This article originally appeared on Food & Wine.
Slow cookers are certainly popular—over 80 percent of American households has one. In such a crowded field, it’s tricky to sort out which is the best one to buy, especially when they all seem pretty much identical. I’ve spent the last year doing almost nothing but slow cook, writing a book called Adventures in Slow Cooking, which will be published in October by William Morrow.
My apartment looks like Hoarders: Slow Cooker Edition. I’ve learned that there are variables among slow cooker models that make a big difference in both your experience using the appliance and in the quality of the finished dish.
The slow cooker was invented by Irving Naxon in 1940. He called his gadget a Naxon Beanery, as it was inspired by the slow-simmered Jewish bean stew called cholent. In the ‘70s, he sold the rights to the Rival company, which rebranded it Crock-Pot. Some modern versions offer useful programmability and other bells and whistles, but the basic cooking mechanism hasn’t changed much since Naxon first came up with it. The pot (or “crock”) sits inside a casing that contains a wrap-around electrical heating element. The control panel on the outside of the casing offers warm, low and high heat settings.
The super-simple, closed design of the slow cooker is at the heart of its strengths and its weaknesses: It excels at any dish that requires low, moist heat. Obviously, that includes anything braised or steamed, but it can also gently poach delicate fish, or be deployed as a water bath for making foolproof custards and cheesecakes. It uses less energy than the stove or oven (most require about the same wattage as a lightbulb or two), and you can leave it on all day without worrying you’re going to burn your house down.
However, a slow cooker can over-cook your food. Modern models run considerably hotter than the originals from the ‘70s, because of concerns about food safety. (The rule of thumb is that cooked food should not be held between 40˚ and 140˚ for more than four hours.) And there’s no standard temperature for the low, hot and warm settings. They can vary by as much as 30 degrees from model to model. That’s why it’s so important to choose the right machine: If you are using the slow cooker for all-day cooking, you want one that runs as low and slow as possible.
So, out of the hundreds of slow cookers on the market, I tested some of the most popular to find out which one performs the best. I started with these three guiding principles:
1. The most useful size for a slow cooker is a five- to seven-quart oval. A six-quart oval slow cooker can make a recipe that serves four, but it will also accommodate large roasts or whole chickens. A two-quart souffle dish or a loaf pan can fit inside, for making bread pudding or cheesecake. There’s nothing you can do with a four-quart slow cooker that you can’t do with a six-quart, but the reverse is not true. There’s no question that if you’re going to buy one slow cooker, it should be this size and shape.
2. Programmability is a must-have feature. A programmable slow cooker allows you to set cook time and heat level (say, 4 hours on low) and after the time has elapsed, the cooker will automatically switch to warm, decreasing the temperature. The warm setting shouldn’t be abused—you can’t just leave chicken on warm for four hours and expect it to still be juicy. But it’s a lifesaver for a gap of a few hours between when a recipe is done and when you get home. Dishes like marinara sauce and polenta can sit on warm for hours without suffering. The older and simpler models just run on whatever heat level you’ve set it to until you get home and switch it off, making overcooking much more likely.
3. It is nice, but not necessary, to have the ability to sear or brown in the slow cooker insert. Many recipes call for sautéing aromatics and/or browning meat before slow cooking. If you can do this in the slow cooker insert, you don’t have to use a separate skillet on the stovetop.
Starting with those parameters, I tested seven popular slow cookers from six different brands, four with browning ability, to see which offered the best user experience and low, even cooking.
The Slow Cookers
Models with the ability to brown
A note on one omission: I did not include the best-selling slow cooker on Amazon, the Crock-Pot 6-Quart Programmable Cook & Carry Slow Cooker, because, over months of use, I have found that it runs unacceptably hot, reaching a full, rolling boil when set to low for even a few hours.
Temperature stability: Can the slow cooker hold a low temperature (well below a boil, which is 212˚) for at least six hours?
Warming: When switched to warm, does the heat drop precipitously to a very low (but still food-safe) temperature?
Even cooking: Does it cook evenly on both high and low, or does it have hot spots that will scorch delicate dishes, like stratas, that are cooked directly in the insert?
Controls: Is the control panel intuitive and easy to program and read?
Alarms: Does it have an alarm when the cook time has elapsed?
Comfort: How hot do the insert handles and lid get when cooking?
Searing: For those with searing ability: Does it sauté an onion and brown chicken skin just as well as a skillet does?
To answer those questions, I performed three tests on all of the cookers.
Temperature tracking: I filled each cooker with 12 cups of cold (around 50˚) water. I then set them to cook on low for six hours and tracked the temperature of each one with an identical probe thermometer to see how low the low setting really was—ideally, it should not rise much above 200˚. (In reality, the cookers ranged from 180˚ to 205˚ after four hours on low. For braising, I prefer a bare simmer, with a bubble breaking the surface of the liquid every now and then, which happens around 190˚.) I then let them switch to warm for four hours to see how quickly and dramatically the temperature would drop—the lower the better, as long as it stays above 140˚.
Beans: To check the evenness of the high heat setting, I cooked one pound of soaked black beans with 6 cups of water in each slow cooker on high heat until they were tender, which took between three and six hours. I was looking for beans that were all nicely tender at the same time, rather than beans that overcooked around the edges before the ones in the middle were done.
Strata: Making a braise is too easy; any slow cooker can do that. A strata—essentially a savory bread pudding—is a more revealing test. Slow cookers can make lovely, delicate-textured stratas, but some models have hot spots along the wall of the insert, where it’s closest to the heating element. Those spots will cause uneven browning and scorching on the edges of the strata. I lined each slow cooker with parchment and then assembled this strata in each one, adapting the recipe slightly by upping the egg quantity to six for extra structure and swapping the Gruyere for cheddar, because, well, that’s what I had. I then cooked it on low for 4 hours.
I added one more test for the three cookers with stovetop-safe inserts:
Browning and sautéing: Stovetop-safe inserts should perform as well as a skillet, so I tested their ability to sauté and brown. In each one, I sautéed one large yellow onion in one tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, to see if it would get evenly soft and translucent within 10 minutes. I also browned skin-on chicken thighs over high heat in one tablespoon of canola oil, leaving them undisturbed for 8 minutes before flipping. I was looking for deep, even browning on the chicken skin and some fond (browned bits) left behind in the insert.
Our Favorite Slow Cookers
The best slow cooker: KitchenAid 6-quart Programmable Slow Cooker with Glass Lid ($78 on Amazon)
What worked: This cooker ran the lowest and slowest by far: After six hours on low it registered only 180˚ (the lowest temperature of all seven) and when it kicked over to warm it fell all the way to 160˚ within the first hour and then to 147˚ after four hours—again, the lowest temperatures of the bunch. Since many people use a slow cooker for all-day cooking, the ability to actually hold a low temperature is the most important feature a slow cooker can offer, and it’s what really sets this one apart.
The model is unique in that it has an internal thermostat that makes tiny, continuous adjustments to keep the temperature low, well below boiling. Most other cookers let the temperature climb slowly without adjustment. The electrical heating element is also specially insulated to prevent hot spots, ensuring evenly distributed heat. This was the only cooker to take six hours to cook the beans (the average time was four hours), but when they were finally done, they were perfectly creamy, without any breakage. (And presumably, if you want to cook something quickly, you’re not using the slow cooker.) The strata was tender and evenly golden around the edges.
In addition to dependably low heat, this cooker has a wonderfully simple, intuitive control panel that is very easy to set and read. There are separate buttons for the three heat settings and + and – buttons that allow you to adjust the cook time up and down in 30-minute increments. The brightly lit display counts the time down as it cooks and an alarm sounds when the cook time has elapsed. When it switches over to warm, the timer starts from zero and begins counting up, so when you get home, it’s obvious how long it’s been running on warm. During cooking, the lid handle stays cool enough to touch with your bare hands, as do the insert’s handles.
What didn’t: This was the only slow cooker to fulfill all the criteria. It doesn’t offer in-insert browning, so you have to use a separate skillet for that, but the dependable slow heat and excellent design is worth washing an extra dish.
Best for stovetop searing: Hamilton Beach 6-Quart Programmable Stovetop Slow Cooker ($77 on Amazon)
What worked: I liked that this model ran slow, reaching 183˚ after six hours on low and then falling to 169˚ after one hour on warm, and all the way down to 150˚ after four hours on warm. It evenly cooked beans in three and a half hours, and made a delicate, uniformly browned strata. Unlike traditional slow cookers, which have a stoneware insert, this one is made of nonstick coated aluminum, making it stovetop safe—and also much lighter and easier to handwash than the heavier crocks. Over medium-high heat on the stovetop, it can sauté an onion to translucency in about 10 minutes. Over high heat, it can brown chicken thighs to a crisp, medium gold in about 8 minutes, and even though it is nonstick, which is never ideal for searing, there was some fond left on the bottom of the pan.
I also really appreciated this cooker’s easy-to-use control panel. (You’d think a good control panel would be a common thing, but it’s not.) This one has a large dial that satisfyingly clicks into place to set the heat level, and + and – buttons to adjust the time by 30-minute increments. The handle on the lid stays cool enough to touch, though the handles on the insert do not.
What didn’t: I wish that there was an alarm when the cook time elapses, and that the insert’s handles didn’t get quite so hot during cooking. The insert is not dishwasher safe, and you have to remember not to use metal implements on the nonstick surface.
For in-cooker searing: All-Clad 7-Quart Gourmet Slow Cooker with All-in-One Browning ($300 on Williams-Sonoma)
What worked: I really like this machine even though it has some drawbacks. It runs a bit hot, topping out at 201˚ on low, but it has the same kind of internal thermostat that KitchenAid does, so it holds at about 200˚, still well below the boil, rather than continuing to climb. It is also well-insulated, cooking both beans and strata very evenly, without any hot spots. The beans were done in three hours, the shortest cooking time of all, partly because this model runs a little hot and partly because it is larger than the others, at seven quarts.
What I really like about the All-Clad is its shape and searing ability, which makes it ideal for braises, soups and stews. The insert, which is made of nonstick-coated aluminum, is long, rectangular and relatively shallow compared to the others, with a ton of bottom surface area. You can easily sear five large chicken thighs in it without crowding the pan. It is stovetop safe, and performed excellently in sautéing the onion and searing the chicken thighs. But it also has the ability to sear when set into the cooker casing—the only one I tested that has this feature—and it actually works better that way. It gets screamingly hot and can sear chicken skin to a deep, rich brown or quickly sauté an onion to golden. It feels really convenient to start and finish a braise using one pot in one place.
This model alarms when the cook time has elapsed and counts up from zero on warm. It’s also a beautiful, sleek stainless steel machine—the luxury SUV of slow cookers.
What didn’t: This cooker is the most expensive by far at about $250. The control panel is easy to read, but not the most intuitive to set. It has minimum programmable times of four hours on low and two hours on high, so you can’t set it for, say, 2 hours on low, which can be irritating. (This is most likely a paternal attempt to ensure food safety.) The handle on the lid gets so hot that you need a potholder to open it, which seems like an avoidable annoyance, especially at this price. As with all nonstick cookware, you have to remember not to use metal implements.
Bella 5-Quart Programmable Slow Cooker
What worked: This is a basic slow cooker that’s a good value. It topped out at 192˚ after six hours on low and eventually fell to 145˚ after four hours on warm.
What didn’t: The beans were respectable, but the ones against the back wall of the insert cooked through much faster than the others. That’s because this model has a major hot spot there: The strata burned across the entire back side. The control panel was easy to read but not intuitive to set—the power button doubles as the “set” button, which doesn’t make sense to me. There’s no alarm when the cook time has elapsed and it will only run on warm for four hours, half the time of the others.
Hamilton Beach Set ‘n Forget Programmable Slow Cooker With Temperature Probe, 6-Quart
What worked: This model used to be my favorite—it’s a reliable workhorse, an excellent value, and it comes with its own probe thermometer, so you can set it to switch to warm when a certain temperature is reached. It also runs fairly slow, reaching 186˚ after six hours on low, but the warm feature doesn’t work as well as others. (It only fell to 165˚ after four hours on warm, the hottest of the bunch.) It produced evenly creamy beans. I love that it is easy to set and has a loud alarm when it starts cooking and when it finishes. The handle on the lid stays cool enough to touch and has a bonus spoon rest.
What didn’t: The warm setting doesn’t fall low enough. And it has two significant hot spots: The strata burned on both narrow ends.
Cuisinart 6.5 Quart Programmable Slow Cooker
What worked: This model made a very respectable showing—it’s also one of my old favorites. It cooks nice and slowly, rising to only 181˚ over six hours on low, the second lowest of the bunch after the KitchenAid. It cooked beans perfectly. The control panel is easy to use and read and it beeps when the cook time elapses. The handle on the lid gets a bit warm but is still cool enough to touch.
What didn’t: The warm setting didn’t fall low enough (over an hour, the temperature decreased only 10 degrees, as opposed to 20-plus degrees in other models) and it has a small but noticeable hot spot where the strata burned against the back wall.
Crock-Pot Programmable Slow Cooker with Stovetop Safe Cooking Pot
What worked: This nonstick coated aluminum insert did a fine job sautéing the onion and browning chicken skin on the stovetop. It made respectable—if slightly unevenly cooked—beans and a uniformly golden strata.
What didn’t: In my experience, Crock-Pots run too hot. This one was the hottest of the bunch, rising to 205˚ after six hours on low. The control panel is easy to use, but it’s hard to tell when it has started cooking—there’s no indicator light, so you have to stand there and make sure the timer starts counting down. There’s also no alarm when the cook time finishes.
This article originally appeared on Foodandwine.com