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Once again, you had to work late, and as soon as you walk through the door at home, you're greeted by your loving, but hungry, family. You could gather ingredients and start chopping, sautéing and throwing together dinner, but you're likely to just call the closest pizza delivery service – again. Ordering take-out all the time can get expensive, and there are some days that you really don't want to be on your feet in the kitchen for hours making dinner. That's why so many working moms and dads rely on an appliance throwback from the '70s: the slow cooker.

The slow cooker frees home cooks from the stove, allowing them to focus on work, chores, kids and other more important tasks than keeping an eye on a bubbling stew over a hot coil or open flame. It takes only a few minutes to prep ingredients in the morning, and then toss it all into the slow cooker's large ceramic insert. Then, on the simplest slow cookers, you move the dial to low or high, pop the lid on and leave it alone for eight to 10 hours without supervision. The meal is cooked and ready when it's time for dinner. For more information, check out our articles about slow cookers.

Slow Cooker Features

Slow cookers have come a long way since that one Crock-Pot your mom passed down to you when you moved out. You can still find the simple slow cookers with a dial that allows you to choose low or high temperatures only, but you're going to want to see what's new in these timesaving appliances.

The best slow cookers now come with digital displays, timers and automatic shut-offs. You can program some of them to cook up to 24 hours in advance, and you can choose the cooking time in 30-minute increments.

There are plenty of other features that aid in the convenience of a slow cooker, including a timer that knocks the heat setting down to warm when the cooking is done or automatically shuts off. A locking lid means you can transport your slow cooker and not worry about spillage. Having an insert that's oven safe opens up more possibilities – after cooking, say, an apple pie filling all day, you can top it with a crumble, pop it in the oven and brown the top.

Many recipes suggest you sear meat first before braising or tossing it into a stew, which allows more complex flavors to develop (the Maillard reaction). The latest in slow cooking is the ability to sear meat in the slow cooker's container, which can save time and hassle.

Crock-Pot

Just mentioning the words "crock pot" brings to mind the original kitchen appliance: the trademarked avocado or harvest gold Crock-Pot of the '70s that graced kitchens worldwide. These useful appliances were, and still are, highly popular because they help working people enjoy a good, hot meal at the end of the day without having to do any food preparation once they get home.

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Performance

As long as you're using the right recipes for a slow cooker, regardless of the model you use, your meals should come out piping hot and delicious. However, not every slow cooker's temperature settings are created equally. If you compare an old model to one of the latest, you'll notice that the low settings are very different.

Food safety regulations in the United States now require that slow cookers reach higher temperatures faster so that meat, specifically, doesn't spend too much time in the bacteria-growth danger zone between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Although manufacturers offer temperature ranges, the three most common temperatures found on slow cookers are high, low and warm. Slow cookers most commonly cook at a temperature range of 165 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, though get down to 139 F on low and up to 237 F on high.

In addition to gauging the heat of these appliances, another important part of a slow cooker's performance is the seal on the lids. You can expect some level of evaporation with any slow cooker, and we found that the average percentage of moisture loss is about 17 percent. Some cookers have moisture loss as low as 5 percent and as high as 43 percent. Knowing these benchmarks can give you an idea of which slow cooker is best for you.

Bella Linea

The Bella Linea slow cookers range in design from a 5-quart cooker with a familiar oval design and simple warm and hot switches to 7.3 quart models with programmable timers. So no matter your cooking style, you can probably find one that meets your needs. 

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Convenient Features

The whole point of a slow cooker is to save you time and energy. Who wants to be stuck in the kitchen after a meal scrubbing a pot that never comes clean? We cooked and cooked and then cleaned to determine how time consuming the cleaning process is – and we discovered that all of the slow cookers are equally easy to clean.

Hamilton Beach Set 'n Forget

Hamilton Beach answered a lot of consumers' wishes when it created its Set & Forget slow cookers. These appliances go beyond the old style of slow cooking that many of us associate with the classic slow cookers.

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Accessories

There are a few slow cooker models that offer digital displays and temperature probes, which make them even easier to set and forget. Some models also come with a lid with a rubber seal, which can prevent the lid from bouncing and steam from escaping. Additional perks included with some models are accessories such as a roasting rack and a spoon. And if you have no idea where to start with your slow cooker, you'll find that most slow cookers include a recipe booklet to give you a jump-start.

Breville

Breville makes multi-functional slow cookers that can be used not only to prepare food in the traditional way that slow cookers do, but also on the stovetop and inside the oven.

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Warranties & Support

Most small home appliances include a warranty that covers defective parts and labor for at least a year. In addition, you can contact customer service when you have a question about your slow cooker or would like to inquire about how to get new parts. If you lose your manual that comes in the box, you can typically find a copy online on the manufacturer's website.

KitchenAid

If you enjoy coming home to a hot and well-cooked meal, then the KitchenAid slow cookers could be a worthwhile addition to your kitchen. With a brushed stainless steel exterior, black ceramic insert and glass lid, they look good on kitchen counters. These 6-quart, oval-shaped slow cookers do a fine job making stews, soups, meat dishes, vegetables and much more without under- or over-cooking foods.

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How Slow Cookers Work

Unlike with stovetop cooking or cooking in the oven, home cooks don't need to check on their dishes to ensure that they don't burn. The slower cooker is just what its name suggests. It cooks slowly, preventing unexpected burning.

These devices use moist heat to cook so your food won't dry out. The heating element is below the round insert, but it heats up the whole pot. The liquid in the pot, plus the steam it produces, cooks the food slowly. The "low and slow" cooking method that slow cookers employ tenderizes inexpensive, dry, tough cuts of meat and makes them moist and tender.

What Can Slow Cookers Make?

There's a lot you can do in a slow cooker. You can make soups, chili, casseroles and even bake bread. There are many cookbooks that offer recipes for "dump" dishes where you basically dump ingredients from cans or bags into your slow cooker, mix it and end up with a great-tasting dish with very little prep.

Though slow cookers can make so many food items, there are limitations. For example, slow cookers don't heat up quickly or get to scorching high temperatures that are needed for a good stir-fry. For that, you need to look into getting a high-quality wok. If you're pressed for time but a steak sounds better than, say, enchiladas, you can plug in an indoor electric grill.

Popular Slow Cookers Brands

There are many slow cooker brands on the market, but there are few that are especially popular due to their selection of features and high quality of performance. Here are some of the best slow cookers for any kitchen.

The Bella Linea series provides a slow, even heating process that never reaches the boiling point, and the countdown timer offered on some units keeps you in the loop so you know when your meal is nearly ready. Some Bella Linea cookers can also be linked and synchronized, which can be useful when you are cooking multiple dishes.

Hamilton Beach slow cookers offer a lot of options. Some models allow you to set the timer and program the slow cooker to shut off after a certain number of hours, but you can also choose to go old school with the manual setting. Also, some of these slow cookers include a temperature probe that plugs into the slow cooker so you can read the temperature of a large piece of meat as it cooks, which takes the guesswork out of cooking.

If you're concerned about curious children potentially burning their hands on hot surfaces, there are Cuisinart slow cookers that feature a large rectangular base for stability and some don't get nearly as hot on the outside as other brands do.

KitchenAid slow cookers keep temperatures low and only simmer food, which prevents vegetables from becoming mushy and meat from drying out. Auto shut-off is another feature that can be found on all KitchenAid models.

Crock-Pot slow cookers have a wide range of features. Some even have locking lids. That tight seal means never having to wear stew or chili on your feet or lap when transporting a slow cooker from one house to another.

When you're ready to buy a slow cooker, you have to figure out what you need – whether that's one that has a large capacity, is programmable, has a surface suitable for searing or is inexpensive. No matter your choice, a slow cooker can help you cook healthy, homemade meals even when you are at your busiest.