Best Cheap Slow Cookers

Price Range

$10 - $50

Cheapism

$50 - $75

Mid-Range

$75 and up

High End

The idea of slow cooking food has been around almost as long as humanity's ability to make fire. Although taste for this technique diminished as technology and the domestic arts evolved, interest in slow cooking has revived in recent years. The modern demand for convenience is fueling demand for slow cookers: Just throw a few ingredients into the pot, turn it on, and dinner is ready several unattended hours later. To help the harried, Cheapism.com devoted hours to reading expert and user reviews to come up with the best cheap programmable and manual slow cookers costing $50 or less.

Cheap Slow Cookers Buying Guide

Our cheap slow cooker picks are no-muss/no-fuss kitchen gadgets that produce moist, flavorful meals, from roasts to stews to soups and desserts. At the top of our list are the programmable Hamilton Beach Set & Forget 33969 (starting at $49), which stands out for its rich feature set and strong performance, and the manual Crock-Pot SCV400 (starting at $20), a very basic model that delivers on performance and carries a very low price tag. Falling in right behind are the programmable Crock-Pot Cook & Carry SCCPVL610-S (starting at $49), on the strength of its portable design and convincing reviews, and the manual Hamilton Beach Stay or Go 33461 (starting at $25) for its user-friendliness and portability. All are backed by one-year warranties.

We always look out for models that shoppers should think twice about purchasing, but the vast majority of low-cost slow cookers receive decent reviews -- and scores of them. Ultimately we focused on the manual Maxi-Matic Elite Platinum MST-900 (starting at $29), not due to poor reviews but primarily because of its humongous 8.5-quart size. For frugal consumers who watch every penny that goes out the door, it's hard to justify a space-hogging countertop appliance that holds enough for 10 or more people and would be called into service on rare occasions only.

Our search focused mostly on 6-quart models that feed six or seven people, on the assumption that busy home cooks don't mind leftovers and occasionally want a dish large enough for a potluck or tailgate. We also looked for the best entry-level 4-quart model, because some people just don't need to prepare that much food at once.

Slow cookers provide welcome relief from the "When's dinner ready?" refrain and can be a confidence builder for novice cooks. These small kitchen appliances also are a boon to frugal cooks, because they have a near magical way of tenderizing cheaper, tougher cuts of meat. And even in the depths of summer, it's possible to cook up a hot meal without heating up the kitchen.

The original slow cooker design became popular in the early 1970s and proved so effective that today's models differ only slightly. The aesthetics and functionality are remarkably similar, with but a few modern embellishments, most notably electronic controls that widen the range of things a slow cooker can do. Manual models with simple "high," "low," and "warm" settings are still widely available, remain popular, and are cheaper than programmable models. Cookers with digital controls can be configured to switch cooking modes automatically after a given period of time, and some can be set to cook at specific temperatures and adjust as the hours tick by. The newest feature on select higher-end Crock-Pots is an app that connects the cooker with personal electronic devices and achieves such feats as announcing to the family that dinner will be served at 7 p.m. sharp. Features designed for portability -- transiting from the kitchen to a PTA meeting or family reunion, say -- such as carry straps and/or clips to hold the lid in place are showing up on more and more models.

Slow Cooker Brands.

Crock-Pot and Hamilton Beach dominate the slow-cooker market, particularly at the entry level. They produce both manual and programmable cookers at prices ranging between $13 and $150. The vast array of models are variations on several themes -- that is, the features are the same but the capacity differs, or outward appearance is the same but one version is manual and another is digital, or one version is meant to stay put and a companion model sports take-along features. For example, the Hamilton Beach Set & Forget 33967 is virtually identical to the more recent model 33969 but for the handle and lid design, which some consumers prefer. Crock-Pot even sells cookers distinguishable merely by the name and logo of professional and collegiate sports teams emblazoned on the exterior.

Farther up the price ladder are slow cookers bearing labels such as Cuisinart, KitchenAid, All-Clad, Breville, and Ninja. Their lineups are comparatively limited but include models with more features designed to deliver an extra dollop of convenience.

Slow Cooker Reviews

It's not the bells and whistles but the end results, in terms of taste, texture, and "finish" (Is the food cooked through? Is it burnt?), that distinguish the best slow cookers from the also-rans. Frugal consumers can breathe easy: Consumer Reports has concluded that higher price does not equate to improved performance in this product category. Rather, hefty price tags are more a reflection of added features. Experts at Good Housekeeping, Cook's Illustrated, The Sweethome, and CNET have tested some of the models on our list against pricier units and generally concur that imperfections are endemic to the category regardless of make or model.

To further gauge the performance of slow cookers under $50, we turned to slow cooker reviews on retail sites including Amazon, Walmart, Target, Home Depot, and Best Buy, as well as on manufacturers' websites. Despite occasional gripes about overcooked food, hairline cracks in the crocks, or units that failed even with minimal use, the vast majority of consumers seem thrilled with the user-friendliness, low prices, and overall value of our top picks -- all of which garner hundreds of 4- and 5-star reviews. Many consumers report giving these one-pot wonders a workout several times a week.

What We Considered

Manual vs. Programmable Slow Cookers.

Manual slow cookers, including the Crock-Pot SCV400 and Hamilton Beach Stay or Go 33461 on our list, are controlled with a dial or knob. They have two heat settings (high and low) and a warm mode. Manual slow cookers require a certain amount of monitoring; if a recipe calls for eight hours on low, someone must be present to switch the knob to warm when that time has elapsed -- otherwise, good-bye dinner. Not surprisingly, reviewers who are not home for a good portion of the day or have erratic schedules find this low-tech approach to be a major hassle.

Programmable slow cookers, such as the Hamilton Beach Set & Forget 33969 and Crock-Pot Cook & Carry SCCPVL610-S, are controlled electronically and can be programmed to switch automatically from low or high to warm after a preset number of hours. These models also display the time remaining on the front panel. (Upscale slow cookers offer more programmable options, such as delayed start, switching from one heat mode to another, and cooking at specific temperatures.) One nifty feature on the Hamilton Beach Set & Forget is a probe that's inserted into a roast or pot of stew to monitor the internal temperature and signal the cooker when to shift to warm based on the programmed instructions.

Capacity and Shape.

Modern slow cookers come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They are typically round or oval (a handful are oblong) and the shape often corresponds to capacity: Smaller slow cookers are almost always round, and larger units are almost always oval.

Capacity can be as large as 8.5 quarts and as small as 16 ounces (these units function more as "warmers" for foods such as gravies and dips). Although additional capacity doesn't do much to price, choosing a slow cooker that's too large will lead to disappointing results. There must be enough ingredients in the pot to prevent overcooking; optimal results are achieved when a slow cooker is about two-thirds full. High-capacity slow cookers also take up vital countertop real estate and can be hard to store in kitchens without a large cupboard.

Experts generally suggest a 1-quart-per-person rule for home use, and user reviews suggest this guideline yields generous portions. In other words, an 8.5-quart slow cooker, such as the Maxi-Matic Elite Platinum MST-900, is meant to feed a crowd. The 1.5-quart Proctor Silex 33015Y (starting at $18) manages a single serving of whatever, with leftovers for another day, making it a good slow cooker for one. Overfill it, though, and the contents may not cook through or seep out the top. An oval 6-quart slow cooker, like three of our four top picks, is generally a good size for families, and the shape can accommodate a 6-pound chicken or a 4-pound roast. Some users are so enamored of slow cooking that they own multiple slow cookers of varying sizes.

Components.

The traditional slow cooker comprises a crockery insert within a metal shell that houses an electric heating element on the bottom. A tight-fitting lid traps the heat and moisture. Some slow cookers, such as the West Bend 84905 (starting at $40), add a twist to what is basically a very simple appliance. Besides cooking foods at low temperatures for a long time with moisture, to help tenderize and seal in flavor, they can be used on the stovetop and in the oven; some also can go into the freezer. The cooking vessel is metal with a non-stick lining and sits atop a separate heating element, which by itself serves as a griddle. Reviewers say they like the versatility of these "multicookers," and many say they've been loyal fans for years.

The stoneware crock (metal in the case of the West Bend 84905) and clear, tempered-glass lid on most slow cookers are dishwasher-safe, but users attest that cleanup by hand with hot soapy water proceeds quickly. The handles are supposed to be cool to the touch, as is the knob or handle on the lid, and usually covered in plastic. On the best cheap slow cookers, the handles extend far enough from the cooking vessel to keep hands safely away from the heat.

The models designed to be portable (with proprietary names such as Stay or Go and Cook & Carry) feature a mechanism that locks the lid securely in place to prevent leaks. The Crock-Pot Cook & Carry SCCPVL610-S uses metal clips that extend from the handles to the lid, and the Hamilton Beach Stay or Go 33461 has a clip that straps across the entire lid. A rubber gasket helps seal in moisture and prevent leakage, but some users gripe that the gasket retains odors that are off-putting and transfer to other dishes. Some slow cookers not designed for carryout may also include a gasket and/or clips for the lid.

Usability.

Slow cookers are considered to be among the safest of cooking appliances. There's no open flame and temperatures rarely reach the boiling point. That said, 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. Although slow cookers are designed to keep the heat in, the outside often gets hot, according to reviews. It's a good idea to keep children out of the way, and beware when opening the lid -- the slow cooker may unleash a torrent of very hot steam.

Consumers almost universally commend the user-friendliness of the entry-level slow cookers we researched. Gripes about understanding the controls are almost nonexistent, although CNET testers say the multi-step button-pushing routine on the Hamilton Beach Set & Forget 33969 is tedious. Still, scores of reviewers who had never cooked before, are adjusting to living alone, or are balancing work and family relish the ease of throwing together a handful of ingredients, walking away, and returning to consistently flavorful meals.

Maralyn Edid

Maralyn is a veteran reporter, writer, researcher, and editor. From her early years at Crain's Chicago Business and the Detroit bureau of Business Week, then on to a long-term stint at Cornell University's ILR School and now at Cheapism.com, Maralyn has been -- and remains -- committed to getting the story straight. That means a devotion to balance, to thorough investigation, and to making sense of diverse ideas and facts. Maralyn earned a Master's in Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell, a Master's in Journalism at University of California-Berkeley, and a B.A. at Tufts. Maralyn resides in New York City.

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