Read the individual reviews:
There isn't much you can do with a slow cooker that you can't accomplish with a Dutch oven on a stove top. You still have to brown your meats and sauté your onions ahead of time. You still have to chop, dredge, and deglaze. But there is one important thing a slow cooker will let you do: walk away.
However, there's more than just convenience going on here. Stewing meat for long periods over low heat breaks down collagen and other connective tissues. And those low temperatures make it pretty difficult to overcook your ingredients. Come home a bit late and you'll still be greeted with delicious, fork-tender cuts.
So a slow cooker is the perfect piece of throwback gadgetry for the busy modern chef—which might explain why companies from All-Clad to the original Crock-Pot are constantly coming out with new takes on this 40-year-old tech. New models vary widely in price, functions, and features. Some heat the cooking vessel on all sides, while others heat only from the bottom. Basic cookers go for less than $30, while multiuse models, which double as griddles and steamers, can cost more than $200.
After testing several, here's what we found: The most important feature of a slow cooker is what you put in it. When it comes to this category of kitchen gadgetry, low-cost and simple wins.
If you already have a slow cooker, there's a good chance it used to belong to your parents. Because older models consist of little more than a pot and a heating element, they tend to last forever. Newer designs with programmable electronics and other added features may wear out faster—especially units with nonstick metal pots. Those surface treatments can be damaged by metal utensils, eventually wear off, and can be toxic if they get into your food. Of course, stone pots will shatter if dropped. So before buying, it's good to look into the availability of replacement pots; some manufacturers are better about that than others.
Multiuse: Some slow cookers can also sear, simmer, boil, and even double as griddles. Others come with steam baskets and roasting racks. For small kitchens, they can pack a lot of functionality into a tight space.
Programmable: These aren't DVRs. Programmable settings, on slow cookers that offer them, are generally limited to time and temperature. Handy but not necessary.
Steel vs. Stone: Traditional ceramic or porcelain pots are heavy, but they're cheap and, with their low thermal conductivity, great at distributing and retaining heat. More expensive slow cookers boast metal pots, which are much lighter and often clean up better, thanks to nonstick coatings.
How We Tested
We carried, cleaned, and programmed. And we filled each pot with chuck roast, broth, carrots, and potatoes, then walked away for six hours. The results: Stuffed friends, lots of leftovers, and proof that there's no reason to spend big on a slow cooker.