Babble Best Picks:
What better kitchen appliance for busy parents with a family to feed than a slow cooker? Put the food into it after the kids go to sleep, set it to cook while you sleep, and by morning you've got dinner for that night almost done. Alternately, do your prep before you go to work and have the thing finish off dinner while you're at your job. It's pretty comforting after a long day to come home, open your door to the smell of home-cooked food, and know that dinner is already all but finished.
What's more, slow cookers are incredibly inexpensive - our pick for Most Versatile can be found for $49.99 and the Most Economical for as little as $25. For a family of four, that might be less than a single evening of take-out, and your trusted slow cooker will eliminate many desperate, what-to-cook nights when you end up calling for delivery.
I am a veteran and avid slow cooker user. I've had my Rival Crock Watcher for over 20 years, and it's still going strong, despite being put into play at least once a week (see Most Economical below for more information) to cook all manner of things from pork shoulders to dried garbanzo beans to turkey breasts to lamb tagine.
For the purposes of this article, I tested a wide range of slow cookers, both with beans or other legumes and with meat or stews. In general, I didn't find a whole lot of variation in how each cooked the food - instead I found that it's the different features that each slow cooker offers that distinguish them from each other.
BEST OVERALL - MOST VERSATILE | Hamilton Beach 3-in-1 with 2-, 4-, and 6-Quart Crocks
Ok, I have to confess, because there is such a range of good slow cooker options (see below) it wasn't easy naming a best overall slow cooker. I settled on the Hamilton Beach 3-in-1 because it's clearly the most versatile - ideally suited if you want to cook different amounts of foods at different times (i.e. sometimes you only cook for you and your honey; other times for the whole gang plus the in-laws). That feature ultimately was enough to convince me that this is the best slow cooker on the market for me.
That said, if you need one that's programmable because you think you might forget about it and leave it on for 24+ hours and/or you plan to transport a lot of what you make or you want an auto-cook feature, then the Hamilton Beach Set 'n Forget - winner of Best Extra Features - would probably be better for you
But for an incredibly inexpensive (right now under $60 on Amazon), extremely versatile, manually set slow cooker that gets the job done right, you will be thrilled with the Hamilton Beach 3-in-1.
It's great advantage is the fact that it comes with three different-sized inserts, allowing you to cook small or giant amounts as need be. And because the three inserts nest in each other, it doesn't take up any more space in storage than a normal 6-quart round slow cooker.
It's no-frills and completely straightforward, but I really loved it, and my brother, who's a chef with three kids, wanted to run off with mine!
Want to cook both large and small amounts, best is: Hamilton Beach 3-in-1
Are a complete novice and want an auto-cook option, best is: Hamilton Beach Set 'n Forget
Cook large amounts and deliver it to parties and the like, best is: Hamilton Beach Set 'n Forget
Want the cheapest good option available, best is: Crock Pot 6-Quart-Round
SPECIAL MENTION – BEST FOR BROWN RICE IF NOT MUCH ELSE
Vita Clay VF7900
The ostensible advantage of the Vita Clay is its insert: made of clay, it contains no metal and theoretically transfers nothing dangerous to your food (though I’m dubious as to whether a metal insert does any harm; and just as a note, many slow cookers, like my old Crock Watcher and three of the five above, have danger-free ceramic inserts).
My experience with the Vita Clay was pretty disappointing all around, except for one surprise area: as a brown rice cooker. By simply covering the dry rice with water till I could submerge two fingers sidewise over the top, I ended up with perfect brown rice every time – no small feat.
Cooking white rice didn’t go anywhere near as well. I tried all different ratios of rice to water, and invariably the rice at the edge of the pot was overcooked and mushy or else the entire pot-full was dry and undercooked.
As a slow cooker, the Vita Clay wasn’t impressive, being hamstrung by having very few settings and too short of cooking times for many dishes. Plus it makes the loudest and most annoying beeps of any device tested, so keep it away from the nursery!
In sum, I’d pass on this as a slow-cooker or white rice cooker, but if you eat a lot of brown rice and/or small-sized stews that don’t require lots of cooking, you might very well want to have the Vita Clay. I use mine every week.