Once relegated to the realms of "mom-cooking" and Super Bowl parties, slow cookers have now, finally, found mainstream acceptance. Makes sense—slow cookers are practical, easy-to-use, make dinner nearly effortless and totally delicious, and, as a bonus, are pretty cheap to boot.
Wait, are they? A quick scan of the slow cooker market reveals models ranging from under $20 to $300. Could a $20 model really do the job? Could a $300 be worth the cash? To answer these questions, there was only one thing to do: we rolled up our sleeves and started cooking. Slowly.
In 2018, we tested eight different models, and determined the Crock Pot Cook & Carry Slow Cooker to be the winner. To update our review in 2019, we tested two other well-rated models, including the KitchenAid Slow Cooker and the Hamilton Beach Set & Forget Slow Cooker with Temperature Probe, and found the Crock Pot to still be on top! You may be wondering how the Instant Pot's slow cooking function fares against designated slow cookers. We tested that, too!
Keep reading to see why the Crock Pot remains our pick for the best slow cooker, and why the other models weren’t quite up to (slow) speed.
1. The Best Slow Cooker Overall: Crock Pot Cook & Carry Slow Cooker
The inexpensive and straightforward Crock Pot produced perfectly tender and very moist fall-apart chicken with a gorgeous, almost clarified broth. The machine is just the right size—not unnecessarily bulky like some other varieties, so you’ll have better odds finding kitchen storage for this one—and the crock insert is lightweight compared to heavier competitors, making it much easier to wash and pour from. It has an automatic warming function that switches on when your cooking is complete, meaning you can leave the machine running even if you'll be gone longer than the time it takes your recipe to cook. The lid has two clamps, creating a tight seal for safe and spill-free transportation, which comes in hand if you’re bringing your slow-cooked foods over to a friend’s house. (On other models, a glass lid sits on top sans clamps or there are overly-complicated clasps and seals that make removing the lid difficult.) The final bonus: the crock is ceramic, so it's naturally nonstick. The fact that it’s ceramic means this model doesn’t have browning capabilities, however, so if that's something you're looking for, keep reading.
2. The Best Slow Cooker If You Want a Browning Function: Cuisinart 4-Quart Multi-Cooker
If you're looking for a slow cooker that has browning functionality, go for the Cuisinart. It produced a tender, delicious chicken that was second only to the Crock Pot's (the two were pretty comparable). Like the Crock Pot, this appliance is easy to use, with a nice display and control panel, and a warming function that switches on automatically. Where is stands apart from the Crock Pot is in its added features: this machine can brown, steam, and sauté. (In our onion test, the onions browned beautifully and evenly.) While not a multi-cooker in the Instant Pot sense of the term (there are no pressure cooking abilities with this thing), this is nevertheless a good option for anybody who wants to slow-cook, saute, and steam all at once. And sure, it's a bit more expensive than the Crock Pot, but what you spend in dollars you'll save in time washing extra searing/steaming dishes.
A Little Note About the Best Slow Cookers
Unlike many of the products we test, the slow cookers exhibited no huge gulf in abilities. No matter if they were expensive or cheap, most of the machines performed adequately, giving us tender, pull-apart chicken. In the end we found that fancy, expensive models aren't necessary; mid-range models from Crock Pot and Cuisinart offer perfect results at reasonable prices. (But do spend more than $20—the $13 Proctor-Silex we tried gave us iffy, congealed results.)
How We Tested
Nothing slow-cooks quite like chicken, so we decided to put every slow cooker to work with this slow cooker chicken recipe (six hours, low heat). Some of the machines had browning capabilities, in which case we browned onions in them to test whether or not the browning function worked properly. We also emptied all of the liquid out of the machines when the chicken was done, to see how much moisture each had been retained in the cooking process.Rhoda Boone
Factors We Evaluated:
Is The Slow Cooker Easy to Use?
How easy is it to operate the machine? How easy is the control panel to navigate?
Does It Make Tender, Delicious Chicken Within the Allotted Time and Following the Slow Cooker-Specific Recipe?
Slow cookers, we discovered, can overcook your meat; we looked for machines that don't. The winning machines turned out chicken that was tender and falling apart, not gummy or weirdly soft.
Is It Easy to Clean?
We looked for machines with easily removable crocks (or pots) that can be cleaned easily in the sink with soap and water, or in the dishwasher. We also wanted a machine that didn't have nooks or crannies that easily trap food, making it more difficult to clean.
How Large & Bulky Is It?
Some of the slow cookers we tested were downright huge. Since this is a piece of kitchenware you probably won't be using every single day, we looked for models that would fit comfortably into storage and wouldn't take up a huge chunk of counter space.
What Extra Features Does the Machine Have?
Does the machine have a browning function? Does it automatically stop and switch to "warm" when the cooking time is up? Does it have any extra programming features that are useful (or annoying)?
Other Machines We Tried
We mostly stuck to classic, simple slow cookers in this test. But the magnetic pull of the true multi-cooker was too strong. With the Instant Pot and its brethren getting so much buzz, we felt we had to throw one or two into the mix and see how their slow cooking capabilities compared. That way, we'd all know if a multicooker truly can do everything—or if a separate slow cooker is the wisest way to go.
Ultimately, we found that both the Instant Pot and the Breville Fast-Slow Pro overcooked the chicken to a gummy, soft consistency. This was more pronounced in the Breville Fast-Slow Pro, but also present in the Instant Pot chicken. We ascribe the overcooking to the fact that multi-cookers simply aren't slow cookers. They're their own machines. And so you need multi-cooker-specific recipes to make slow cooking work in them.
Meanwhile, we tested many other slow cookers. We found the expensive All-Clad Gourmet Slow Cooker unnecessarily huge; its wide, flat shape meant that we had to add more broth to make sure the meat was fully submerged. Its large volume and lack of a sealing top also means this machine lost more liquid than other varieties.
Less huge but still a bit unwieldy for dish-washing, the KitchenAid Slow Cooker has a heavy ceramic crock with a more rectangular shape that can make it awkward to pour liquids from, but we appreciated the bright, intuitive interface which also conveniently tells you how long it’s been warming after the timer goes off (as opposed to just saying “warm”). We tried two Hamilton Beach models: both around $70, each with a different special feature. The Hamilton Beach Set & Forget Slow Cooker has a temperature probe, which would come in handy for cooking roasts to a precise temperature. It did just fine cooking the chicken, but the interface was a little annoying as it doesn’t get very bright so you’ll have to squint to read the numbers.
The Hamilton Beach slow cooker we tried produced less tender chicken and lost more liquid than other slow cookers, but only marginally—it's an acceptable inexpensive option at around $70. The Bella slow cooker machine that we tried performed well, and was neck-in-neck with the Cuisinart for an option that had a searing function. But this machine has an odd clasp on the lid that's slightly difficult to maneuver, and we liked the way the Cuisinart browns better. Finally, the cheapest model we tried, the Proctor-Silex, gave us weird, congealed fat and grayish chicken that we weren't willing to taste—sorry not sorry.
The standard Crock Pot is the best slow cooker if you're looking for a reliable, inexpensive, great-performing slow cooker. If you need more capabilities—like browning—choose the Cuisinart. And, if you're really interested in one of those Instant Pots you've been hearing about, don't let this stop you—they're very cool. But be warned that you'll have to use recipes specific to the machine to get the tender, slow-cooked results you want.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious