You may be craving comfort food in the cold winter months — from stews to soups — but it can often be time-consuming and difficult to cook. One way to prepare a homemade meal without the hassle is a slow cooker, which allows beginner and expert chefs alike to cook filling, flavorful meals at home with minimal prep and clean up.
“Everything cooking-at-home related is cool right now,” said Hugh Acheson, Canadian chef, entrepreneur and cookbook author. “But slow cookers pull at our heart strings, and we’ve realized that there are so many things you can cook in them beyond the ubiquitous pot roast.”
You’ve probably heard of a slow cooker before or even borrowed your grandma’s Crock-Pot once or twice. But there are plenty of modern options out there for any type of cook. If you’re thinking of buying a slow cooker, here’s everything you need to know, including how slow cookers differ from other appliances, safety tips and the best low cookers out there.
Best slow cookers of 2021
This basic cooker holds 3.5 quarts of liquid, a solid choice for couples or a single portion with leftovers. The cooker equips a 24-hour LED countdown menu, timer and two heat settings. You can also simmer food or keep it warm if you’re waiting to heat. The ceramic cooking pot and lid are dishwasher-safe, too, making cleanup easy.
This oval-shaped slow cooker is one of the more expensive models, but comes with additional features and can hold 6 quarts of liquid. The model also has four temperature settings and a 24-hour timer, which includes a “delay cook” setting and a “keep warm” setting.
This popular slow cooker is a tried and true, extremely affordable option for any at-home cook. This model holds four quarts of food and equips a digital timer and two temperature settings. Once cooking is done, the Crock-Pot will switch to a “keep warm” setting for up to six hours. Crock-Pot also offers many different types of cookers, including pressure cookers — in November 2020, the company recalled nearly 1 million units due to potential burn risk.
Another affordable slow cooker option, the Black + Decker slow cooker can hold up to seven quarts of food, enough for eight people. It has a digital timer, high and low temperature settings and a “keep warm” setting. The transparent lid makes it easy to check on your meal while it cooks, and the model’s locking handles makes it easy to store and transport.
This higher-end slow cooker is sleekly-designed and coated in stainless steel. This model offers cook times longer than others: up to 26 hours. The All-Clad holds four quarts of food and comes with an LCD screen, a programmable timer with alerts, “keep warm” setting and temperature options. The insert and lid are both dishwasher-safe, and the lid is clear glass, making it easy for cooks to view their meal without removing the lid (and letting the heat escape).
Are slow cookers right for you?
A slow cooker is a basic kitchen appliance ideal for one thing: cooking food, slowly. They use moist heat to cook your meal over the course of the day at a set low temperature, explained Suzy Karadsheh, founder of online food blog The Mediterranean Dish.
Not necessarily an Instant Pot
Slow cookers are different from pressure cookers, which use hot steam and pressure to cook food much more quickly, and multi-cookers, which combine slow cooking and pressure cooking capabilities. (You may have heard of the Instant Pot, a popular multicooker).
And while that infamous scene from “This is Us” may have given you slow cooker nightmares, in reality they’re quite safe to use. These appliances use very low temperatures to cook food, and unlike pressure cookers can be left undisturbed for hours, said Acheson. In order to keep yourself and your cooker safe, make sure the base and exterior are clean and that the electrical cord doesn’t get torn or frayed. We have a complete guide on keeping your slow cooker safe here.
Slow cooker benefits
The benefit of slow cookers? You can throw your ingredients into the pot in the morning and come back to a completely cooked meal at night. They’re an easy alternative to the oven, grill or stove-top, noted Tieghan Gerard, a cookbook author and owner of the Half-Baked Harvest blog. They also leave you with just the one pot to clean at the end of the night.
While pressure cookers and multi-cookers can come with lots of bells and whistles (and high price tags), slow cookers are often more affordable and easier to use. Slow cookers are also safer — you’re able to leave them plugged in for hours, while you probably shouldn’t leave the house while your pressure cooker is on, Acheson said (though some pressure cookers do come equipped with automatic shutdown features). If you’re a home cook that wants to set it and forget it, a slow cooker is probably better (and more affordable) for you.
Karadsheh also explained that a longer cook time via a slow cooker can also produce better results for staples like beans or tougher cuts of meat — we’ve got a list of easy slow cooker recipes here.
“While slow cookers and pressure cookers create similar looking results and can be used for many of the same dishes, I prefer the slow cooker,” said Gerard. Cooked low and slow, flavors meld together in a way that’s difficult to replicate over a shorter period of time, even with a pressure cooker.
Slow cookers require a decent amount of liquid to cook the food, and are typically used to make soups, stews and chilis, said Karadsheh. To cook, simply put your food and liquid in the pot, seal it with a lid and select the setting. The lid sealing the pot traps the steam, she explained, which condenses and drips back into the pot, making the food “tender and juicy.” Slow cookers typically have both a high and low temperature setting. Most also include a “keep warm” setting so food won’t overcook and a “delay start” setting to schedule your cooking.
Shopping for the best slow cooker
Slow cookers are more compact than other types of cookers, so you won’t have to worry as much about having adequate kitchen storage space. But slow cookers come in a wide variety of sizes, depending on your needs. Evaluate how much food you plan to make while shopping.
- Slow cookers range in size from 1.5 quarts to 10 quarts, though the standard cooker holds four quarts, enough for a family of two.
- Consider what additional features you want. Some slow cookers have features like pressure cooking, searing or air frying. Keep in mind these models will be more expensive — Acheson recommended keeping it simple and sticking to a cooker with simple functions.
- Most standard slow cookers are under $100 — those with multiple features and “smart” features can range between $100 and $200.