Small Slow Cookers
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 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—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.