Small Slow Cookers

From Cook's Country | August/September 2013

Overview:

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.

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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… read more

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.

___________________________________________________________

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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  • Product Tested

    Results Key:

    Good ★ ★ ★ Fair ★ ★ Poor
  • Prices are subject to change.
  • Recommended - Winner

    Cuisinart 4-Quart Cook Central 3-in-1 Multicooker

    This new "multicooker"—a slow cooker that can also brown/saute and steam food—produced perfect chicken, steaks, and ribs, with no scorching or hot spots. Its programmable timer can be set to cook for up to 24 hours and then automatically switches over to “keep warm." We liked its lightweight, easy-to-clean, unbreakable metal insert with extra-large, comfy handles, and its oval shape, clear lid, and intuitive controls. The brown/saute and steam functions both work as promised. A nice bonus is that the browning function, with adjustable temperature control from 150 F to 400 F, lets you sear food before slow-cooking, or reduce sauces afterward, without dirtying a second pan.

    • Design ★★★
    • Cooking ★★★

    $129.95

    BUY NOW Amazon
  • Recommended - Best Buy

    Hamilton Beach Stay or Go 4-Quart Slow Cooker

    This cooker performed well, producing perfect ribs, steak, and chicken. A gasket and clips on the lid let you take your cooker to a potluck without risking spills. It’s comparatively low tech: The “off,” “low,” “high,” and “warm” settings are on a manual dial—which is its drawback. You can’t set it to turn off or switch to “keep warm” on its own.

    • Design ★★
    • Cooking ★★★

    $26.99

    BUY NOW Amazon
  • Recommended with Reservations

    West Bend 4 Qt. Oval Crockery Cooker

    This model performed fine with chicken Provençal, bringing the thighs north of 140 degrees in about an hour. It cooked steak to tenderness (although the sauce scorched slightly). But ribs developed a tough leathery crust wherever they touched the hot bottom of the insert. The model is manually controlled, which means you must switch off the cooker to stop cooking.

    • Design ★★
    • Cooking ★★

    $29.99

  • Recommended with Reservations

    Breville the Risotto Plus

    This 4-quart model is a slow cooker, rice cooker, and risotto maker, and it works OK, as long as you don’t cook low-moisture recipes, like our ribs, which turned into jerky. The instruction manual calls for a greater minimum amount of liquid than we call for in some of our recipes. The insert lacks handles and is the only insert that isn’t dishwasher-safe. On the plus side, the sauté function worked perfectly—no need to brown foods in a separate pan before placing them in the slow cooker.

    • Design ★½
    • Cooking ★★

    $129.99

  • Recommended with Reservations

    Proctor Silex 4 Quart Slow Cooker

    The least expensive model we tested, this cooker produced good chicken and steaks. But without liquid to buffer the ribs, the very hot surface of the insert burned their edges and overcooked them; plus, when we removed the ribs, they fell apart. Because the cooker is manually controlled, you can’t set it to turn off or switch to “keep warm.” The insert’s handles were small.

    • Design ★½
    • Cooking ★★

    $19.99

  • Not Recommended

    Crock-Pot 4-Qt. Programmable Slow Cooker

    While this model is programmable, it has silly limits: You can set it for only 4 to 6 hours on high or 8 to 10 hours on low, and the warm setting runs for only 1 hour—as opposed to 8 hours with our winner. If you’re making a recipe that has to cook for 3 hours, say, you’re out of luck. While ribs cooked fine, the steaks were tough, and the chicken thighs never passed 169 degrees—short of our desired 175 degrees (although safe to eat).

    • Design
    • Cooking

    $39.99

  • Not Recommended

    Calphalon 4 Qt. Digital Slow Cooker

    With its easy-to-set timer and digital controls, this model seemed promising. The elongated rectangular shape fit foods nicely, and we liked the large handles on the dishwasher-safe insert. Chicken cooked well and its abundant sauce thickened perfectly. However, sauces in other tests burned in the oversized insert. Steaks were overcooked and onions burned. Ribs tasted bitter and scorched.

    • Design
    • Cooking

    $79.95

  • Not Recommended

    Crock-Pot Manual Slow Cooker

    Chicken thighs never reached a safe temperature. The water-temperature performance was inconsistent, and cooking results reflected that. We retested the model by ordering other copies, but we had the same problems. While manual controls were our only design gripe, this model’s cooking was fatally flawed.

    • Design ★½
    • Cooking ½

    $24.99

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