How to Choose a Slow Cooker (Slow Cooking 101 with Peter)

Have you ever wondered about how to choose a slow cooker?

My first slow cooker was a bridal shower gift, so there was nothing to choose.

A round 5-quart manual CrockPot, with a ceramic insert and plastic lid, in a color combination that just screams, “I’m from the 1980s,” it’s up in the cabin in Wisconsin waiting patiently for me show up and pull it out like I did recently to make a yummy Italian Pork and White Bean Stew.

Today, with a vast array of sizes and features, how to choose a slow cooker is a little more complicated.

How To Choose a Slow Cooker My First Crock Pot

How to Choose a Crock Pot

My brother, Peter, wants to start doing more crock pot cooking and has asked for a little guidance getting started. We’ve decided to share the information in a series we’ve dubbed, “Slow Cooking 101 with Peter.”

The first step is for him to get a slow cooker, so I’m hoping this post on how to choose a slow cooker will help.

Some of the slow cooker variables to consider include:

“How to Choose a Slow Cooker” Variables

1) Size

The first how to choose a slow cooker variable to consider is size.

(For best results when cooking the crock of the slow cooker should be at least half full, but no more than 3/4 full.)

If you are single or a family of two, a 2-Quart to 3-Quart probably makes the most sense. If you are a family of three to four, the right size for you is probably a 4-Quart slow cooker. Large families of four to six will mostly likely need a 6-Quart slow cooker.

Small (1- to 3-Quart) slow cookers are good for appetizers, serving hot drinks, and baking cakes right in the crock.

Large (6 or 7-Quart) slow cookers can accommodate a turkey breast or whole chicken, which is pretty cool. And you can fit a loaf pan or baking dish into them so you can make bread or cakes or even smaller quantities of main dishes in them.

The folks at America’s Test Kitchen consider 5-1/2 to 7-Quart models to be the most versatile and I’d have to agree.

If you have a large slow cooker, and are cooking for a small group, to ensure the recipe cooks evenly and at the right speed, simply place the food into an oven-safe dish that fits inside your slow cooker. Place the dish on the bottom of the slow cooker, cover and cook.

If you have the space, you may want to consider having several slow cookers in varying sizes, which is what I have done. It allows me to make more than one dish at once :-)

2) Shape

Another “how to choose a slow cooker” variable to consider is shape. Slow cookers come in two different shapes: round and oval. Round slow cookers are perfect for soups, stews and chilis.

Ovals have more surface area so there’s more room to fit in foods like pork chops and stuffed peppers.  And because they have more surface area, they will cook food slightly faster than round slow cookers.

3) Manual or Programmable

Manual slow cookers have a button or knob with three to four settings: Off, Low, High and sometimes Warm.

Programmable crock pots provide more control. You can set an exact cook time and then the cooker switches to Warm when the cooking time is up. This is helpful when you will be away from home for long periods of time because today’s slow cookers cook much “hotter” than they did a few decades ago. Most recipes will be way overdone if left to cook for 8 or 10+ hours.

But, if there’s a power failure, the digital timer may reset and you’ll come home to find a flashing timer and uncooked food. Bummer :-(

You may not need the programmable feature if you are home when you do most of your crock pot cooking, like I am.

4) Other Nifty Features

Many new slow cookers come with a lock-in-place lid which is great if you plan on taking your slow cooker filled with food to parties and potlucks and such.

See-through lids are nice so you can keep an eye on your food as it cooks. This helps you avoid lifting the lid which releases the steam and slows down the whole cooking process.

Every slow cooker has its own unique personality, so it will take some time to get to know it.

The Slow Cookers I’m Using Right Now

The slow cookers I’m using right now include:

1) An oval Crock Pot 6-Quart Slow Cooker like this one which has 4 time settings: High 4 Hours, High 6 Hours, Low 8 Hours and Low 10 Hours. Since I’m usually home when I use it, I can turn it off when the food is done. I like that it’s big enough to accommodate small baking dishes but would like to replace it when the time is right with one of the newer programmable models.

2)  Hamilton Beach 3-in-1 Slow Cooker with 2-Quart, 4-Quart and 6-Quart ceramic inserts. A manual slow cooker, this is probably the one I use the most. I love being able to switch out the different inserts depending on the recipe. It’s a real space saver.

3) My mom got me a  Ninja 3-in-1 Cooker for Christmas. You can set the cooker to “Stove Top” to brown meats and/or soften onions and then switch it to “Slow Cook” to continue cooking. It’s programmable and automatically switches to “Warm when the time is up.” I like it a lot :-)

4) I use a Crock-Pot 1-1/2-Quart Round Manual Slow Cooker like this one, mostly for making hot drinks, like this caramel hot cider and appetizers, like this slow cooker baked brie.

Crock Pots on My Wish List

After more than a month of using my slow cookers every day and researching how to choose a a slow cooker, the one crock pot I’m interested in upgrading is my 6-Quart oval. I have my choices narrowed down to these three:

Crock-Pot 6-1/2-Quart Programmable Touchscreen Slow Cooker, which is highly rated by America’s Test Kitchen.

2) Hamilton Beach IntelliTime Slow Cooker, 6-Quart, which caught my eye at Target recently. It’s new to the market, so there aren’t many reviews of it yet. It’s designed to automatically adjust its cooking temperature based on the number of hours programmed to cook, promising “No more overcooked mush – even after 12 hours.”

Hamilton Beach Simplicity 6-Quart Slow Cooker, another Hamilton Beach model that gets good reviews on Amazon:

And if you are just getting started and want a budget slow cooker, Cooks Illustrated’s “Best Buy” is the Hamilton Beach Stay or Go 4-Quart Slow Cooker priced at $26.99. The cooker, “performed well, producing perfect ribs, steak and chicken.” It’s a manual slow cooker so there’s no way for it to switch off or to warm on it’s own.

I guess that’s all I’ve got to offer on the topic of how to choose a slow cooker.

Any additional thoughts and/or suggestions to share with my brother, Peter? 

What would you tell a beginning cook who asked you for advice about how to choose a slow cooker?

Do you have a favorite make/model/style slow cooker?

We would love for your to share your thoughts and comments with us!

If you liked reading about How to Choose a Slow Cooker, you might also like:

Slow Cooking 101 with Peter
Crock Pot Cooking for Weight Loss
My Year of Weight Watchers Friendly Crock Pot Cooking

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  1. Peter says

    Hi Martha,
    Thanks for writing this up and sharing – you bring up some good points for me to consider. I haven’t had the chance to do any crock pot comparison shopping yet (and as you know I will probably research this thing to death :)) – but I intend to start that in the next day or so. The weather is cooling off here in Northern CA and I am eager to get started with my crock pot kitchen adventure. I’m sure I’ll have a question, or three, so I’ll get back to you once I know a little more about what I am talking about.

  2. says

    Something to note that I didn’t see mentioned – is the newly invented item of the ‘crock pot liners’! Have never used them myself, but as I sometimes scrub the ‘line’ in my crockpot, wonder if these wouldn’t really serve a good purpose!! Must certainly help with clean ups.

  3. Spock says

    There area few things you left out. One is how the cooker cooks. I have the CrockPot 6 quart manual oval my mother picked up about 3 years ago. I have noticed that there isn’t much of a difference in temperature. It also cooks hotter on the left rear wall which causes foods to burn on that side. When baking cake or corn bread like I do, it doesn’t bake under the item which causes the cake/cornbread not to rise in the middle. It cooks, but doesn’t rise.

    I am looking to replace this one because of that and the temperature problem. It cooks so hot that I have to cut the cooking time in half. Because of the heating element being hotter in the back left I also have to turn the crock 180 degrees so it cooks more evenly.

    • says

      All great points, Spock!

      You are right that there is a lot of variability between individual slow cookers. Some cook much ‘hotter’ than others.
      And most do seem to have a ‘hot spot’ or area that cooks at higher heat. I’ve read that this tends to be in the area directly opposed to where the controls are located. One suggestion I’ve read is to create a ‘collar’ made of aluminum foil to insulate the area, allowing your food to cook more evenly.
      For successful slow cooking, it’s necessary to get to know your slow cooker and it’s particularities, just like an oven that oven may be cooler or warmer than the temperature it’s set to.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to share these important considerations!

  4. Gail says

    The Hamilton Beach intellitime slow cooker is intriguing but I want to know if it is safe to use, meaning – one is not supposed to start with frozen food since bringing it up to a safe cooking temp takes a long time which exposes the food to possible ideal conditions for nasty things to grow. Does not this slow cooker do exactly what one is supposed to avoid – I’ve looked at the temperature/time curve and wonder how long the food stays in the danger zone (mind you, I can’t remember exactly what temp constitutes the danger zone. Since I use my slow cooker as a resource when I’m taking a meal to a family in need, I prefer not to expose them to dangers in the food itself. Do you know anything about this?

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