer.
The Hamilton Beach Set ‘n Forget Programmable Slow Cooker was recommended as a budget pick by Consumer Reports and receives 4.3 stars of 344 Amazon user reviews (and the prior model gets 4.2 stars of a whopping 1,818 user reviews).
Flaws but not deal breakers
As we mentioned before, we don’t think there’s a perfect slow cooker, and the Hamilton Beach 33939A Set ‘n Forget Programmable Slow Cooker is no exception. We wish the heat probe was longer. We had a hard time determining if it had reached the center of our small, 4 pound roast.
We also wish the 24-inch plug were a few inches longer, which would make it easier to use on a crowded counter where there might not be room right next to the outlet.
There are tiny differences between this latest model and the older version of the Set ‘n Forget — the interface looks slightly different (although all the same information is there). The handles could also be nicer. A latch to lock the lid folds out from each handle and there’s not much to grab onto. This is a new design from the older Set ‘n Forget, and we prefer the prior model’s wider handles. We also preferred the more ample handles on both Crock-Pot models we tested.
We did read some Amazon complaints about the Set ‘n Forget’s timer randomly shutting off after only 9, 10, or 12 hours . This is clearly a defect in those machines, but we don’t think it’s a widespread enough problem to discount this model. In fact, all of the slow cooker models we looked at receive a certain number of complaints about defective electronics and crocks cracking.
If you need a longer timer
Overall, we think the Touchscreen is a nice machine and we actually found it to be sleeker and more compact than the Set ‘n Forget. However, we didn’t find that it cooked any better than our top pick (which also happens to be $30 cheaper). We also didn’t like that the lid rattles if you move this cooker. This Touchscreen was recommended by America’s Test Kitchen and receives 4.1 stars of 566 Amazon user reviews.
A Step Down
We didn’t like the control panel on the Crock-Pot Cook & Carry. There are only four pre-programmed settings: 8 or 10 hours at low, or 4 or 6 hours at high. We think this is too constrictive, and prefer a manual setting where you can choose the cooking time and temperature. We also don’t think the touted temperature gauge is all that useful. It doesn’t actually give temperatures, just a color coding of cold to hot. If the intention is to actually determine if food is in the safety zone, this color coding doesn’t tell you anything, really. With the Hamilton Beach, at least you can find out the temperature with the heat probe. The Crock-Pot Cook & Carry was recommended by CNET and receives 4.1 stars of 152 Amazon user reviews.
Other models we considered but dismissed:
Crock Pot SCVC604HSS 6-Quart Programmable Hinged Smartpot Slow Cooker — Highly reviewed, but no longer available.
All-Clad 9009 Stainless-Steel 6-1/2-Quart Slow Cooker – Receives poor user reviews. Very expensive compared to competition.
Hamilton Beach 33565 Simplicity 6-Quart Slow Cooker — Didn’t have higher Amazon user reviews. We also didn’t like that this has a latch instead of actual locks for the lid. A Wired review complained that the insert doesn’t fit into the heating element snuggly.
Breville BSC560XL Stainless-Steel 7-Quart Slow Cooker with EasySear Insert – Did not receive better reviews than what we tested.
KitchenAid 6-qt. Slow Cooker with Flip Lid – Very expensive and doesn’t receive better reviews than those we tested.
Hamilton Beach 6-Quart Slow cooker – If you want a cooker with manual controls, this may be a good option. Yet we prefer the digital controls on the Set ‘n Forget and other cookers we tested.
Hamilton Beach Stovetop-Safe Programmable Slow Cooker — The die-cast aluminum insert allows you to brown meat in the crock, but this hasn’t received enough positive reviews to compete with those we tested.
Cuisinart 4-Quart Programmable Slow Cooker - Expensive for its size. We read complaints about the insert breaking and hard-to-read temperature indicator.
Calphalon 4-Qt. Digital Slow Cooker – Expensive and not more highly reviewed than the Crock-Pot SCV400B 4-Quart manual we chose.
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). We 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.
What makes a good slow cooker
To lock down the essential features a slow cooker should have, we 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, we 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.
We 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. We’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. We still think the advantages of a programmable cooker outweigh this feature, though.
To our surprise, Good recommended using a model with a heat probe. We’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 we tested, including the Hamilton Beach Set ‘n Forget, come with this warranty, so it didn’t really factor into our overall decision-making process. The limited warranty doesn’t cover the ceramic crock or glass lid (they’ll only fix manufacturer’s defects to the electronics for free).
We tried Hamilton Beach’s customer service line and got a friendly representative on the line in about 5 minutes. We told her there was a chip in the crock, and she said that although the warranty wouldn’t cover the issue, she’d send us a replacement for the price of shipping ($7). Although we think it’s a little bogus that the crock and lid aren’t covered, we did find Hamilton Beach’s customer service helpful and we appreciate that the call center rep was in the States.
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.”
We think the Hamilton Beach 33939A Set ‘n Forget Programmable Slow Cooker does everything you want a slow cooker to do at a very manageable price. It’s locking lid makes it great for travel, and the heat probe will help guarantee you get those roasts cooked right every time.
"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.
Originally published: April 30, 2013