When it comes to a reliable, easy-to-use slow cooker, we’d invest in the Hamilton Beach Set & Forget 6-Quart Programmable Slow Cooker. We first picked the Set & Forget in 2013, and after making a half dozen fork-tender roasts, gallons of chicken and pork stock, and big batches of no-hassle beans (that are far more tasty and economical than the canned variety) over the course of nearly four years, we’re still thoroughly satisfied with this machine.
In our most recent tests, the Set & Forget again proved better than the competition. It’s not fancy and performs about as well as many other cookers, but after 86 hours of research and testing, we’ve found that its 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, which we think makes it especially practical.
We should mention that we don’t think there’s a perfect slow cooker on the market. We found that every model has particular flaws, and most of these machines—ranging from $30 to $180—seem to cook too hot. Furthermore, the biggest difference between them seems to be their features, not their cooking ability.1 However, the Set & Forget outperformed much more expensive models, and once we started asking experts, it kept cropping up as a favorite.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $45.
If the Set & Forget sells out, or if its price goes higher than around $50, we recommend the Crock-Pot 6-Quart Programmable Cook & Carry Slow Cooker. It costs more and lacks a heat probe and on-off alarm. But it does cook for 20 hours, compared with the Set & Forget’s 14, and looks more up-to-date (because it is); we like its handles and locking mechanism a little better, too.
If you’re fine with a small, old-school slow cooker without bells and whistles (like a timer), the Crock-Pot 4-Quart Manual Slow Cooker should serve you well. It has excellent user reviews and a low, low price to boot.
For this guide, we sought advice from the best slow-cooker experts we could find: Phyllis Pellman Good, author of the New York Times best-selling Fix-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. Combined, these authors have logged countless hours making food in a wide range of cookers. We also scoured previous slow-cooker reviews (including those by America’s Test Kitchen [subscription required] and Consumer Reports) to develop a list of qualities that comprise a top-notch slow cooker. Over the past three years, we’ve examined more than 45 top-rated models, and tested a short list of finalists to find the best.
Christine Cyr Clisset, who wrote the original guide, has reviewed a huge variety of kitchen equipment for The Sweethome, including food processors, casserole dishes, and blenders, and has long-term tested the Set & Forget at home to make pulled pork, braised lamb shoulder, chicken, and pork stock overnight. Camille Chatterjee, the other half of our slow-cooker team, has edited recipes and food stories for Self, Redbook, and other publications (and is an avid home cook). For this guide, she researched this past year’s newest models before choosing two to test against the reigning pick.
Getting a slow cooker is worth it if you want more convenience in the kitchen—particularly if you’d like to cook food while you’re out of the house. With a modern, programmable slow cooker you choose the heat—low or high—and the cooking time. When the time is up, the machine kicks over to the warming setting. That way, you can prep your food before work and head to the office without worrying about your meal overcooking. Set it and forget it, indeed.
“People, at the end of the day, are looking for something they can turn on in the morning and after eight hours the food won’t be completely pulverized or burned or no longer holding texture and flavor,” said Pellman Good.
If you bring food to dinner parties and other get-togethers regularly, having a slow cooker on hand with a locking lid and silicone gasket to prevent spills can be seriously time-saving (and up your game from the usual lukewarm casseroles and salads). “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,” O’Dea said.
If you want something more versatile than a slow cooker—and you can spend between $120 and $250—consider an electric pressure cooker, which comes with multiple cooking settings. On the pressure-cooker setting, these machines raise the boiling point of water, decreasing cook times by up to two-thirds. On the slow-cook setting these machines operate exactly as designated slow cookers. After filling them with ingredients for a stew or other slow-cooking dish, you choose from several heat and cooking-time options, and leave the machine to make dinner while you’re at work or out of the house. When the cook time is up, the cooker kicks over to a warming setting. We cover the differences between slow cookers, pressure cookers, and rice cookers in more detail here.
For our 2016 update, we made batches of presoaked cannellini beans in the Hamilton Beach Set & Forget 6-Quart Programmable Slow Cooker and in our two favorite electric pressure cookers—the Instant Pot IP-DUO60 and the Breville Fast Slow Pro—on their slow cook settings. Each of these machines turned out toothsome beans with little breakage and the batches were hardly distinguishable from one another.
If you just want a dedicated slow cooker—or something that can double as a serving piece on a buffet—you’ll likely be happy with the Set & Forget. Springing for an electric pressure cooker (the Instant Pot, in particular) is worth doing if you think you’ll use its various cooking modes (such as rice, porridge, or steam settings).
Slow cookers come in a range of sizes, from 1- to 7-quart capacity. The diminutive 1-, 2-, and 3-quart cookers work best for making appetizers, such as dips. Most of these small pots have only manual controls. The next sizes 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).
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. Both Pellman Good and O’Dea recommended programmable models with timers, locking lids, and a silicone gasket to prevent spills.
To our surprise, Pellman Good recommended using a model with a heat probe. We’d found this feature only on the Hamilton Beach Set & Forget, and had initially discounted it as a gimmick. Yet Pellman Good explained: “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.”
Programmable slow cookers have timers that range from 12 to 26 hours. At first, we thought the longer timer would be an advantage, but Pellman Good pointed out that the longest slow cooker recipes last 8 to 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. Some people might appreciate a longer timer (such as those cooking for the Sabbath). In that case, a model like the Crock-Pot, which has a 20-hour timer, may be the best option.
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, most slow cooker inserts have a nonstick coating, which isn’t ideal for high-heat searing. Extreme temperatures cause that coating to break down faster, diminishing its effectiveness. 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.
A simple on-off light, so you can tell that the machine is actually cooking, can also prevent 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.
Like many small home appliances, most slow cookers come with a one-year limited warranty. All of the machines we tested 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 (companies will fix only manufacturer’s defects to the electronics for free).
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 (subscription required) and Consumer Reports. Both had the clearest methodology and reviewed the most cookers.
From our research we found that programmable models in the $50 to $80 range fared just as well as, 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 tried the Crock-Pot 6.5-Quart Countdown Touchscreen Digital Slow Cooker and Hamilton Beach’s Set & Forget 6-Quart Programmable Slow Cooker with Spoon/Lid, which was highly recommended by both Pellman Good and O’Dea and emerged as our top pick.
The following year, Hamilton Beach introduced a new model of the Set & Forget (the 33969); we pitted it against the Crock-Pot 6-Quart Cook & Carry Digital Slow Cooker with Heat-Saver Stoneware, but the Set & Forget remained our winner.
Since then, a slow cooker not covered in our original guide has emerged as the number-one choice on Amazon.com: the Crock-Pot 6-Quart Programmable Cook & Carry Slow Cooker. And in the spring of 2015, Crock-Pot also released the first smart cooker, the 6-Quart Smart Slow Cooker with WeMo. We decided to test both of these against our top pick.
Earlier, we mentioned that a universal complaint about most modern slow cookers is that they run too hot, even on the low setting. Ideally, the cooking liquid should simmer between roughly 190 °F and somewhere below the boiling point of 212 °F (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 & Forget and the Crock-Pot Programmable Touchscreen. Most recently, we cooked 3-pound chuck roasts in the Set & Forget, the Crock-Pot Programmable Cook & Carry, and the Smart Slow Cooker.
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 Set & Forget 6-Quart Programmable Slow Cooker isn’t the most luxurious or sleekest-looking machine out there, it does everything it should at a very modest price. It has the largest digital display of the models we tested, making it the easiest to read from across the kitchen, and its interface was the simplest to use. It cooks at true slow-cooking temperatures, unlike others we tried that ran too hot. Its locking lid also makes it more portable. We like that the Set & Forget has an alarm that rings at the start and the end of the cooking cycle–a helpful feature many newer, fancier cookers, like the others we tested, omit. Finally, the Set & Forget was the only slow cooker we found that included a temperature probe.
The Set & Forget’s digital interface wasn’t as modern-looking as the ones on the Smart Slow Cooker or the Cook & Carry. It was, however, easy to program and the easiest to read from a distance, with large letters and numbers telling you what temperature the machine is set to and how much cooking time is left. That’s especially true compared with the WeMo Cooker, which had no digital display at all, only a power button and lit-up words telling you whether its temperature was High, Low, or Warm—its timer can be viewed only through an app on your smartphone or tablet.
On the Set & Forget’s programmable 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 heats up until the meat has reached a specified temperature, then switches to the warming setting. The manual mode allows you to use the machine like an old-school cooker: Just turn it on and it stays on until you shut it off. We like how much flexibility this interface gives you.
In our tests, the Set & 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 °F; after three hours on high it leveled off at 210°F. (The Cook & Carry and Smart Slow Cooker ran slightly hotter than the America’s Test Kitchen recommended high temperature of 212 °F, leveling off at 214 °F and 213 °F after four hours on high, respectively.)
The Set & 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. The Smart Slow Cooker, by comparison, doesn’t have a locking lid or gasket; we wouldn’t feel comfortable transporting it anywhere.
We appreciate the alarm that sounds when the Set & 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 either the Smart Slow Cooker or the Crock-Pot Programmable Cook & Carry; in fact, we didn’t know whether the latter machine had really started cooking until the first minute had counted down on the timer.
The Set & Forget was the only slow cooker we found that offered a heat probe—a feature Pellman Good touted. We found the 5.5-inch probe a tad short to stick into the 4-pound roast we tested the first year, but it slid easily into the outer third of our 3-pound roast this year (probably because the meat was spread out over a bed of vegetables this time), and we do think this feature will be 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).
The Set & 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 Pellman Good told us: “Most recipes I work with I would say have a maximum cooking time of about eight hours. There are food safety issues to letting food sit at warm all day.” For this reason, we didn’t consider timer length to be an important criterion in choosing our top pick. That said, if you’re looking for longer cook times, the Cook & Carry has a 20-hour timer, and the Smart Slow Cooker has a 24-hour timer.
The Hamilton Beach Set & Forget 6-Quart Programmable Slow Cooker was recommended as a budget pick by Consumer Reports and receives 4.3 stars (out of five) across 1,034 Amazon user reviews.
We wish the heat probe was longer. We also wish the 24-inch plug were a few inches longer, which would make it easier to use on a crowded counter.
The handles on the Crock-Pot Programmable Cook & Carry were bigger and easier to grip than those on the Set & Forget, with a larger hole for fingers to fit into; its locking mechanism felt slightly more secure, thanks to large plastic pieces atop the metal loops on each side of the machine that snap onto hooks on the lid. The Set & Forget’s alarm and probe features were enough to make up for the lower quality of its handles and lock, though.
We did read some Amazon complaints about the Set & Forget’s timer randomly shutting off after only nine, 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.
After nearly three years of use, we’re still totally satisfied with this cooker’s programmable timer settings and the locking lid that makes it easy to move the machine from one counter to the next. Our only complaint is an issue characteristic of most slow cookers. Because the lid fits tightly, braising liquid doesn’t end up as condensed and flavorful as that from a dish cooked in a Dutch oven, or perhaps even from a cooker with a less tight-fitting lid.
That aside, we would still take the Set & Forget’s gasketed and locking lid over one that doesn’t, purely for the convenience and less worry of a pet, child, or accident-prone adult knocking the cooker over. And if you prefer a more condensed liquid, it’s easy enough to cook it down on the stovetop.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $45.
We think the Hamilton Beach Set & Forget 6-Quart Programmable Slow Cooker offers the best overall value of any slow cooker out there. If you can’t find it for $50 or under, or at all, though, or if you find you need a timer that goes longer than 14 hours (which is the upper limit on the Set & Forget), we recommend the highly reviewed and easy-to-use Crock-Pot 6-Quart Programmable Cook & Carry Slow Cooker.
The Cook & Carry has a 20-hour timer. Keep in mind that most people wouldn’t want nor need to keep their food in a slow cooker for 20 hours—not only will it tend to get mushy, but there may also be food-safety issues when keeping food at a warm setting for multiple hours. However, we’ve read that cooks making a Sabbath meal like having the longer timer.
Overall, we think the Cook & Carry is a nice machine, and we actually found it to be sleeker and more compact than the Set & Forget. Its push-button display is more modern and attractive than the one on the Set & Forget, its handles are larger and easier to grip, and its locking mechanism snaps into place more securely. However, we didn’t find that it cooked any better than our top pick, and it ran 2 degrees hotter on average. It also lacks a heat probe and an on-off alarm, despite being about $10 pricier at some outlets.
Note: Both the Cook & Carry and the Smart Slow Cooker emitted a rubbery, burninglike smell when we first used them—something several Amazon reviewers noticed as well. When contacted, Crock-Pot, their manufacturer, had this to say: “During the first few uses, there will be a burn off smell and light smoke which is caused by the dust from the warehouse packaging and is safe, normal and expected.” The smell does seem to dissipate over time and washings. The Cook & Carry Slow Cooker is Amazon’s best seller among all the slow cookers it sells, and receives 4.2 stars (out of five) across 2,917 user reviews.
If you don’t need the capacity of a 6- or 7- quart cooker, we recommend the Crock-Pot 4-Quart Manual Slow Cooker, recommended by Real Simple. You’ll have to manually turn it off because, as with other cookers this size, it doesn’t have a timer, but it has great Amazon reviews and it’s hard to argue with the price.
Always turn off and unplug your slow cooker before attempting to clean it, and never submerge the base (the part that plugs into the wall) in water.
Crocks made out of stoneware (like all of our top picks) and their lids can be washed in the dishwasher. Otherwise, clean them in hot, soapy water, using a cloth, sponge, or rubber spatula rather than abrasive scouring pads. (Because fine ceramic can crack in sudden temperature changes, don’t fill your crock with cold water while it’s still hot.) To bust through stubborn messes, soak the pot in a sink full of hot, soapy water before cleaning; the bloggers at Crock-Pot Ladies also suggest applying baking soda before you scrub.
To keep the display and exterior of your slow cooker sparkling and shiny, wipe it down with a damp rag or sponge spritzed with your favorite household cleaner.
The 6-Quart Smart Slow Cooker with WeMo, introduced in 2015, represents an innovation in the slow-cooker market: It’s the first “smart” slow cooker. That means you can turn it on and off and adjust the temperature and time remotely from an app on your smartphone (available for both Apple and Android) or tablet. Though it cooked a roast just as well as the other machines we tested, it’s missing several features that our experts deem crucial, like a rubber gasket seal and locking lid. There’s no timer whatsoever on the machine’s display, which means you can’t pass through the kitchen and check your progress at a glance. Although we were lucky not to experience any problems with connectivity, CNET notes that if your Wi-Fi goes out, the cooker shuts off, leaving you with food that might not be safe for consumption. This cooker is sleek, turned out a tasty roast, and has a long, retractable cord that we wish more models offered. We can’t recommend it, however, given the very basic features it’s lacking, and the questionable utility of the unique features it does offer. For most people, it simply isn’t worth the extra $100 or so more it costs over our top pick and runner-up.
Crock-Pot 6-Quart Cook & Carry Digital Slow Cooker with Heat Saver Stoneware: We tested this in 2014 against our top pick because it comes with a temperature gauge that’s supposed to show how hot food is inside the crock. After testing both, we learned that the temperature gauge gave a color coding indicating whether food was hot or cold, but no actual indication of its exact temperature, meaning it was no help in determining whether your meal was safe to eat.
Crock-Pot 6.5-Quart Countdown Touchscreen Digital Slow Cooker: We tested this for our original 2013 review, and it was our pick if a 14-hour timer wasn’t long enough, but our sleek new runner-up goes just as long—for a lot less money.
Other models we considered but dismissed:
The large handle on the Crock-Pot Single Hand Cook & Carry 6-Quart Oval Slow Cooker looks convenient, but ultimately adds a lot of bulk to the unit. We think a top handle isn’t important enough of a feature for a slow cooker, especially when most folks will just carry it from house to car.
The Hamilton Beach FlexCook 6-Quart Stay or Go Slow Cooker offers a “multi-temperature cooking function” that lets you program two cooking temperatures into one cooking period. After scouring slow-cooker recipes on Cook’s Country (subscription required), among other places, we couldn’t find a single one that required two temperatures during the cooking process. Given that, we opted not to test this model.
Crock-Pot SCCPVP650AS-S 6.5 Quart Digital Slow Cooker with Smart Cook Technology & iStir Stirring System: This machine automatically stirs your food as it’s cooking. But America’s Test Kitchen (subscription required) found that the stirrer didn’t properly reach the outside of the pot in its testing, leading to uneven cooking.
Crock-Pot 6-Quart Countdown Digital Slow Cooker with Little Dipper Warmer: The Little Dipper warming pot this comes with isn’t necessary for most people (as Amazon user reviews bear out) and the pot doesn’t have a locking lid.
Crock-Pot SCVC604HSS 6-Quart Programmable Hinged Smartpot Slow Cooker: Highly reviewed, but no longer available.
All-Clad Slow Cooker 6.5-Quart Slow Cooker: Receives poor user reviews. Very expensive compared with the competition. O’Dea told us 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.”
Hamilton Beach 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 snugly.
Breville Slow Cooker with EasySear: Did not receive better reviews than what we tested.
KitchenAid 6-qt. Slow Cooker with Easy Serve Glass Lid: Very expensive and doesn’t receive better reviews than those we tested.
Hamilton Beach Stay or Go 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 & Forget and other cookers we tested.
Hamilton Beach 6-Quart Programmable Stovetop 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 a hard-to-read temperature indicator.
Calphalon 4-Qt. Digital Slow Cooker: Expensive and not more highly reviewed than the Crock-Pot 4-quart manual slow cooker we chose.
You’ll also find multiuse cookers that braise, roast, sear, and steam, such as the West Bend 6-Quart Slow Cooker or the much pricier Ninja Cooking System. 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. (Full disclosure: O’Dea is actually a spokesperson for the Ninja Cooking System, a multiuse cooker. But we spoke with her about slow cookers in general, not the Ninja specifically.)
Originally published: October 27, 2016
Should we open another bottle of wine?