Cooks Illustrated Best Kitchen Tools: Crock Pots and Slow Cookers

January 5, 2014 · 16 comments

UPDATED 9/29/14:

In their newest review of slow cookers, Cook’s Illustrated introduces a new “digital 6-quart slow-cookers under $100″ review that digs into some of the new technologies that are now available in slow cookers.  They tested a total of seven models, some of which include recent innovations such as self-stirring pots, combo units that go from the stove to the cooker base, internal temperature thermostat jobbers, and models that speed up or slow down cooking time so the meal is completed at a specific time.

Bottom line: the tried-and-true technology variables of even cooking and easier-to-use interfaces won the day with a new winner in the category: the KitchenAid 6-Quart Slow Cooker. The previous winner, the Crock Pot Touchscreen was bumped to a highly respectable second place, while the All Clad Slow Cooker with Ceramic Insert (once upon a time featured in second place in “no longer available online” review) wasn’t in the running at all due to its price coming in over $100.

The content below updates our original 1/5/14 blogpost to incorporate findings from the latest Cook’s Illustrated slow cooker review.


Slow Cookers

The “Highly Recommended” winner of the latest Cook’s Illustrated slow cooker review is a KitchenAid 6-Quart Slow Cooker that features four temperature settings, 24-hour programmability, and a 6-quart removable, oval-shaped ceramic vessel:


KitchenAid 6-Quart Slow Cooker

The winner of an earlier Cook’s review (and the second-place finisher in the current review) is the Crock-Pot Countdown Touchscreen Digital Slow Cooker, an oval-shaped slow cooker with 6-1/2-quart removable stoneware crock, touchscreen control panel, and programmable cooking time:


Crock-Pot Touchscreen

The Crock-Pot Touchscreen is easy to use (read: don’t need to be a computer scientist to work the control panel), features a glass lid so you can monitor wazzup, and a timer that goes to 20 hours, even on high.

Slow Cooker-1
Too bad we hadn’t read the Cook’s review before we bought our All-Clad.

The All-Clad Slow Cooker with Ceramic Insert is in the increasingly rare “Slow Cookers Over $100″ category. Even though this slow cooker is marketed as being a “26-hour max cycle programmable” model, it will only stay on the high setting for a max of 8 hours before switching to the warming mode.

That 8-hour maximum on the High setting has complicated the preparation of more than a few of our meals. I have, on several occasions, stumbled through the dark to re-boot a batch of our favorite fantastic 24-hour baked beans (recipe below) that needed LOTS of liquid and the high setting, fer instance.

Small Slow Cookers

Now this makes a lot of sense to me: a small slow cooker for smaller families or smaller kitchens. Of course, you are still looking for a model that is consistent, easy to use, good-looking, low maintenance, and cheerful first thing in the morning.

 

 


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

Voila! Meet the perfect contender in the newly emerging field of “multicookers”: slow cookers that can also brown, saute, and steam food. The Cuisinart Multicooker can accommodate about half the quantity of food of its larger brethren and also has… wait for it… a programmable timer that can cook on high for up to 24-hours before automatically switching over to “keep warm.” According to Cook’s, everything (brown/saute/steam) works according to plan with the benefit of being able to sear food before cooking or reduce sauces afterward without mucking up another pot.

Portable Crock Pots

 


Crock-Pot Lunch Crock Warmer

Okay, not sure why exactly we would give over cabinet space for a portable crock pot, unless all those Facebook postings about the evils of microwave ovens are true. However, if you find yourself in need of a little base and insert to carry and reheat food somewhere with electricity yet not your home or using a microwave oven, this Crock-Pot Lunch Crock Warmer is apparently the best portable crock pot on offer, recommended “with reservations.”

Pros: It works. The crock pot heats quickly to 140 degrees and after a couple of hours hits a max of about 175 degrees and stays there until you shut it off. You can also leave the base at the office and just schlep the 20-ounce insert back and forth from home.

Cons: Since the lid can leak after multiple heating/cooling cycles and trips through the dishwasher, Cook’s recommends putting the insert into a zip-lock bag for transport.

Slow Cooker Tips and Tricks

Here are five slow cooker tips and tricks to ensure that your slow cooker meals are as fantastic for your health and palate as they are for your time management resolutions.

  1. Fill your slow cooker to the right level to make sure you hit the timing in the recipe and to keep your food safe. Overfilling (over 2/3 full) can result in a slower-to-temp ramp, leaving your food (especially meat) in the dangerous “luke-warm” zone where bacteria are most comfortable and breed happily.
  2. Pick your weapon: use the correct size. Most slow cooker recipes are created with a 5-6 quart slow cooker in mind. The key is to make sure that the vessel is neither under- nor over-filled (see gross bacteria warning above).
  3. Use only thawed food and bring liquids to a simmer (microwave works great for this) before adding them to the pot to jump start the initial “heat up” process. Cut meat into pieces to make sure they don’t take too long (see icky bacteria insights above), or end up being undercooked entirely.
  4. Glass lids help avoid the temptation to lift the lid and peek, letting precious heat and moisture escape. Don’t peek!
  5. Invest in one of the new multicookers for maximizing flavor. There’s nothing like some toothsome carmelized bits from searing and sauteing right in the pan and then deglazing with whatever liquid you add, all without the added step (and mess) of using another pan, to amp the “wow” factor of your next easy-peasy culinary masterpiece.

For more slow cooker tips and tricks and for some KILLER slow cooker recipes, check out these top-rated slow cooker bibles from America’s Test Kitchen:


Slow Cooker Revolution

and the follow up volume:


Slow Cooker Revolution, The Easy Prep Edition

With recipes for everything from Chicken Soft Tacos to Poached Salmon and even Cheesecake, you may never pull out your frying pan again!

24-Hour Slow Cooker Vegetarian Boston Baked Beans

  • 1 pound dried navy, soaked overnight
  • 2 medium onions, grated
  • 1/3 cup molasses
  • 1/3 cup maple syrup
  • 1/4 cup ketchup
  • 1 14.5 oz. can of crushed tomatoes
  • 1.5 teaspoons smoked paprika
  • 1 tablespoon dry mustard
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
  • 2 teaspoons tamari or soya sauce
  • 1/4 cup bourbon or rum
  • 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Freshly cracked pepper

After soaking the beans overnight, drain them, cover with fresh water, and bring to a boil for 5 minutes. Drain again. Whisk together all of the remaining ingredients and place in a slow cooker with the beans. Add water to amply cover the beans.

Cover and cook on high until the beans are very soft, at least 12 hours, although on occasion I’ve left ours for 24 hours and they were fabulous. IMPORTANT: Check periodically and add more water to keep the beans from drying out until they’re soft enough to squish between your tongue and roof of your mouth. You’ll look long an hard to find a recipe that produces richer, browner, and more flavorful baked beans!

Sources:
Small Cook’s Country: Small Slow Cookers, August 1, 2013
Cook’s Country: Slow Cookers, October 1, 2014
Kitchenaid
All-Clad
Crockpot

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Nancy R January 5, 2014 at 9:14 pm

Any tips for cooking Osso Bucco? Thanks for another great review!

Reply

kathy January 6, 2014 at 3:13 pm

Hey Nancy!
Thanks for the kind words.
While I can’t find anything specific in our Cook’s materials on slow cookers and Osso Buco, you might find this interesting: http://www.finecooking.com/recipes/slow-cooker-osso-buco.aspx. And with the new multicookers that are out there, you could do the braising, deglazing, and sauce reduction steps right in the slow cooker!

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