The slow cooker just might be the king of all set-and-forget kitchen technology. Just throw some ingredients in the pot, set the temperature, and go about your day. Your roast/chicken/chili/stew will be waiting for you later.
As simple as they may seem, today's slow cookers boast a range of prices and features. Not only that, but some do a much better job preparing food than others.
Life is too short to eat bad grub, so we put our testers to work in the BestReviews kitchen. Our mission: to evaluate five of the market's most popular slow cookers and judge their worth using our uncompromising test rig and one very delicious pot roast recipe.
In the BestReviews test kitchen, we put our five select slow cookers through a 12-hour test regimen.
Each unit was loaded with the ingredients for “Savory Pot Roast with Orange.” (See below.)
As the meat cooked, we assessed four performance categories: temperature, finished dish, keep warm function, and mobility.
Slow cookers prepare foods by “braising.” Braising is the slow, low-temp, moist method of applying heat in order to break down tough meat fibers and weaken vegetable cell structures. The ideal result: moist meat and soft vegetables.
A slow cooker's temperature shouldn't rise above approximately 180 degrees Fahrenheit, else the outside layer of meat will overcook to the point of stringy, tasteless dryness and the inner portion will not have cooked long enough to attain its ideal creamy softness.
In the BestReviews lab, we obtained temperature readings at the following intervals: one hour, two hours, four hours, six hours, and nine hours from the start. We noted the pace at which each product heated up and at what temperature it lingered (“constancy”) during the cooking portion of the test.
At the conclusion of the test period, we checked the meat and other ingredients for the desired “fork tender” quality.
Each cut of beef was considered done at an internal temperature between 155 and 170 degrees F. Where different parts of the cut registered at different temps, we tested for “doneness” by pulling apart meat fibers with a fork.
We assessed the appearance of each pot roast by looking at the color of the beef, outside and in, and the condition of the accompanying ingredients. Perfectly braised beef is dark on the outside and pink on the inside.
The taste of each finished dish was rated based on “mouthfeel,” texture, and whether the dish presented a pleasing combination of flavors.
A slow cooker must be able to keep finished food warm without overcooking it. The ideal temperature range for holding hot foods is between 135 and 155 degrees Fahrenheit.
We tested each unit's temperature at the one- and two-hour mark after the machine switched (automatically or manually) to “Keep Warm" to see if it adhered to our ideal.
We also considered other features and functions. For example, some models include the ability to brown or sautée food before slow cooking. We tested this feature on both the West Bend and our "Best of the Best" pick, the Cuisinart. We found the Cuisinart to brown food excellently, while the West Bend was only mediocre.
Once a dish is prepared in a slow cooker, the unit is often moved to a remote location for serving, such as a table or buffet. We tested each unit for handle sturdiness, housing temperature, lid integrity, and whether liquids were prone to leak from the insert when moved.
Susan Sano Tuveson has been cooking for people for five decades. Educated in music, law, and languages, she left her legal practice to establish Cacao Chocolates in Kittery, Maine. A three-time Best of Seacoast New England winner, the shop was popular for its high-quality artisanal truffles flavored with unusual local ingredients.
The Good: Good performance and easy mobility. Diverse programming features and cool housing/handles. Medium-size counter footprint.
The Bad: Expensive. Might be too large for smaller kitchens.
Bottom Line: Though pricier than its competitors, the quality of workmanship and performance are worth the price. Three functions — saute/brown, steam, and slow cook — make it surprisingly versatile.
The Cuisinart Cook Central 3-in-1 passed our temperature tests with flying colors. Programmed for nine hours of slow cooking, our pot roast warmed gently in the unit, attaining an ideal average temperature of 175 degrees F in about three hours.
We set the Cuisinart to 400 degrees for searing, and it maintained a reading of 398 degrees — well within the acceptable margin of error for our infrared measuring device. After about 15 minutes at this setting, the roast achieved a beautiful dark golden crust.
The Keep Warm function automatically switched on at the conclusion of cooking time, registering a 152-degree temperature (very safe) at the two-hour point.
The Cuisinart Cook Central was one of the most feature-rich models we tested. Among its qualities:
We're especially impressed by the Cuisinart's saute/brown feature. Any cut of meat could be browned on the stove top first, but the Cuisinart eliminates this inconvenience with the touch of a button. In fact, we're confident that this feature was the prime reason why the Cuisinart meal scored first place on our “Finished Dish” test. The meat was appetizingly succulent, and the vegetables were perfectly cooked and colorful.
In terms of counter space, the 16-pound, six-quart Cuisinart Cook Central doesn't take up as much room as some others we tested. The sleek, brushed stainless steel exterior with black trim would look great with any kitchen décor. We think that's a good thing, because once you see how useful this product is, you'll probably want to keep it on hand at all times.
During the course of our consumer research, we found that owners are just as impressed by this product as we are. People love the Cuisinart for its versatility as a one-pot meal prep source, often citing the benefits of its browning feature and cool, sturdy plastic handles. They tend to agree that, although the $121 Cuisinart is pricey, it is well worth it.
The Good: Affordable. Great for smaller families. Even, consistent cooking and delicious results.
The Bad: Takes up more counter space than some other units. Loose-fitting lid could be hazardous. Narrow range of temperatures among high and low settings.
Bottom Line: All the basics to make a good meal at a bargain price. Rated #3 in our kitchen test.
The Proctor Silex 33043 heated slowly and gently during the course of our nine-hour pot roast prep, as is recommended for successful slow cooking.
At the one-hour mark, the temperature registered at 144 degrees F. The heat rose slowly and steadily from there, reaching a maximum of 187 degrees over the test period. At the end of nine hours, our roast displayed a medium dark brown exterior with cooked pink fibers in the middle.
During the Keep Warm phase of our test, we manually set the knob to “Warm” and measured the temperature at the two-hour mark. The reading was 155 degrees — well within food safety guidelines.
The portion of contents removed from the unit at the conclusion of the cooking time was fork tender, meltingly soft, and pleasantly flavored by the vegetables and herb seasonings. The result was rated #3 in taste and appearance.
In addition to proper heating and a tasty final product, the Proctor Silex boasts some other attractive features:
Owners cite a few product drawbacks which may or may not be deal-breakers. The most significant complaint is the fact that the loose, sometimes ill-fitting lid could be a potential safety hazard. Some owners also note that the edge of the housing and insert can grow dangerously hot.
Because of its round shape and 11.8-inch diameter, this slow cooker takes up more counter space than some oval models. It's a decidedly no-frills design with a black matte metal housing and minimalist control knob.
Nevertheless, our consumer research revealed that the majority of owners are pleased with their Proctor Silex slow cooker. For a family of two or three, the four-quart capacity is just about perfect. For a family on a budget, the $14 price and delectable results are enough to make your mouth water.
The Good: Feature-rich: programmable time and temperature, probe thermometer attachment, clear glass rubber gasket lid with clips atop a removable crock, and automatic Keep Warm mode.
The Bad: In temperature testing, high and low settings were virtually the same. Keep Warm temperature is too hot. The gasket lid is difficult to seat, and the crock insert and housing can become untouchably warm during operation. Size may eat up counter space in smaller kitchens.
Bottom Line: Food quality may suffer due to over-cooking. Use of the probe could mitigate the problem by keeping the user aware of internal food temperatures.
When programmed on low for nine hours, the Hamilton Beach slowly heated to temperature, reaching an active low boil at 190 degrees Fahrenheit two hours before finish time. Upon automatic switch to Keep Warm mode, the temperature lingered at an average of 190 degrees for two hours, overcooking the contents.
As a result, the vegetables retained their color and some flavor, but they fell apart. The meat was soft but tasteless.
Note: In Probe mode, the Hamilton Beach immediately switched to Keep Warm when the internal temperature of the meat contents reached our chosen setting. But from Probe to Keep Warm, the temperature registered at 180 degrees, which was far too hot.
We weren't happy with how hot the exterior of the Hamilton Beach became during use. And obviously, we weren't happy with our dinner results, either. But the Hamilton Beach does possess some redeeming qualities:
Our consumer research revealed extremes of satisfaction and dissatisfaction with very little in between. On the positive side, people like this slow cooker's generous size and ease of programming. On the negative side, owners cite concerns about operation and quality. The overcooking of food is one such concern.
We do note that unhappy consumers who have contacted Hamilton Beach for redress have generally been satisfied with their customer service.
At a cost of $49, this mid-priced slow cooker offers a range of useful programmable features, many of which are not included by direct competitors. The stainless and black trim is certainly attractive, and the unit is easy to care for. While wider than many brands, its oval shape makes it possible to position the unit farther back on the counter.
Consumers report that the Hamilton Beach can turn out succulent whole chickens, roasts, stews, and soups. While we did not experience such culinary success during our testing, we acknowledge that it is possible for the product to cook food adequately.
The Good: Digital programmable controls for time and temperature include countdown settings from 30 minutes to 20 hours. Unit shifts to Keep Warm automatically. Large handles make it easy to carry. Clips secure the lid to prevent spills. Removable ceramic crock and glass lid are dishwasher safe. Excellent flavor results in kitchen tests.
The Bad: Keep Warm factory setting is too warm and may continue to cook food. Lid clips are awkward when not fastened to unit.
Bottom Line: This cooker has digital controls but few other frills, yet its final results are better than the similarly priced Hamilton Beach, and it can feed as many as seven people. This company has been around for 35 years and knows its business.
Our pot roast recipe fared well when set to cook in the Crock Pot Original on Low for nine hours. The insert heated slowly and evenly, reaching a stable cooking temperature at the six-hour mark. At nine hours, the unit automatically switched to Keep Warm mode, registering a temperature of 170 degrees at the two-hour point. This temp will keep food wholesome, but it is higher than the recommended range of 135 - 155 degrees, and as such, it may continue to cook the contents for longer than desired.
Even so, the final dish scored #2 in taste and appearance. The beef was creamy, soft, and flavorful; the veggies were colorful and firm, yet thoroughly cooked.
The Crock Pot Original's desirable features include the following:
Some consumers bought this particular Crock Pot model to replace an older, single-knob version that was too small to accommodate large cuts of meat, whole chickens, and full rib racks. These consumers found the newer Crock Pot model to be much improved, especially in the areas of heating ability and cleaning ease.
Some consumers have registered complaints that did not bear out in our kitchen testing. The primary concerns were that the Crock Pot's housing becomes too hot to touch and that the Low setting produces a rolling boil in the crock.
In the BestReviews test kitchen, we found the exterior housing to be warm but not uncomfortably so, and the barely active “simmer” on Low at the six-hour mark was exactly what we hoped to see.
Another common consumer complaint targets the quality of the crock insert and its likeliness to crack or chip. We experienced no such issues during testing.
On balance, this six-quart model from the beloved Crock Pot brand produces good results for a moderate investment of $39. The features, though not plentiful, target the functions most users want. Sturdy construction and everyday practicality make it a good choice for the money.
The Good: Heating base doubles as a nonstick mini griddle. Meat can be browned in the pot before switching to a lower temperature for slow cooking. Parts are dishwasher safe.
The Bad: Lid is ill-fitting and does not keep moisture contained. Aluminum pot sits loosely on griddle surface. Unit becomes dangerously hot during operation. Must manually unplug for “Off."
Bottom Line: The West Bend is a versatile cooker that lives up to its multi-functional promise, but not every function performs as well as it should.
Like some pricier brands, the West Bend 5-quart Oblong Slow Cooker has the capacity to brown cuts of meat before being set to slow cook.
In our test kitchen, the browning function worked moderately well. The unit heated up quickly, but it needed to be steadied while searing in order for the pot to stay on the base. The West Bend's small handles, made of the same material as its insert, complicated this task.
Set on Low, our ingredients quickly rose to 155 degrees. The heat increased steadily to a finish temperature of 178 degrees at the nine-hour point.
During the “Warm” phase, we dialed the heat down to level "2" for an eventual reading of 145 degrees. This temperature was hot enough to inhibit bacteria growth, but our dinner was in no danger of becoming overcooked.
As for appearance and taste, the finished roast was medium to dark brown with a pale pink interior. The meat approached our desired soft texture, but an additional hour of heat could have brought it a little closer to perfection. The vegetables cooked nicely, holding their shape and color.
The West Bend is smaller than most slow cookers, yet it still whips up five quarts of food — enough to feed six people or more. We note these additional features, which may be of interest to potential buyers:
We have a few practical concerns about the West Bend. In two identical units tested, we had difficulty connecting the power cord to the base. Also, the absence of a housing around the cooking pot means there's no insulation to promote even temperature distribution. In fact, our test data indicate that each temperature reading fluctuated as much as 20 degrees at different positions in the interior of the pot.
In addition, the lid is difficult to seat securely on the insert. Transporting the West Bend could be difficult without a box or carrier to steady it.
Although it's not a flaw per se, we'd also like to point out that the West Bend has a non-stick surface that could very well break down and release unsafe particles into food when exposed to extreme heat. In this particular case, we believe that could happen sooner than later, especially in kitchens where the brown/sautée setting is used often.
Our consumer research unearthed customer opinions both positive and negative. On the positive side, the West Bend is small, lightweight, easy to store, and easy to move from stove top to base. On the negative side, the power cord has been known to cause difficulties, the lid doesn't adhere securely to the pot, the griddle function leaves something to be desired, and the non-stick coating tends to crack.
In summary, the West Bend may not appeal to everyone. The manufacturer certainly tried to make this a useful, versatile appliance, but we believe that the $52 price far outweighs the quality, construction, and performance of the West Bend. There are better choices out there that cost less.
Offering three fully programmable cooking modes — Slow, Steam, and Saute/Brown — the 6-Quart Cuisinart 3-in-1 Multi-functional Cook Central presents the best choice among our tested brands.
The high-quality, non-stick, high-conductivity aluminum insert can withstand temperatures up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The unit can be programmed for time and temperature, which is a godsend for busy families with little time to stand over a stove. After cooking, the Cuisinart Cook Central switches automatically to Warm, holding food at a safe temperature until you’re ready to eat.
Yes, it’s expensive. But for your big bucks, you get a big bang. Good quality, durable construction, blue backlit digital touch pad and display, steaming rack, stay-cool handles and housing for easy mobility, plus a stylish brushed stainless exterior — whew! This is worthy cooking tool you’ll rely on again and again. Rated #1 in BestReviews Kitchen testing
The Crock Pot Original Slow Cooker is not over-featured, but it's not quite a "bargain basement" product, either. When you look at the competition, however, it's definitely the Best Bang for Your Buck.
The Crock Pot produced excellent, flavorful results that were second only to the expensive Cuisinart model we tested. It’s easy to use, reasonably priced, and very good for transit — a great choice for potluck dishes.
The Crock Pot's excellent combination of performance and price make it a very smart purchase. That said, bargain seekers might also look at the inexpensive Proctor Silex 33043, which is a screamingly good deal considering its performance. It's not at the top of the slow cooker list by any stretch, but it offers a low-overhead way to experiment with slow cooking.
Serves 6 - 8
Large cuts of meat become meltingly tender when the collagen fibers turn to gelatin after cooking for many hours at low temperature. The addition of vegetables and fresh herbs contribute depth of flavor to the pan juices released during cooking. For best flavor, allow the tender meat to reabsorb juices by cooling all in the cooking liquid. (Caveat: busy families can eat very well without this step.)
Place all the ingredients in the slow cooker, making sure the insert is at least half full. Cover and set on Low for 8-9 hours. Roast is done when meat is easily pulled with a fork.