Though shopping for a slow cooker might not require the time and energy reserved for more substantial purchases, like a car, the ever-increasing variety of makes and models out there can make the whole process a bit overwhelming. Whether you're looking to upgrade the exhausted heirloom on your kitchen counter or you've finally decided to take the plunge with your very first purchase, here are some tips to help you find that perfect match.
First, consider size. How large is your family, and are leftovers important? Slow cookers come in a variety of sizes with a range of quart capacities: small (1 to 1 1/2 quarts), medium (3 to 4 1/2 quarts) and large (5 to 6 quarts, up to 8). Allow roughly one quart of capacity per person, so a medium cooker should feed a family of four. If you like leftovers, opt for a larger unit. But remember to use recipes designed for the size unit you buy; do not attempt a recipe larger or smaller than your cooker's capacity. Frequent users will often have units of varying sizes.
FOR THE RECORD:
Slow cookers: An article reviewing slow cookers in the Feb. 25 Food section said the Cuisinart 3 1/2 -Quart Programmable Slow Cooker was sold at Bed, Bath & Beyond. It is not. It can be found at www .cuisinart.com, amazon.com, www.everythingkitchens.com and www.macys.com. —
Many cookers include stove-top and oven-safe inserts. Metal inserts allow ingredients to be sautéed directly on the stove top before cooking, adding more color and flavor without dirtying extra pans; anodized aluminum or nonstick finish options make cleanup even easier. And oven-safe inserts are great for last-minute browning or reheating. Most inserts and lids are also dishwasher-safe.
Newer models often include almost "Jetsons"-like digital options, offering even more flexibility for busy cooks. Programmable heat and timing functions allow a unit to cook for a set amount of time, automatically reducing the heat to "warm" when a recipe is done. Some models include sensory probes that can tell when a roast or piece of meat is cooked to perfection.
The ones listed below are the models we tested. You'll also find a photo gallery look at the models here, and above.
COUNTDOWN TO DINNER
Cuisinart's 3 1/2 -Quart Programmable Slow Cooker includes a ceramic insert that is stick-resistant and dishwasher-safe. The model comes with a 24-hour LCD countdown timer that automatically switches to warm when contents finish cooking. Four settings: high, low, simmer and warm.
What we thought: This slow cooker was one of our favorites. The programmable timer is a big plus, allowing the cook to set the cooking time in half-hour increments. The ceramic insert offers consistently reliable heating and cooking. The insert and lid are dishwasher-safe.
THE BIG KAHUNA
The KitchenAid 7-Quart Slow Cooker is big in capacity and power. It heats quickly with its 400-watt heating element and boasts an accurate and responsive "electronic temperature management system." It offers 10 hours of programmable cooking time, automatically lowering the heat to warm when the timer is done. The settings: buffet, simmer, low, high and auto.
What we thought: Everything about this unit is big; there's even a bumper at the back of the unit. The 7-quart ceramic insert is heavy and awkward on its own; filled, it requires a good amount of strength to move. However, it has large -- and very convenient -- level indicators, so you know the volume of contents you're cooking. The big digital cooking display is easy to read. The lid does not always sit flush against the top of the insert. The unit heats up very quickly and adjusts throughout to maintain consistent temperature. The insert and lid are dishwasher-safe.
How much: About $130 at Target; Bed, Bath & Beyond; Macy's and www.amazon.com.
West Bend's 5-Quart Oblong Slow Cooker promises an all-in-one slow cooker and griddle, with an insert advertised to be safe for the stove top and oven; it also comes with its own carrying case. The adjustable temperature control has five settings.
What we thought: The model promises a lot and delivers little, if anything. The model automatically starts warming as soon as it's plugged in -- there is no "off" setting -- which could lead to burns if you're careless. Although it's marketed as oven- and stove-top-safe, in the manual's fine print there are limitations to how high the thin insert can be heated. Only plastic or rubber utensils can be used with the insert, as metal can scratch the coating. The lid does not securely cover the insert and easily falls off. The model takes forever to heat up, as does the griddle (it took us 45 minutes to fry three pieces of bacon and 10 minutes to fry an egg with the griddle on the highest setting).
How much: About $55 at Macy's, Target and www.amazon.com.
THE DELUXE MODEL
The All-Clad 7-Quart Deluxe Slow Cooker offers a cast-aluminum insert that is oven- and stove-top-safe (both the insert and lid can function on the stove top as a Dutch oven). The programmable timer automatically switches to warm when cooking is complete. The model features a stainless steel exterior.
What we thought: This is one massive and expensive showpiece. The exterior is big and impressive, but after a couple of uses we found the stainless steel hard to keep clean and almost unbearably hot. The stainless steel lid prevented us from being able to check on contents as they cooked; the lid itself was very thin and lightweight and the handle got so hot a potholder was required. The cast aluminum minimizes mess and eases cleanup.
How much: About $280, model exclusive to Williams-Sonoma.
The Hamilton Beach 5 1/2 -Quart Premiere Slow Cooker offers single-pan convenience with its removable cast-aluminum insert. The insert promises even heat and nonstick performance, and both the insert and lid are oven-safe. The lid's vent hole allows steam to escape while keeping the lid secure. The model is manually controlled with three settings (high, low and warm).
What we thought: This is a good, basic model that heats quickly and consistently. The cast-aluminum insert keeps the mess to one pot, and handles on the sides make the insert easy to maneuver. The unit does not automatically switch to "warm" or "off," requiring a bit more supervision. And though the stainless steel exterior matches many kitchens, it can be hard to keep clean and gets very hot while the unit is operating.
How much: Available March 10, about $80 at www.hamiltonbeach.com.
The Hamilton Beach 5 1/2 -Quart Deluxe Stay or Go Slow Cooker combines a number of features when portability is an issue. It includes a serving spoon and removable recipe cardholder, and comes with rugged handles and canister-style clips to lock the entire unit to prevent spills during travel or contain the entire unit for easy storage. The pop-up lid rest doubles as a cord wrap when storing. The unit is manually controlled with three settings (high, low and warm).
What we thought: A good model for traveling. The stoneware insert heats up quickly. Though we liked the clip-tight lid, we found it needed to be locked at all times when the unit was in use or heat would escape while the contents cooked. The stainless steel exterior gets very hot when the unit is in use. Otherwise, we liked the added features mentioned above.
How much: Available March 10, about $40 at Target and www.hamiltonbeach.com.
Lindsay Bater and Mary Carley contributed to this report.