Cheap Slow Cookers
The idea of slow cooking food has been around almost as long as humanity's ability to make fire. The earliest peoples realized that the best method for cooking tough plant roots was slow-cooking them in fire for long periods of time. Although taste for this technique diminished as technology and the domestic arts evolved, interest in slow cooking has revived in recent years. These days you can find good cheap slow cookers that cost less than $40 and are capable of delivering a meal fit for a family. Just throw a few ingredients into the pot, turn it on, and dinner is ready when you are, several unattended hours later.
Cheap Slow Cookers Buying Guide
The Rival Corporation released the first branded Crock-Pot in 1971. The product was a huge success and instantly became a household name.
Our cheap slow cooker picks are all no-muss/no-fuss kitchen gadgets that produce moist, flavorful dishes. Topping our list are the Hamilton Beach 33155 (starting at $20), a 5-quart, oval-shaped slow cooker with a rubber gasket around the lid, and the 1.5-quart Proctor Silex 33015 (starting at $15), a basic model that appeals for its small size and big performance. Two other cheap slow cookers we like are the 7-quart Crock-Pot SCCPVP700-S (starting at $38), the rare programmable slow cooker in the under-$40 price range that earns positive reviews, and the 6-quart Hamilton Beach Stay or Go 33163 (starting at $25), with its cook-and-carry design features, including latches to secure the lid and a nook to store the included serving spoon. A cheap slow cooker that turns off consumers is the programmable 5-quart Crock-Pot 38501-W (starting at $23), which reviewers say cooks too hot and too fast.
Modern slow cookers come in a variety of shapes and sizes and boast a variety of bells and whistles. Cheap slow cooker sizes range from 1 to 7 quarts; the cooking vessel may be round, oval-shaped, or square. Some models feature digital control settings, programmable cooking functions, multiple separated sections, and a rack for roasting. While these features up the convenience factor, they're mostly available on slow cookers priced in the triple-digit zone, which is well above our Cheapism ceiling.
So, what do you get on the best cheap slow cookers? There are a few essential features that are nearly standard issue. One is a removable, dishwasher-safe ceramic container; ceramics help with insulation and heat distribution and a removable container makes clean-up much faster. Another must-have is a clear glass lid with a "stay-cool" handle. Slow cookers work by keeping heat in, so a clear lid lets you see what's going on inside without having to constantly lift it. Several heat settings are also important, because the options mean you'll be able to prepare a wider array of dishes and can safely leave the kitchen without fear of overcooking the food.
Some cheap slow cookers sport additional features that aren't necessary but can be helpful. The most common of these is a lid with a rubber gasket that helps seal in moisture and latches or straps that keep food from spilling out during cooking or transportation. One desirable but rare "extra" on a cheap slow cooker is a programmable function that lets you select a heat setting and a duration (time) setting; once the time runs out, the slow cooker automatically switches to "keep warm" to prevent drying out. And finally, an indicator light is a safety feature that lets you know whether the slow cooker is on or not.
The big players in the slow cookers category have remained constant over the years. Rival's Crock-Pot brand is still thriving and dominates the slow-cooker market. Other big players include Hamilton Beach, Cuisinart, Kitchen Aid, and Frigidaire. Among these brands, Rival and Hamilton Beach offer the greatest selection of cheap slow cookers.
Slow Cooker Reviews
Budget slow cookers are rarely assessed by the experts, but slow cooker reviews posted by consumers are plentiful. The reviews we found indicate that the models that top our list are all stellar performers. Despite a few gripes about overcooked food, plastic parts that break, or units that failed even with limited use, users seem thrilled with the convenience, pricing, and overall value of these small appliances.
Slow Cookers Performance.Must-have features aside, what makes or breaks a best slow cooker is its performance. Slow cookers, after all, are not just another appliance, but for many consumers and their families it serves as the primary food-prep tool. As scores of slow cookers reviews attest, the best slow cookers are a welcome convenience that relieves consumers of the "when's-dinner-ready?" anxiety and can be a confidence-builder for novice cooks. The end results in terms of taste, texture, and "finish" (is the food cooked through? is it burnt?) distinguish the best slow cookers from the don't bothers.
Slow cookers are often associated in the popular imagination with stews and chili. But thinking outside the proverbial pot can expand your culinary horizons. Slow cookers reviews indicate that these one-pot wonders can churn out a variety of foods, from small servings of oatmeal and dips to family-size meatball feasts and roasts, that satisfy the hungry hordes.
The 1.5-quart Proctor Silex 33015 (starting at $15) manages steel-cut oats and multigrain soup for breakfast, according to slow cooker reviews on Amazon as well as chicken legs with vegetables for dinner. Consumers rave about the delectable results and at least one mother is tickled that her twenty-something son, now out on his own, has served up tasty stews with this model. Consumers who posted slow cooker reviews at Walmart laud the Hamilton Beach 33155 (starting at $20) for the range of meal possibilities, like shredded beef and the fixings for fajitas, and for the enticing aromas wafting through the air after a day of slow cooking. Many consumers report giving this best slow cooker a workout at least several times a week, and one even uses it to cook chicken dinners for a pampered pet.
It's hard to go wrong with the Hamilton Beach 33163 (starting at $25) even if you make up your own recipes, asserts a slow cooker review at Best Buy. Posts on other review sites frequently refer to mouth-watering pulled pork, soups, holiday cider, and Christmas dinner. Experts at How Stuff Works tested the Hamilton Beach 33163 by cooking a large batch of chili and found that the meat was tender and all the flavors well combined after hours of cooking. The large, 7-quart Crock-Pot SCCPVP700-S (starting at $38) can properly cook a 9-pound turkey breast, according to a slow cooker review at Walmart, where several users note the oval shape is particularly well-suited to whole chickens and roasts. Even frozen roasts emerge juicy and fully cooked, its fans say, although a few disgruntled users who commented on Overstock complain that this model cooks too hot (food is burnt and dry) or too slow (ingredients barely warm after several hours).
Other amazing slow-cooker feats include a rocky-road chocolate cake and meatloaf-potato-and frozen Italian green bean dinner concocted with the Crock-Pot 3735-WN (starting at $24), reports a gleeful slow cooker review at Amazon. The Crock-Pot 32041-C Little Dipper (starting at $14) stands out for its unusual abilities -- warming up shaving lather or liquids for soldering jewelry, say -- as much for its intended use as a sauce and dip warmer. (Some slow cookers, including the Crock-Pot SCCPVP700-S and West Bend 84384 (starting at $23), come with a recipe book. For those that don't, we read several slow cooker reviews expressing a desire for one.)
At the opposite end of the performance spectrum sits the Crock-Pot 38501-W (starting at $23). Slow cooker reviews on sites such as Newegg.com blast the temperature control on this model. Users report liquids boil and sputter and foods burn even when set on low; roasts that should take 8 hours turn into shoe leather in less than three, according to slow cooker reviews.
Slow Cooker Capacity
A slow cooker is a slow cooker, and two of its few distinguishing characteristics are slow cooker size, otherwise known as capacity, and shape. Be it a 6-quart slow cooker or a 2-quart model, experts say that optimal results are achieved when the slow cooker is between half and three-quarters full. As for shape, some consumers assert that oval slow cookers outperform round slow cookers because there seems to be more surface area on which to place the ingredients.
The Crock-Pot 32041-C Little Dipper with a 16-ounce capacity is the smallest slow cooker we researched. Next in line are 1- to 2-quart models, like the 1.5-quart Proctor Silex 33015, which are just the right size for a one- to two-person meal. Consumers say it neatly holds a cut-up chicken breast or legs with sauce or some vegetables; singletons report it makes enough food for one dinner plus leftovers.
The most common slow cooker size is the 3- to 5-quart range. These slow cookers, such as the 5-quart Hamilton Beach 33155, are considered "family-size" and perfect for neighborhood potlucks. Home cooks posting at Walmart.com consider the 4-quart West Bend 84384 the right size for most recipes that feed up to four people. The largest capacity slow cookers for home use are 8-quart models, but a 6-quart slow cooker is sufficient for large families or get-togethers and for leftovers destined for the freezer. For many reviewers of the Crock-Pot SCCPVP700-S, its 7-quart capacity is their favorite feature.
Our research into 6-quart slow cookers and other popular sizes also found that the actual usable capacity may be smaller than advertised. For example, user reviews claim that the cooking vessel in the 5-quart Hamilton Beach 33155 only holds 4 quarts worth of ingredients.
The shape of the slow cooker matters to some users, and we found that oval slow cookers are often preferred to their round counterparts. Among those we researched, the Hamilton Beach 33155, Hamilton Beach 33141 (starting at $24), Hamilton Beach 33163, Crock-Pot SCCPVP700-S, and West Bend 84384 are all oval slow cookers. Users assert that the oval shape allows for larger cuts of meat, nicely contains a whole chicken, and works better for casseroles -- even lasagna, according to a comment posted at Amazon. Consumers also say the spacious but efficient design of oval slow cookers hogs less precious counter space than a round slow cooker with the same capacity.
Slow Cooker Lids.The lid on low-cost slow cookers is made of clear glass with a "stay-cool" plastic handle on top. The rounded shape of the glass and the glass itself help collect and distribute moisture during the cooking process. The clarity of the glass lets you see the food without lifting the lid, which would otherwise interfere with the proper functioning of the slow cooker.
There have been two improvements on the standard lid design. First, many slow cookers, especially those marketed as "cook and go" (or some variant thereof) now include a rubber gasket around the rim, which creates a tighter seal and traps moisture within. Absent a gasket, all the steam and pent-up pressure may cause the lid to rattle as steam escapes; models with the rubber gasket generally include a small hole in the lid to vent the steam. The gasket also prevents leaks and spills while moving a full slow-cooker from kitchen to some other venue. Both the Hamilton Beach 33155 and Hamilton Beach 33163 Stay or Go slow cookers sport gaskets.
Consumers do appreciate these rubber seals, noting they make it possible to transport a pot filled with cider, say, to potluck dinners or cookouts without worries about the contents sloshing on to the back seat of the car. But there may be a downside to the seals. Reviews on sites such as Target.com ding the gasket for capturing and retaining cooking odors (think onion) that leach back into future meals.
The second innovation is a mechanism for securing the lid. This arrangement likewise keeps a tighter seal and prevents spillage during cooking or transport. The latches on the Hamilton Beach 33163 Stay or Go get a few shout-outs in user reviews, although one says the combination of side latches and handles make it hard to lift a full pot out of the cooking bay. A strap that wraps around the lid and side handles of the Hamilton Beach 33155 claims both fans and a few critics, the latter saying it doesn't work (either too tight or too loose); some note that the lid says in place even without the band.
Slow Cooker Heat Settings
The best budget slow cookers, including all of our picks, feature three heat settings -- high, low, and keep warm. Most slow cookers at this end of the price range are manual models with a single knob (or dial) made of "stay-cool" plastic that's turned to set the heat level. A few cheap slow cookers, like the Crock-Pot SCCPVP700-S and Crock-Pot 38501-W, qualify as programmable slow cookers with their push-button control for several cook time and heat level combinations (4 or 6 hours on high, 8 or 10 hours on low); when the time runs out, the programmable slow cooker automatically switches to "warm" until the cooker is unplugged. Higher-end programmable slow cookers are more versatile. The Crock-Pot CP SCVT650-PS (starting at $175) can be programmed for up to 26 hours.
Of course, manual slow cookers require the cook to make the switch from high or low to keep warm (or off) at the appointed hour. With a programmable slow cooker, the switchover to warm occurs automatically, so you can leave the pot completely unattended until serving time. The auto-warm feature on the Crock-Pot SCCPVP700-S was the key selling point for several consumers who commented on Walmart.com, although some found the four pre-set heat/time combinations too limiting.
Consumers note that some trial and error may be necessary before finding the heat level and cook time that works for a given recipe. For example, you may start a dish on high for an hour or so and then switch to low for several more hours to complete the cooking. Or, you might determine that four hours on high or ten on low will do the trick. Switching over to warm when cooking is done maintains the status quo for a while.
Indeed, countless reviews of the best cheap slow cookers indicate that consumers rely on the warm setting to prevent food from overcooking, burning, and/or drying out. Expert reviews of the Proctor Silex 33015 list the "keep warm" setting as one of the model's biggest "pros" because it affords busy cooks another level of scheduling flexibility. A pork roast and vegetables that simmered for five hours in the Hamilton Beach 33163 and rested on warm for one hour proved to be mouth-watering, says a consumer post on Overstock. Then there's the Crock-Pot 38501-W, which takes heat from consumers who assert that it runs so hot that the contents boil even when set on warm.
The absence of a warm setting may not be a deal breaker, however. The 3.5-quart Crock-Pot 3735-WN (starting at $24) rates highly with consumers who report on Amazon that the high and low settings are enough functionality to insure a delicious meal.
Slow Cooker Safety.Slow cookers are generally considered to be among the safest of cooking appliances. There's no open flame and temperatures rarely reach boiling point. And "stay-cool" handles are the norm. Still, it's important to take care when using a slow cooker. For example, it's generally a good idea to put the slow cooker on a heat-proof surface, such as marble, steel, or ceramic tile, when in operating mode. Also, most budget slow cookers don't have skid-free legs and may slide if nudged too hard.
Although slow cookers are designed to keep the heat in, the outside often gets hot. This seems to be more of a problem on some models than others. A number of users who commented on Amazon about the Hamilton Beach 33141 mention that the outer walls get hot enough to burn. Some consumers likewise assert that the lid handle on the Crock-Pot 38501-W is too hot to touch.
An indicator light that signals when the slow cooker is powered on is a good safety feature. It's less common on manual slow cookers but does make an appearance on the Hamilton Beach 33163 and the West Bend 84384. Experts consider the absence of an indicator light a strike against the otherwise well-regarded Hamilton Beach 33141. Both programmable slow cookers we researched, the Crock-Pot SCCPVP700-S and Crock-Pot 38501-W, sport an indicator light.
Slow Cooker Maintenance.One reason for the popularity of slow cookers is the no-fuss/no-bother aspect of their care. Both the inner cooking chamber and the lid on almost all the best budget slow cookers are dishwasher safe. We found nary a complaint about clean-up hassles. One user of the Hamilton Beach 33163 reports that the three-day-old remains of a cheese dip easily came off with a cleaning brush after an overnight soaking. Another consumer covers the inside of the Crock-Pot SCCPVP700S-7 with a dedicated slow-cooker liner, which further facilitates clean-up and doubles as a container for leftovers. Hand washing the pot and lid also proves to be a breeze, according to user reports, and the rest of the unit can be wiped down with a damp cloth or paper towel.
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