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Test Drive: Slow Cookers

These energy-efficient appliances make stellar meals while you’re out of the house.

Fine Cooking Issue 121
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Using a slow cooker couldn’t be simpler—prepare your ingredients, put them in the cooker, walk away, and return hours later to tender braised meat, stew, or even dessert (it makes great pudding). Choosing among the slow cookers on the market, however, is a little tougher. There’s a wide variety of features but not a single slow cooker that has them all. For me, the most desirable option is a nonstick, stovetop-safe crock that lets me brown meat or sauté vegetables on the stove and then transfer the crock to the base without dirtying another pan or losing any flavorful brown bits or pan juices. Unfortunately, only a small number of cookers have the stovetop-safe crock, and those that do may be lacking in other areas, such as design, added features, and overall quality.

To help eliminate the guesswork if you’re in the market for a slow cooker, I tested 10 models and found 2 standouts—one with a stovetop-safe crock and one traditional model that offered other benefits. They cook equally well, so from here, the choice boils down to which features are most important to you.

Learn how to make the most of your slow cooker.

What to Consider

Control panel Choose a model with a digital display that tells you how much cooking time remains and how long the appliance has been on warm.
 
Cooking time You should be able to set the cooking time by the half-hour and have an overall range of at least 14 hours, plus a 4- to 6-hour warm time.

Lid A glass lid is best because you can see inside. It should form a tight seal when placed on the crock, and ideally it shouldn’t have a rubber gasket, which can wear out.
 
Portability If you like to take slow-cooked dishes to potlucks, go for a lightweight, easy-to-transport model with large, cool-touch handles, and latches or clips that attach the lid to the crock.
 
Size and shape If counter space is at a premium, look for a compact model. If you have a large family, entertain a lot, or cook to have leftovers, choose one with a larger capacity. An oval shape is best for roasts.
 
Aesthetics If your slow cooker might have a permanent home on your counter, seek out a sleek model with a crock attractive enough to serve food in.
 
Extra features Examples include temperature-probe cooking mode, retractable cord storage, roasting rack inserts, and hinged lids for easy serving.

Best Traditional

KitchenAid 6-quart slow cooker with easy-serve lid
$129.99 at shopkitchenaid.com

 
If you want to make meals for potlucks or buffets, this is the cooker for you—it’s designed for convenient serving.

PROS
• It has a “medium” heat setting in addition to low, high, and warm.
• A temperature-monitoring system makes sure heat settings are accurate and prevents food from overcooking in warm mode.
• The glass lid is hinged on both sides of the handle, so serving is a cinch.
• The unit is programmable for up to 24 hours and keeps food warm for up to 4 hours.
• Large, cool-touch silicone handles

CON
• The nonstick crock is not stovetop safe and is slightly narrow, so it can’t accommodate wide roasts or many baking dishes.

Best Stovetop Safe

Hamilton Beach 6-quart programmable stovetop slow cooker
$79.99 at hamiltonbeach.com

This slow cooker’s nonstick cast-aluminum crock is stovetop safe, so if you want to brown meat or vegetables for better flavor (without dirtying a second pan), choose this model.

PROS
• The warm setting keeps food at safe temperatures without continuing to cook it.
• The glass lid lets you monitor how the food is cooking.
• The controls are intuitive and easy to use.
• The cast-aluminum crock is lighter than KitchenAid’s ceramic one,
and it’s wide enough to fit large roasts.

CON
• Both sets of handles get very hot during cooking.

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