Published August 1, 2010. From Cook's Country.
Could we get Cadillac performance at a bargain price?
Our favorite slow cooker costs nearly $200. We recently pitted it against six new, less expensive models to see if we could save money without sacrificing performance. We limited our lineup mainly to oval slow cookers, which can fit a large roast, with capacities of 6 quarts or more, so we’d be able to feed a crowd.
Six of the seven models we tested had programmable timers and warming modes, features we like. We also like clear glass lids, which we can see through to assess the food as it cooks. Inserts that have handles and that can be washed in the dishwasher earned extra points. It seems obvious that you’d need to know if the slow cooker was on; astoundingly, we found a few models that gave no such indication until the timer started its countdown. The best control panel was simple to set and clearly indicated that the cooker was programmed.
A slow cooker should produce perfect results on all settings. We simmered pot roast on low. Nine hours later, we variously uncovered dry, tough meat; meat that disintegrated; and juicy meat in rich, beefy sauce. On high, we prepared a meat sauce full of tomatoes, sausage, flank steak, and pork ribs—what Italian-Americans call Sunday gravy. As well as extra-thick sauces and watery ones, we encountered moist, tender ribs and beef, and shrunken, tough meat. We reasoned that heat variations probably were responsible for the differences.
To find out how much heat each cooker was generating, we heated 4 quarts of water in each model on the high setting for six hours, using a probe to record the temperature at 1-minute intervals. Dried-out sauces and blown-out meat correlated with slow cookers that reached 212 degrees. In contrast, machines that never topped 190 degrees yielded watery sauces and tough meat. The best results came from models that cooked between these temperatures.
We figured temperatures must be gentler on low settings. Actually, most slow cookers hit roughly the same maximums (within 5 degrees), and in two models the temperatures produced at low settings were the same as or higher than those produced at high. The difference was the time they took to get there. On high, most slow cookers heated up in two to three hours; on low, they took five to seven hours. Frankly, we think it would be much clearer if the buttons were labeled “fast” and “slow.” There was one exception: whether set to high or low, one model reached maximum temperature in about 1½ hours, but this temperature was 12 degrees cooler on the low setting (195 versus 207 degrees).
Finally, we tested the limits of slow cookers using a French onion soup recipe that needs to simmer on high for 10 hours. All but three models automatically switched to a warming cycle after a maximum of six hours.
Two slow cookers were neck and neck, producing excellent food in well-designed machines. But our old favorite model stops cooking after six hours on high and costs about $70 more than our new winner. The latter can run up to 20 hours, even on high; offers an easy, intuitive control panel; and cooked our dinner perfectly.