Serious Eats/Irvin Lin
Slow cookers: The countertop appliance you know and (maybe?) already love. As their name implies, they cook food at a lower temperature (typically 180°F to 210°F) over a long period of time, usually between six to eight hours.
Slow cookers have been around for about 70 years, coming about in the 1950s as a device to cook beans. Then, in 1972, the device was rebranded as the Crock-Pot, exploding in popularity with its signature Avocado Green and Harvest Yellow colors. They were marketed as a convenient cooking appliance: Throw in all your ingredients in the morning, go to work, and come back to a home-cooked meal.
While we here at Serious Eats haven’t traditionally loved slow cookers, they do have their fanbase and uses. They are indeed great for making dried beans and keeping food and drinks warm for parties (hot mulled cider anyone?). We also certainly wouldn’t turn down a bun stuffed with slow-cooker pulled pork.
Now there’s a new generation of slow cookers sporting multiple functions, making them more versatile than the models of yesteryear. So, we set out to test eight slow cookers, to see which ones performed the best and were easy to clean up and operate.
The Winners, at a Glance
The GreenPan Elite has a metal, non-stick, ceramic-coated cooking pot. In our tests, it heated up quickly and sautéed and browned well. Dried beans cooked up just right (not too hard nor mushy) and pulled pork was fall-apart tender. The exterior also stayed cool the entire time the cooker was on, making it one of the safest ones we tested.
The slow cooker function on the Instant Pot tends to be overlooked, but it functions surprisingly well. Its slow-cooked beans were tender, and the pulled pork fell apart without being stringy. Even better, because the cooker is designed for pressure cooking, the exterior of the machine stayed cool the entire time it was on.
If you’re in the market for a more traditional slow cooker, the KitchenAid is a great option. With a heavy ceramic interior pot, it took a while to come to temperature. But once it did, it stayed very consistent, yielding creamy and properly cooked beans, as well as soft pull-apart pork. The exterior of the cooker did get warmer than our other winners, but not as hot as other more traditional models.
Serious Eats/Irvin LinBeans Test: We took one pound of dried white beans and placed it in each slow cooker, along with eight cups of room-temperature water. We then cooked the beans on the high setting for eight hours to see how well they cooked, taking temperatures each hour with an instant-read thermometer to gauge consistency. Pulled Pork Test (Winners-Only): We selected four winners and cooked an easy pulled pork recipe, using three pounds of pork butt per cooker. If possible, we seared the pork in the slow cooker beforehand to see how the searing/sautéing function worked. Cleaning Test: After our tests, we emptied the pots and let the inner pot sit for an hour to let residual food dry and get crusty. Then we hand-washed each pot and lid to see how easy they were to handle and clean.
What We Learned
How Slow Cookers Work
As we mentioned, slow cookers heat food at lower temperatures (between 180°F to 210°F), cooking it slowly over a longer period of time. But how do slow cookers actually work? It’s pretty simple: there are small heaters in the bottom of the slow cooker that, when turned on, radiate heat upwards through the cooking vessel inside the cooker (which can be ceramic or metal). As Kenji noted in his article on slow cookers, “because you are heating through a thick ceramic insert, that energy comes very gently from the bottom, and, to a very slight degree, from the sides of the pot. There are no hot spots.” Slow cookers also use lids to trap the heat (and ensure your slow cooker soup doesn’t dry out).
Sauté and Sear Functions Were Useful
Serious Eats/Irvin Lin
Extra functions can be superfluous—after all, how often does the average consumer actually make their own yogurt in an Instant Pot? But an option to sauté or brown is an additional function that can improve the flavor of the food (e.g. get a nice brown crust). The ability to do that directly in the slow cooker means you don’t need to dirty a skillet. Our favorite slow cookers from GreenPan and Instant Pot both offer a sauté function, as did a few others like the Cuisinart and Instant Dutch Oven. Typically, the traditional ceramic insert style slow cookers do not, since the ceramic pot can’t heat up fast enough to properly brown food.
Some Slow Cookers Were Too Hot on the Inside
Slow cookers are designed to cook food at a low temperature. This allows you to add ingredients to a slow cooker at the beginning of the day, press a button, and have dinner waiting for you six to eight hours later. It also means that you can use the slow cooker to keep food warm during a party (like cocktail meatballs or gravy). But a number of the slow cookers we tested actually cooked at too high a temperature. This resulted in beans that were mushy and overcooked and dry pork.
Others Were Too Hot on the Outside
Serious Eats/Irvin Lin
One of the appealing aspects of a slow cooker is that you can add all the ingredients in the morning, head to work, and then come home to dinner. And even though the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends against leaving appliances running when not at home, folks do it all the time. To minimize risk, this means finding a slow cooker that’s well insulated and doesn’t heat up on the outside.
But some of the slow cookers that we tested, including the Crock-Pot, got alarmingly hot. The Crock-Pot reached a high of 193°F on the outside of the pot, while the Hamilton Beach slow cookers we tested hit the mid-170°s. Both temperatures were high enough to potentially burn someone.
Our favorite slow cookers stayed cool on the outside, with the GreenPan slow cooker’s exterior reaching 110°F at its peak. The Instant Pot also stayed cool at about 105°F. The traditional style KitchenAid, with the ceramic pot, did heat up more but was still a tolerable 130°F—higher than the other two but still low enough that it felt safe to leave on all day.
The Criteria: What to Look for in a Slow Cooker
Serious Eats / Irvin Lin / Grace Kelly
Select a slow cooker that will hold a consistent temperature and that doesn’t run too hot or cold throughout the cooking cycle. Our favorite slow cookers kept a consistent temperature of around 195 to 205° F once they reached peak temperature, never boiling the liquid in the pot. We also recommend looking for a slow cooker with the option to sear, brown, or sauté. This means you won’t have to dirty and clean a skillet to brown your protein or aromatics before adding them to the slow cooker.
Pick a slow cooker that is large enough for the amount of food you need to make, too. Most slow cookers nowadays are oval-shaped and have both a minimum and maximum food line that you need to reach to properly cook your meal. You should also keep in mind how you plan on using your slow cooker. If you plan on entertaining and want your slow cooker to keep foods warm, make sure it has this mode. Finally, the outside of the slow cooker shouldn’t get too hot.
The Best Slow Cookers
What we liked: The GreenPan Elite had various functions, including slow cooking, steaming, and browning/sautéing. In addition, the digital screen in the front shows you the time remaining and the cooking function you selected. Though there are limited buttons on the front, the slow cook option cycles through to offer low, high, reheating, simmer/buffet, and warm functions, making this slow cooker more versatile than other cookers we tested.
Once the cooking temperature came to its peak, in about two hours, it stayed a consistent 195°F to 205°F through the remaining six hours of cooking, never dropping too low or starting to boil at the edges like other cookers did. Dried beans cooked up creamy without being overdone or mushy. It was easy to brown the meat because of the spacious interior, and the pork was fall-apart tender.
The metal insert was lightweight and easy to lift out, and the silicone-covered handles let us easily handle the pot without oven mitts. The outside of the unit stayed cool, too.
What we didn’t like: The GreenPan Elite was one of the larger slow cookers we tested, and it was also one of the most expensive, too. And though it offers multiple options, including reheating and simmer/buffet, those options are hidden under the slow cook button, making the control panel slightly less intuitive.
Price at time of publish: $199.
Weight: 14.2 poundsProduction dimensions: 19 x 13.75 x 11 inchesCord length: 32 inchesCooking capacity: 6 quartsMaterials: Ceramic nonstick coated anodized aluminum metal pot, silicone side handles, tempered glass lid, metal base with glass display panelSettings: Slow cook high, slow cook low, reheat, simmer/buffet, warm, brown/sauté, steamCleaning/care instructions: Metal insert pot and lid are dishwasher and hand wash safe; base unit should be wiped with a damp cloth or sponge
Serious Eats/Irvin Lin
What we liked: Sometimes the best slow cooker is the one that you already own. We’ve long recommended the Instant Pot Pro as one of the best countertop multi-cookers and the slow cooker function works fairly well. Temperatures peaked at 205°F and stayed there after three hours, cooking the dried beans to a perfectly creamy and buttery consistency. And the exterior is well insulated from the internal pot, keeping the outside a cool 100°F.
The Instant Pot also has a searing option, and browning the meat for the pulled pork was easy, though it did require searing in batches since the internal pot was smaller than other slow cookers’. But because the inner pot is actually stovetop-friendly, you can theoretically sear the meat and ingredients on the stove, which is faster and more efficient, without dirtying a secondary skillet or pot. The resulting pulled pork came out very tender without overcooking or becoming dry, making the Instant Pot Pro a solid slow cooker option for those folks who already own it.
What we didn’t like: Because of the smaller diameter, we had to sear and brown meat in batches which can be a little time-consuming. And due to the nature of the lid on an Instant Pot, which has a tight seal that allows for pressure cooking, there is little to no evaporation that occurs, unlike in a more typical slow cooker. However, you can always set the Instant Pot to saute to reduce liquids, if needed.
Price at time of publish: $129.
Weight: 13.4 poundsProduction dimensions: 13.5 x 12.5 x 12.5 inchesCord Length: 32 inchesCooking capacity: 6 quartsMaterials: Stainless steel tri-ply bonded bottom inner pot, silicone handle and rings, metal and plastic outer unit with glass display.Settings: Pressure cooking, rice/grain, steam, sauté, slow cook, sous vide, yogurt, bake, keep warmCleaning/care instructions: Metal insert pot and lid are dishwasher and hand wash safe; base unit should be wiped with a damp cloth or spongeSerious Eats/Irvin Lin
What we liked: If you’re looking for a simple, more traditional slow cooker, the KitchenAid 6-Quart Slow Cooker is a great option, sporting a thick and heavy ceramic pot. Its streamlined design makes it super simple to use, with only four options: low, medium, and high-temperature levels, as well as a warm setting.
Dried beans cooked up nicely, neither too firm nor too mushy, and the pulled pork was tender and easy to pull apart. The exterior also stayed at a relatively cool 130°F, which is lower than other slow cookers with a ceramic insert pot.
What we didn’t like: Because the internal pot is a ceramic insert, there is no searing or browning feature. This means you have to sear or brown your meat on a skillet ahead of adding it to the slow cooker. This is an extra step that also requires you to clean one more pot, making the slow cooker less convenient.
Price at time of publish: $119.
Weight: 15.4 poundsProduction dimensions: 17.5 x 10.5 x 11 inchesCord length: 30 inchesCooking capacity: 6 quartsMaterials: Stainless steel with plastic handles, ceramic inner pot, glass digital displaySettings: Slow cook low, medium, high, and keep warmCleaning/care instructions: Ceramic insert pot and lid are dishwasher and hand wash safe; base unit should be wiped with a damp cloth or sponge.Serious Eats/Irvin Lin
Hamilton Beach Portable 6 Quart Set & Forget Digital Programmable Slow Cooker: This slow cooker seemed like a great option with an internal probe that allowed you to check the temperature of the food without lifting the lid. But the unit ran hot, with the edges of the pot actually bubbling and simmering, leading to overcooked and mushy beans. Hamilton Beach Temp Tracker 6 Quart Slow Cooker: This slow cooker was nearly identical to the other Hamilton Beach slow cooker other than a slight color difference, and performed the same way, overcooking the beans.Cuisinart Multicooker MSC-600, Stainless Steel: This slow cook performed well with the beans, yielding soft and creamy results. But the pulled pork took longer to sear than with the Instant Pot and Green Pan slow cooker, and the resulting pulled pork wasn’t as tender.Instant Dutch Oven Slow Cooker: This slow cooker was an actual cast iron Dutch oven with a heating unit. It’s a great idea but proved to be unwieldy to move around and store. It also took a very long time to heat up, nearly four hours, and the outside of the cooker got up to 160°F, which was quite hot.Crock-Pot 6 Quart Cook & Carry Programmable Slow Cooker: Crock-Pot is synonymous with slow cookers, so we had high hopes for this slow cooker. But it ran too hot, making overcooked, mushy beans. More alarming, the outside of the slow cooker was 190°F, which was dangerously warm for a countertop appliance.
What’s the difference between a slow cooker and a pressure cooker?
A slow cooker is a countertop appliance that cooks food at a low temperature over a long period of time. Typically a slow cooker cooks between 190° to 210°F over six to eight hours, which is long enough for the food to be completely cooked through.
A pressure cooker is an appliance that seals tightly. Once sealed and heated, the liquid in the pressure cook can get to higher temperatures, as high as 250°F, which means the food is cooked faster. Instant Pot, a popular multi-cooker, has a pressure cooker function as well as a slow cooker function, allowing you to cook food fast or slow depending on the mode you choose. For more information about pressure cookers, check out our article on how a pressure cooker works.
What’s the difference between a slow cooker and a Crock-pot?
People often use the term crock-pot to mean a slow cooker. But Crock-Pot is the actual name brand of a popular slow cooker and has become synonymous with the countertop appliance, in the same way Xerox has come to mean photocopier.
What is a slow cooker good for?
Slow cookers are convenient for cooking stews, soups, and beans over a long period of time. You can add the ingredients to the slow cooker at the beginning of the day and eight hours later, have a cooked meal. It also does well cooking bread pudding, strata, and stuffing. However, because slow cookers function at lower temperatures, it does not heat the ingredients high enough to get much of a Maillard effect, meaning a lot of food cooked in a slow cooker will taste less complex and have less flavor than if they were cooked via a more traditional method.
What cannot be cooked in a slow cooker?
Though slow cookers are convenient for some dishes, it is recommended you do not cook frozen ingredients in one without thawing them first. Quick-cook ingredients like pasta, rice, grains, fish, seafood, and thin cuts of meat are also not recommended, as they will overcook in a slow cooker. Dairy is also not recommended, as prolonged heating will curdle and separate it.
Can you keep food warm in a slow cooker?
Most slow cookers have a warm function, making them ideal for buffets or for keeping a meal warm until you’re ready to eat. All the slow cookers we tested had a warm function, which automatically turned on once the cooking cycle ended.
Why We’re the Experts
Irvin Lin is a food blogger and freelance writer who has written many reviews for Serious Eats, including stand mixers, half-sheet pans, and bowl scrapers. He is an IACP-award-winning photographer, an IACP-nominated blogger, and a blue-ribbon baker. For this review, we tested eight slow cookers by using all of them to cook dried white beans. We then used the winners to sear and stew pulled pork. Throughout testing, we noted how easy the slow cookers were to use and clean, and if they produced tender (but not mushy) results.