Choosing the Best Slow Cooker
Amazon.comThe resurgence of the slow cooker makes perfect sense in a world that is reminiscent of the early 1970s, when Rival introduced the Crock-Pot. Then, as now, there was a pressing need to eat more economically, and home cooks -- in particular, working wives -- were looking for innovative ways to transform a tough, inexpensive cut of meat into something tender and delicious without being chained to the stove.
So like vampires (remember Dark Shadows?) and platform shoes, what goes around comes around.
Today, though, there is no need to depend on onion soup mix, canned cream of mushroom soup, "hearty red Burgundy" or frozen lemonade concentrate (what? no lemon chicken at your house?) to facilitate the culinary alchemy. Happily, new, exciting flavors have never been more accessible, so charge up that slow cooker beef stew recipe by adding orange zest and paprika, for instance, or turn a weeknight chicken dinner into a fragrant Thai curry.
THE BEST SLOW COOKERS UNDER $100Crock-Pot brand slow cookers range in price from less than $20 to more than $120 and I've had good luck at both ends of the price range. At the lower end, such as the four-quart Classic Crock-Pot (available for as low as $15 from amazon.com), you'll get fewer bells and whistles, but you'll still find a sturdy machine that handles a variety of dishes with aplomb. At the middle of Crock-Pot's price range is the Crock-Pot 6-Quart Oval "Smart Pot" Programmable Slow Cooker ($56.38 from amazon.com). Its large size and oval shape means that you can cook larger or unwieldy cuts of meat -- pork shoulder or a long, flat brisket, for instance -- with ease. Coming home at night to find North Carolina-style pulled pork or Mexican pork adobo ready and waiting could get to be a habit. And a classic Belgian brisket à la carbonnade was truly outstanding when made in this cooker; the onions that make the dish were caramelized to perfection. You can set the timer for 8 to 10 hour low-temp cooking times, or 4 to 6 hour high-temp cooking times. And in case you're running late, the cooker automatically switches to warm after the cooking time is up (and turns off altogether after 6 hours on warm).
The Cuisinart PSC-400 (about $68 from amazon.com) might be small, but it is perfect for a single person, especially when you realize that slow-cooking isn't relegated to big, intimidating hunks of meat. Instead, think short ribs that make their own sauce or beef stew, thick with potatoes and carrots. One caveat here: The people I know who have this model get their best results on the low setting. They find the high setting inconsistent -- sometimes it's fine but occasionally it boils away like crazy, resulting in overcooked meat.
The Best Slow Cookers Over $100If you feel the desire to spend the big bucks for a fancy name (I'll bet you can tell where this is going), you have a couple of choices. Yes, All-Clad's 99009 Stainless-Steel 61/2-Quart Slow Cooker (about $150 from amazon.com) is another great, easy-to-use oval model that handles a variety of dishes beautifully. For the price, though, the fact that the timer can't be set for more than six hours on high (as opposed to the Crock-Pot Touchscreen, the Energizer Bunny of slow cookers) doesn't give you much wiggle room. It makes this slow cooker seem chintzy.
But not as chintzy as the oblong Breville BSC560XL Stainless-Steel 7-Quart Slow Cooker with EasySear Insert ($179.99 from amazon.com). Although it is generously sized and has a very tight-fitting lid (all the better to seal in moisture), this slow cooker runs on the hot side (so things cook faster than you expect; not necessarily a good thing) and, stunningly, has no timer or warm cycle, which makes it the winner of the "Go Figure" prize.
In short, buy a less-expensive slow cooker and save those extra hard-earned dollars for really great ingredients. Remember, no matter how convenient a slow cooker is, the quality of the finished dish depends on what you start with.
If, by the way, you have any questions regarding cooking food safely in a slow cooker, check out the Slow Cookers and Food Safety guide published by the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
A note from Jane Lear: I don't accept free products or consider products for inclusion in these columns on the basis of press releases or marketing campaigns. My suggestions are based on my years as a food writer and home cook.
More on Kitchen Equipment and Cooking
- Get Jane Lear's advice on more kitchen equipment, including chef's knives and roasting pans.
Browse slow cooker recipes.
- Read T. Susie Chang's review of Make It Fast, Cook It Slow, a slow cooker cookbook.
- Learn how to braise a pot roast and how to brown ground beef.
- Looking for more equipment that makes things easier in the kitchen? Find out why Nigella Lawson thinks the rice cooker is a great gift.