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Small Slow Cookers

Update: September 2013
Our winning Cuisinart 4-quart slow cooker has been discontinued by the manufacturer. We reviewed its closest replacement, the Cuisinart 4-Quart Cook Central 3-in-1 Multicooker and incorporated it into our results chart.

How we tested

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 $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—these were the very models that overcooked ribs and scorched steaks. One model’s temperature climbed painfully slowly, as it had when cooking chicken. Each subsequent time that we tested this particular model, it behaved differently. We ordered additional copies of the same model and repeated our tests. The copies performed no better. The best slow cookers reached 140 degrees quickly and then slowly climbed over a period of hours. With these models, foods reached safe temperatures and then simmered gently to tenderness.

Which models were easy to use? Cookers with manual controls required that the user return several hours later to switch the pot to “off” or a “keep warm” setting—so much for set it and forget it. We much preferred cookers with digital programmable controls that automatically switched over to “warm.”

As for design, we liked dishwasher-safe inserts with large, easy-to-grip handles. The shape of the inserts mattered less. Although food fit slightly more easily in oval inserts, round and oval cookers performed about the same. In fact, we had one of each for our two top performers. That said, a cooker with an especially spacious oblong insert burned the sauce for the ribs and the steaks. When you’re making smaller amounts of food, too much space is a disadvantage.

In the end, we can recommend two small slow cookers. Our winner was simple to set, and its digital timer meant that we could just walk away. It cooked food well if a little more slowly than other models. One drawback: If your kitchen is cramped, be aware that it is nearly as big as a full-size slow cooker. Our Best Buy, with manual controls and no timer, was far less convenient, but it performed perfectly.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little.

$248.64*
Recommended

Schmidt Brothers Downtown Block

This roomy block completely sheathed our entire winning knife set using just one of its two sides—and quite securely, thanks to long, medium-strength magnet bars. Heavy, with a grippy base, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard made this model extra-safe but also made it a little trickier to insert knives and to clean; the wood block itself showed some minor cosmetic scratching during use.

$141.90*

Schmidt Brothers Midtown Block

This smaller version of the Downtown Block secured all our knives nicely, though the blade of the slicing knife stuck out a bit. With a base lined with grippy material, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard afforded extra protection against contact with blades but made it a little harder to insert knives and to clean; the wood itself got a little scratched during use.

$67.99*
Recommended with Reservations

Swissmar Bamboo Magnetic Knife Block

This small, scratch-resistant model had a stable, rubber-lined base and could hold all our knives, though the blade of the 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a bit. But inch-long gaps between its small magnets made coverage uneven and forced us to find the magnetic hot spots in order to secure the knives. Its acrylic guard made it safer to use but harder to insert knives and to clean.

$49.93*
Not Recommended

Messermeister Walnut Magnet Block

This handsome block was done in by its shape—a tippy, top-heavy quarter-circle that wasn’t tall or broad enough to keep the blades of three knives from poking out. It lacked a nonslip base, and its extra-strong magnets made it unnerving to attach or remove our heavy cleaver. Finally, it got a bit scratched after extensive use.

$129.95*

Epicurean Standing Knife Rack 12"

This magnetic block sheathed all our knives completely, though with a bit of crowding. But it was hard to insert each knife without hitting the block’s decorative slats on way down, and because the block was light and narrow, it wobbled when bumped. Worse, we couldn’t take it apart, so splatters that hit the interior were there to stay. Additionally, the outside stained easily, and when we wiped it down, the unit smelled like wet dog.

$99.95*

Kapoosh Rondelle Knife Block

This model stabilized knives with a mass of stiff, spaghetti-like bristles that shed and nicked easily after extensive use, covering our knives with plastic debris. While all our knives fit securely, several of the blades stuck out, making this unit feel less safe overall. Finally, though the bristles could be removed and cleaned in the dishwasher, their nooks and crannies made this block hard to wash by hand.

$24.99*

Kuhn Rikon Vision Knife Block, Clear

This plastic block required us to aim each knife into the folds of an accordion-pleated insert that was removable for easy cleaning but got nicked easily with repeated use. Because we could only insert the knives vertically, longer knife blades stuck out; a cleaver was too wide to fit. The lightest model in our lineup, this block was dangerously top-heavy when loaded with knives.

$35.88*