Humans have enjoyed the convenience and deep flavors of slow-cooked meals for millennia. While few people keep bubbling perpetual stews anymore, the spirit of this method stays alive in the form of modern slow cookers.
The slow cooker revolutionized kitchens in the 1970s before declining in popularity in the following decades. After modern innovations and the culinary internet boom, slow cookers have made a strong comeback.
Over 83% of homes now have a slow cooker. They’re the perfect way to cut down on labor time while cooking hearty meals, such as a traditional pot roast.
Thanks to their popularity, there is a huge range of slow cookers available on the market. Choosing the right one for you can be daunting, as you’ll need to figure out what you’re looking for in a slow cooker.
In this guide, we’ll make things simple. We’ll explain what to look for in a slow cooker and how to choose one. We’ll also give you our top picks for the best slow cookers of 2021.
Our Top Picks: Summary
- Best Overall: KitchenAid 6-Quart Slow Cooker
- Best Budget: Black + Decker 7-Quart Slow Cooker
- Most Versatile: All-Clad 7-Quart Slow Cooker
- Best Features: Hamilton Beach 6-Quart Temp Tracker
- Best Portable: Crock-Pot Cook & Carry Slow Cooker
The Best Slow Cookers: Our Top Picks
Why We Picked It
For our Best Overall category, we’ve chosen the KitchenAid 6-quart Slow Cooker for its simple yet elegant balance of features and affordable price.
The KitchenAid comes in two variants, both with a 6-quart capacity. The Standard Lid variant features the usual slow cooker liftable lid, while the Easy Serve variant features a dual-lid hinged design which makes one-handed serving easier. The outer chassis of the cooker is stainless steel, while the vessel is ceramic, giving the cooker consistent heat distribution.
Both variants have the same overall features, with four temperature settings, a programmable timer, and a simple, practical digital display. The timer offers 24-hour programmability in 30-minute increments and will automatically switch to a keep warm mode when the time elapses.
Both models come with a 1-year warranty.
Keep in Mind
While full-featured, the KitchenAid slow cooker lacks a locking lid for portability.
In a Nutshell
- 24-hour programmability
- Variant Easy Serve hinged lid
- 1-year warranty
Why We Picked It
The Black + Decker slow cooker is proof that you don’t have to sacrifice quality to spare your budget.
This 7-quart slow cooker delivers a quality cooking experience with multiple useful features at an affordable price. A sleek digital interface controls the temperature and timer, and the cooker will automatically switch to Warm mode when the cooking cycle is complete. It can also be toggled into Stay-On mode and features three heat settings.
The clip-lock lid makes this model portable for potlucks and tailgate parties. The slow cooker also features a chalkboard surface (chalk included!), so you can write down instructions, recipes, and assorted notes.
The Black + Decker slow cooker comes with a 2-year limited warranty, which will help customers on a budget protect their investment.
Keep in Mind
A locking lid makes this model portable, but it lacks a convenient carry handle.
In a Nutshell
- Clip-lock lid
- Chalkboard surface
- 7-quart capacity
Why We Picked It
For people who need to make efficient use of space, a versatile appliance is often the right choice. We’ve chosen the All-Clad slow cooker for our Most Versatile category.
The All-Clad is a 7-quart slow cooker, which allows for large meals. The controls keep things simple with four buttons and a digital display. There are two temperature modes (high and low) and a keep-warm function. Cooking times can be programmed in for when you’re not around.
The pot and lid are both dishwasher-safe for easy cleanup and the chassis is made of stainless steel.
The All-Clad stands out for having an easy-repair design that should last around 10 years, with parts available from over 6,500 repair centers worldwide.
Keep in Mind
The stainless steel chassis is easy to clean, but its unpainted surface may show dirt easily.
In a Nutshell
- 7 qt capacity
- Easy-repair design
- Programmable timer
Why We Picked It
If you’re looking for all the bells and whistles, you’ll want to take a look at the Hamilton Beach slow cooker.
This 6-qt slow cooker is feature-rich, with programmable controls, multiple cooking functions including a Hold Temperature function, integrated temperature probe, and locking lid. The lid includes four convenient spots to insert the temperature probe, so you can use it no matter what you’re cooking.
The clear yet informative digital display makes it easy to monitor and control the cooker. This display gives you detailed information about your food, including its temperature.
The clip-tight lid makes this model portable, as well, giving it even more versatility, and the lid features a carry handle with an integrated storage area for the thermometer probe.
Keep in Mind
The thermometer probe can be a snag hazard if not stowed in the integrated storage area.
In a Nutshell
- Thermometer probe
- Hold Temperature function
- Informative digital display
A portable slow cooker ideal for tailgates and potlucks.
Why We Picked It
Some shoppers need a slow cooker they can transport, whether it’s for camping, potlucks, or even moving the appliance to make the best use of space in a small kitchen. A portable slow cooker like the Crock-Pot Cook & Carry is ideal for these scenarios.
The Crock-Pot is a 6-quart cooker able to serve over 7 people, so it doesn’t sacrifice capacity for its portability. It features a grip handle for single-hand carrying and a secure-fit lid held in place by heavy-duty locking clips. The power cord can be stowed in the integrated storage space, making a complete, portable package.
This cooker features a set of digital controls with a programmable schedule, and the cooker will switch to a warm setting after the cooking time wraps up. The lid and stoneware are both dishwasher-safe for easy cleaning.
The Crock-Pot is covered by a 1-year limited warranty.
Keep in Mind
Users will need to take when moving the slow cooker, as it still contains fragile glassware.
In a Nutshell
- Portable with carry-handle and secure-locking lid
- Stowable power cord
- 6-quart capacity
How We Chose the Best Slow Cookers
To choose our top picks, we looked at a few key categories to build a complete picture of the model’s performance. Here are some of the categories we use:
Filling your kitchen with appliances can sometimes be counterproductive, so we’ve stuck to slow cookers in the 6+ quarts range. This makes the slow cooker a versatile and essential addition to your kitchen and not another single-use gadget. We note the capacity of each slow cooker model so you can figure out if it will work for your family’s needs.
Slow cookers have an indirect heating method that will show up flaws in the cooker’s design, where they exist. Poor-quality slow cookers may heat unevenly or have exceptionally cold or hot spots. We make sure the cooker’s performance is consistent, offering even, reliable heat throughout the cooking time. The material of the cooker’s vessel may indicate its consistency, so we note the materials used.
In the trend of smart devices, some modern slow cookers offer a huge range of functionality, from programmability and temperature control to thermometers and keep-warm settings.
However, this usually comes with a cost attached. We pay attention to these special features and weigh them against the cooker’s price to see whether it’s justified and to gauge if it’s a worthwhile investment.
One feature we also consider is the cooker’s portability. Many people enjoy bringing a meal along to a potluck or a tailgate party. Slow cookers with lockable lids and convenient carry handles make this much simpler for users.
Most shoppers operate on a budget of some kind and feature-rich slow cookers come with a big price tag. We look at the price and consider it against the performance of the slow cooker to weigh it as an investment. We also consider durability. A slow cooker that lasts a long time will prove a better investment than an expensive but short-lived model.
To get a clear picture of any product’s performance, you need a large data set. Customer reviews offer this data set, letting us know how the slow cooker performs in the wild. Customer reviews highlight key features, common flaws, or notable points about each model.
What is a Slow Cooker?
Slow cookers were invented in the 1950s but came to real prominence in the 1970s under the trademark name Crock-Pot, and many use the genericized form of crock-pot to refer to slow cookers today.
In principle, a slow cooker prepares food by applying a low temperature over a prolonged period of time. The maximum temperature of a slow cooker is usually around 200°F, but many meals can be cooked at lower temperatures with a longer cooking time. A typical example of cooking times is a half-day at a high temperature or a whole day at a medium-to-low temperature. Slow cooker meals are typically high in water content: soups, stews, pot roasts, and casseroles are all examples of ideal slow cooker recipes.
Slow cookers differ from the superficially-similar pressure cooker and Instant Pot. An Instant Pot is a versatile kitchen-gadget with multiple functions, while a pressure cooker is an airtight device that uses steam pressure to cook food.
Unlike most other cooking methods, slow cookers can do their work unattended. They harken back to the days of leaving a stew bubbling over an open fire—a habit which died out with the invention of gas and electric stoves and central heating. Users can prepare a slow cooker meal in the morning or the night before, leave it running all day, and return home to a prepared meal. A slow cooker can also part prepare a meal, such as roasting the meat and leaving only the side dishes left to prepare.
Who Should Buy a Slow Cooker?
Almost anyone can benefit from buying a slow cooker. They’re multi-purpose appliances that offer convenience and luxury meals without being outside the budget of most shoppers.
Anyone on a busy schedule will appreciate the convenience of a slow cooker’s set-and-forget functionality. Programmable slow cookers will have particular appeal for busy people, but even those who would rather be doing something else can leave their slow cooker running while they do other things.
Large families and single meal-preppers alike can benefit from a slow cooker’s ability to make a large amount of food at once, whether the food is eaten immediately or stored as leftovers. This also makes slow cookers popular with people who host guests. With a slow cooker, you can be ready for dinner guests even after a day spent at work.
While often overlooked, slow cookers also have an excellent safety record, which can make them perfect for families with small children or pets. Meals can be left to cook unattended without exposed hot liquids, open flames, or tempting pan handles.
The people who may need to think twice about a slow cooker are those working with limited kitchen space. A slow cooker can occupy prime real estate on the counter, so they aren’t always suitable for small apartments. And it’s not always easy to contend with an all-day marathon of delicious food smells, either!
Slow cookers can cook a wide variety of food, including common meal staples like:
- Soups, stews, chilis, and ragus (and other liquid-based dishes)
- Meat, which can be braised, stewed, or roasted
What is the Difference Between a Slow Cooker and a Crock-Pot?
You may have heard the terms slow cooker and crock-pot used interchangeably. You may wonder if there’s a minor technical difference between the two that sets them apart.
In fact, there’s no such difference. Like xerox or q-tip, crock-pot is a genericized form of an original brand name. The original Crock-Pot was invented in the 1970s, based on the earlier concept of a slow cooker invented in the 50s as a tool for cooking beans. In this branded form, the Crock-Pot became popular enough that the brand became synonymous with the product. Pedantically, slow cooker remains the correct name for these devices. The trademark for Crock-Pot remains in place to this day, so most models are sold as slow cookers.
What to Consider When Choosing a Slow Cooker
To make the right choice when buying a slow cooker, you’ll need to keep a few things in mind. Consider the following when making your purchase:
A range of considerations will determine which size slow cooker will suit you, including your family size, available space, and fondness for leftovers. Most shoppers will want to aim for something in the 6-7 quart range unless they’re working with limited space. This is a good size for feeding multiple people or making multiple portions, and it’s always possible to make smaller meals in a larger cooker— which isn’t true of the inverse.
The most basic slow cookers use untimed controls. The user manually sets the cooker on or off by switching to the desired temperature. But part of the lure of a slow cooker is the convenience factor. A programmable slow cooker allows you to prepare a meal even if you’re away all day, without risking the quality of the meal. Many buyers consider programmability an essential feature of a modern slow cooker.
The inner pot of a slow cooker can be made from several different materials, such as ceramic, metal, or porcelain. Ceramic pots typically retain heat better and ensure an even distribution of heat throughout the cooking process, while metal ones sometimes come with non-stick surfaces which make them easier to clean. They may also be preferred for users who want a pot that will sear and brown meat.
Some shoppers will find a basic slow cooker suitable for their needs, while others may opt for special features. Common special features include thermometers, programmable timers, and locking lids. If you’re on a budget, then figuring out which special features matter the most to you may help ease your decision. For instance, if you want a slow cooker you can take with you, then portable special features like a locking lid and carry handle will be high on your list of priorities.
Slow cookers are within reach of most shoppers, even those on a budget. Cheaper slow cookers can be found in the $30-$40 range, and high-end models reach into the hundreds of dollars. However, you aren’t guaranteed better quality for the price with a slow cooker. Even the most expensive slow cookers have much the same functionality, though they may have one or two more special features.
Lower-end slow cookers tend to be smaller and more basic, while higher-end cookers may include special features like detailed digital displays and food thermometers. Most function at about the same level when preparing food, so paying extra won’t always make sense.
How to Care for a Slow Cooker
To make the best use out of your slow cooker and ensure that it lives a long life, you should take care to treat it right. Here are a few tips for getting the most out of your slow cooker:
- Don’t add cold water to a hot cooker: Materials expand when they’re hot. Rapid cooling causes them to shrink again, which puts stress on the material when it happens suddenly. This can shorten the lifespan of the slow cooker’s vessel and lead to inconsistent heat distribution.
- Don’t quench your pot or put it in the fridge: Likewise, plunging your pot into cold water or placing it in the fridge (particularly while still warm) will lead to similar stresses. Allow your pot to cool by itself and transfer the leftovers to a separate container before refrigerating.
- Don’t leave food on warm for too long: A slow cooker’s warm setting is perfect for keeping your food at an edible temperature after cooking, but don’t abuse it. This will waste energy, use up your cooker’s lifespan, and present possible food hygiene risks.
- Don’t lock the lid while cooking: While it may seem efficient to lock the lid while cooking to create a tight seal, slow cookers aren’t designed to be air-tight like pressure cookers. Some steam will naturally escape a slow cooker and this prevents pressure build-up inside the slow cooker.
- Clean it the right way: Don’t use abrasives while cleaning your slow cooker pot. Instead, let tough residue soak and wipe it clean with soap and water. For stubborn, baked-on food, use a natural abrasive like baking soda.
- Read the manual: It’s not exciting, but your slow cooker’s manual will contain your manufacturer’s recommended usage instructions. This will include details like whether your slow cooker is safe to use without liquids and other tips that will prolong your slow cooker’s life.
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