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Small Slow Cookers

We looked for a model that was consistent and easy to use—and could guarantee perfectly cooked dinners.

What We Learned

We used to turn to our slow cooker only when we were cooking for company or making a big batch of stew meant to last for several meals (our favorite model holds 6 quarts). But these days, many manufacturers are selling smaller models, too, offering the same set-it-and-forget-it convenience to small families—or for small kitchens. (For comparison, a 6-quart slow cooker can fit eight chicken thighs or more; smaller cookers fit about four thighs.)

To assess these smaller versions, we bought eight 4-quart models priced from about $20 to roughly $130. Half featured digital programmable timers; the rest had manual controls that can’t be programmed. One model lets you brown food right in the pot rather than in a separate pan and doubles as a rice and risotto cooker. Another has a latching lid so that it can travel without spills. Slow cookers are designed to cook food gently over a long period of time. Such low-and-slow cooking turns tough meats tender and succulent and produces flavorful sauces and stews. We looked for a model that would heat up quickly to get food into the safe zone and then maintain a simmer; according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the meat’s internal temperature must reach at least 140 degrees within 2 hours.

A good slow cooker should also produce perfect results on both low and high settings, and in recipes with lots of sauce or very little. For our first test, we made chicken thighs in a hearty tomato sauce, a recipe that has plenty of liquid and cooks on high for 3 to 4 hours. All but one of the cookers easily reached a safe 140 degrees in less than 2 hours. And even after 5 hours that same problem cooker—plus one other model—failed to bring the chicken to doneness (175 degrees). The other models produced juicy chicken in nice thick, chunky sauces.

Next we made smothered steaks for two, which braise for 4 to 5 hours on the high setting with a moderate amount of liquid. Here one of the models that had struggled in the previous test produced tough, chewy steaks; two other models ran hot and scorched the sauce. But the rest performed well. Pushing our slow cookers to the max, we ran an extreme test: sweet-and-sour sticky ribs for two. This dish cooks on low with very little moisture for 7 to 8 hours. Only two of the cookers yielded juicy, tender ribs. The two models that succeeded had also aced the chicken and steak tests.

To help us understand these recipe test results, we recorded the temperature of each cooker while heating 2½ quarts of water for 6 hours, first on high and then on low. Some cookers shot up to the boiling point of 212 degrees and maintained a roaring boil throughout the tests...