One small benefit of apartment living is the olfactory pleasure derived from the cooking of people living around you, particularly during the long winter months. As I've thawed out while waiting for the elevator, inhaling the comforting smells of #1A's hearty beef stew, I've wondered: Why can't I come home to these aromas (and this food) in my own apartment, even though I'm at work all day? I have neither a cook nor or a stay-at-home husband, but there is an answer: a slow cooker.
How does a slow cooker work its magic? Slow cookers cook via indirect heat—the metal, electric standing unit is lined with coils that transmit heat to the crockery insert—and because there's no open flame or heated surface, they can be left unattended. Cooking at this low, constant temperature over an extended period of time means that no stirring is required. In fact, stirring is much discouraged; lifting the lid on a slow cooker releases heat integral to the cooking process.
Since no evaporation occurs, the food in a slow cooker braises in its own juices (as well as any liquid added at the outset). Tough cuts of meat, like pot roast, break down over time into tender morsels. These cuts, which are often cheaper than their filet counterparts, thus make slow cooking affordable as well as convenient. And hearty stews and chilis, thick soups, and braised legumes make for some of the best slow-cooked foods—all perfect comfort food for a cold winter day.
Slow cooking has a long history: The Puritans slowly steeped their baked beans in molasses and pork on Saturdays to avoid cooking on the Sabbath; Native Americans slow-cooked tough roots in baking pits to soften them up. But modern cooking appliances and conveniences, such as the electric oven and frozen food, allowed for quicker meals. Slow-cooking was relegated to the back burner, so to speak.
Then, in the early '70s, the Rival Company, known for its "Juice-O-Mat," "Ice-O-Mat," and "Can-O-Mat" convenience appliances, resurrected the idea of slow cooking. The company acquired the rights to the "Beanery," a primitive slow cooker, and gave the appliance a much-needed makeover. The Crock-Potslow cooker was born.
The timing couldn't have been better. During the energy crisis of the 1970s, Americans were encouraged to conserve electricity, and Crock-Pots operated at a very low wattage. In addition, many women were abandoning their traditional roles as homemakers, either entering the work force or engaging in various pursuits outside the home. The Crock-Pot and its motto—"Cooks all day while the cook's away"—fit their new lifestyle.
But like avocado-colored furniture and shag carpet, Crock-Pots mostly became a relic of the '70s. Then suddenly, in the last four years, Rival has experienced a 20 percent increase in sales, which it attributes to the need for today's families to make fast, healthy food quickly and easily. The tough economy sparked interest in slow cooking as well, as families penny-pinched by cooking at home instead of eating out, and opted for cheaper, tougher meats in lieu of their gourmet counterparts. Plus, the skills required for a typical slow-cooked meal are practically nil, generally involving no more than chopping a few vegetables and throwing a hunk of meat into the pot, or pouring some broth over a bag of dried beans and diced onion. Perform these simple tasks, turn the pot on, and—voilà!—your meal is ready when you arrive home from work.
Today, Rival sells more than 15 Crock-Pots that vary in size and functionality. And although Rival sells 85 percent of all slow cookers on the market, more companies are offering their own version of the product. Gone are the days of Mom's harvest gold crock and Grandma's white pot with orange and puce flowers. Today's pots are sleek and modern, with an array of bells and whistles such as digital timers and automatic warm settings.
I set out to sample eight different slow cookers, both low- and high-end: four very different Rival Crock-Pots, and the others from West Bend, Farberware, All-Clad, and Cuisinart. I spent approximately 119 hours slow cooking, made more than 15 different dishes from braised lamb shank to rice pudding to pot roast to chicken soup, and donated countless Tupperware-fuls to friends and neighbors.
Scores were based on the following:
1) Cooking (based on a total of 10 possible points): This category measures how well the cooker does its job. The best slow cookers can be left alone all day with no worries about how they might affect the food or the kitchen. Does it cook evenly? Does it cook safely?
2)Ease of use (10 possible points): How easy is it to use? Is the insert hard to clean? Does it have options to make crocking simpler—a timer, warming option, rubber feet, insulated handles? Is it dishwasher safe? Can it be used on the stovetop (and if so, is that a useful feature)? How well does the lid fit? Does it require any extra time or attention?
3) Design/Aesthetics (10 possible points): Since many slow cookers are used regularly, particularly during the winter, and since many apartments (like mine) offer little storage, it's important to consider how nice each looks in a kitchen. Does it look modern, or like it just walked out of your grandmother's kitchen? And is the general design user-friendly?
4)Taste (10 possible points): My tasters (various friends and neighbors, plus my husband) and I rated "taste" as objectively as possible, not taking into consideration the success or failure of any one recipe (like the dismal penne with spicy onion sauce that I made). Key questions: How was the consistency? Was the meat too dry? Did the flavors blend well? Were the cooked vegetables too firm or overly mushy?
5) Value (based on formula below): Slow cookers vary vastly in price—from just over $18 to just under $100. (When possible, I based value on discounted prices from trusted online retail sources, such as Amazon.com.) Do the cheap ones fare as well as the pricey? Does the Crock-Pot brand name make a difference, or are you just as well off with a generic "slow cooker?" I used the following formula to determine value: Add up each of the preceding scores, multiply the result by 10, and divide by the machine's price.
The following are the results, from worst to first.
West Bend has been making cooking appliances since 1911 and introduced its Crockery Cooker in 1998. If the slow cooker is a broader indication of the quality of the company's other products, I don't understand how it's stayed in business for close to a century. Just a touch over $18, with a sleek-looking stainless exterior, it seemed too good to be true. And it was. I made a simple black bean recipe, which required 12 to 18 hours of cooking. Dry beans and corresponding ingredients (cilantro, chicken broth, salt, pepper, onion, and garlic) were dropped in around 2:30 a.m. A couple of hours later, I was awakened by a loud clatter and arose to find a puddle of brown water on my floor that resulted from boiling water spitting madly out of the lid. After cleaning it up, I attempted to go back to sleep, but to no avail: The racket continued for the remainder of the night. Come morning, my husband and I sand-bagged the pot with towels, but that didn't keep water from running down the side of the dishwasher and leaving brown water marks on my newly painted walls. At 2:30 p.m., I removed the desiccated beans. Unless you like disruptive and hazardous appliances, I do not recommend this slow cooker, especially if you have pets or children. Needless to say, I tested only one recipe in this pot.
Ease of Use: 2
This slow cooker boasts a crock insert that can be used on your stovetop, since some recipes require light sautéing or browning prior to cooking to increase flavor. But after testing two recipes that required this sort of pre-crocking sauté—penne with spicy onion sauce and Moroccan vegetables with couscous—I decided this feature is too much of a pain. It's recommended that the heat not get too high or you run the risk of cracking the pot. The pot warms up slowly, but then retains the heat too well: I wound up slightly burning my garlic and leeks. Plus, vegetables cooked in the dishes were not quite as tender as those cooked in other pots. A further detraction is this slow cooker's opaque top. If you're an impatient chef like I am, it's torturous to not lift the lid and check on your dish's progress; not to witness its progress at all is even harder. The design also needs improvement; the spidery legs made me think a large roach was crawling across the counter. And there's no timer.
Ease of use: 4.5
Though this pot cooked the food adequately, it exhibited several disquieting qualities. First, more lid jiggling. While it neither burned me nor created a major ruckus like the West Bend did, it did bubble enough that I worried about leaving it unattended. I cooked mushroom barley soup and rice pudding, and the pot liked them both so much, it refused to part with them: Both dishes burned around the bottom in the corners, leaving a charred black residue, which was nearly impossible to entirely remove. (Click here to see a picture.) And although this Crock-Pot boasts a timer, a must-have for any working person, the timer has its own limitations. It offers a 4-hour and a 6-hour setting on high, and an 8-hour and 10-hour option on low. I needed to cook the mushroom barley soup six hours on low, for which there was no adequate setting.
Ease of Use: 4
Williams-Sonoma has enlisted the high-brow cookery company All-Clad (makers of high-end pots and pans) to create an exclusive slow cooker for its product line. My excitement was palpable: This puppy had rubber feet to prevent countertop scratching, a digital timer, an automatic warming function, an easy-to-grab knob, and a sleek design. Yet there was one design flaw that set this slow cooker back—the fit of the lid is so loose that even the slightest boiling can cause it to shift to the side, leaving a visible gap between insert and lid that allows valuable cooking liquid to escape. As a result, my chickpea stew and a braised pork loin with port and prunes were both a tad too dry. This cavil aside, the pot did a decent job. Absolutely none of the food stuck to the sides, which made cleaning a pleasure (almost).
Ease of use: 8
Though it has no special features, this is a solid slow cooker. Farberware asks you to prep the crockery for cooking by heating up water in the insert, which seemed like an annoying waste of time. Virtually all of the slow cookers emit a strange smell when plugged in for the first time, and none of the other companies made consumers go the extra mile of cooking with water to eliminate the odor (it doesn't affect the food). Other minuses: The Farberware doesn't have a timer, and in my opinion, its white ceramic is less stylish than stainless steel. Pluses: The chicken merlot with mushrooms and pears poached in champagne were not dried out. Bottom line: It cooks well, and the price is right.
Ease of use: 6
This pot consistently made quality food, boasts a timer, and has a strong overall design. Pot roast was the dish of choice here, and though the meat was a bit dry, the mixed vegetables that accompanied it were superb. The timer is helpful, though like the white Rival Smart-Pot, it doesn't allow you to set it beyond the 4- and 6-hour high settings, and the 8- and 10-hour low settings. The automatic warm setting is a plus for working folks who need to keep meals toasty until they get home. Cleaning was relatively easy—there was some minor sticking, but nothing to detract from the experience.
Ease of use: 8
This little Crock-Pot provides a reliable crockery experience. It has an attractive stainless steel exterior, and the smaller size comes in handy for those with less counter or storage space, and for those cooking smaller dishes for fewer people. I made Indian pudding and lima beans with herbes de Provence in this pot, both of which were tasty and of good consistency. The pudding stuck a bit to the sides, but nothing that a little soaking didn't solve. For those who are frequently away from home, the lack of timer may be a concern, but if you work part-time or want to crock on the weekend, this slow-cooker is a good option. The lid jiggles a bit, but it's nothing compared to the rattle of some other pots, and it's made of glass, which enables you to peek during the cooking process. If you're on a budget, don't have much room, and can set your own timer, this pot's for you.
Ease of use: 6
Cuisinart Slow Cooker, $99.95
At first, I was daunted by Cuisinart's slow cooker—it's encased in an intimidatingly enormous stainless steel heating unit—but I quickly warmed to the pot, as it were. I made chicken noodle soup and lamb shanks with rosemary and garlic in the Cuisinart, and both were delicious. This model has a sophisticated timer that allows you to see how much time has passed, an automatic warming option, a nice stainless steel finish, and, best of all, a glass lid that knew to behave itself. A retractable power cord is a nice touch, as are the rubber feet on the bottom of the pot. For those with cushy kitchen space and ample budgets, this pot wins the prize.
Ease of use:9