Slow cookers are making a comeback, so we've been busy in the Good Food Test Kitchen trying them out. Here are our product picks, plus we've given lots of practical cookery tips on how to use them.
Slow cooker recipes are phenomenally popular on bbcgoodfood.com. We don't know whether it's the time-saving element, economical credentials or the fact that they require minimal labour that makes you love them quite so much, but we're with you all the way - slow cookers are a winner all round. They vary wildly in price, and you can pick up a slow cooker for as little as a tenner (or as much as a few hundred pounds), but different models meet different criteria. So what should you look for in a slow cooker, and which model is best for you? We spent the day in our Test Kitchen to find out...
What we looked for:
Heat distribution: Even with lower priced models, small and medium-sized slow cookers tend to have the most reliable heat distribution. Once you start dealing with larger pots, it can get a bit patchy.
Transparent lids: For monitoring purposes, it's useful for a slow cooker to have a transparent glass or thick plastic lid.
Size: If you're cooking for a family, be aware of the fact the size of bowl doesn't necessarily denote the amount of food you'll get at the end - especially as you can't fill slow cookers right to the rim. A 5-litre model will probably produce around 4-litres of food.
Hob-safe: If you're going to be making recipes with meat, look out for a inner ceramic pot that can be used on the hob for browning purposes.
How we tested: We tested 12 slow cookers using sausages, beans and canned tomatoes, leaving each machine to cook for six hours.
Our best buys
Lakeland 1.5 litre slow cooker
This 1.5-litre model is great if you'd like all the benefits of a slow cooker but don't have a big family to feed. It produces about 800ml of soup and it has three heat settings. It cooks evenly and has a handy see-through lid.
£19.99, from Lakeland
Best space saver
Morphy Richards sear and stew compact
This cleverly shaped pot packs into a compact space. It’s big enough for three portions and super simple to use. The handles don’t get hot so you can lift the pot directly onto your table, and the sear function meant our sausages got off to a good start.
£49.99, from Morphy Richards
A solid all-rounder
Russell Hobbs 3.5l slow cooker
This is a no-frills model, but it works very well – and it’s one of the cheapest we tested. It’s a convenient size to feed three people with extras for the freezer on top. It has three simple settings, low, high and ‘keep warm’. The inner pot is sturdy but fairly heavy.
£24.99, from Russell Hobbs
High end model
Crock-Pot 5.6l slow and multi cooker
Crock-Pot purportedly made the original slow cooker, and their comtemporary models are certainly natty pieces of kit. This bumper machine has settings for baking and steaming, as well as sautéing and the standard stewing function. The machine includes a wire rack that helps steam – or can be used to support cake tins if you’re baking. It’s large, but the square shape seems neater than oval equivalents.
£119.99, from Crock-Pot
How to get the best results when cooking
- No liquid escapes from a slow cooker, so when adapting a recipe not specifically written for a slow cooker, reduce any added liquid by one third to compensate.
- Don't remove the lid too often to avoid heat loss.
- The inner pot needs to be at room temperature before you start cooking. If you have kept a slow cooker dish in the fridge, you must wait for it to warm up before turning on.
- Slow cookers vary considerably so follow your manufacturer's manual for guidelines on temperatures and cooking times.
- Rice and pasta dishes work best cooked on High for the shortest time possible. Always use easy-cook rice, rinsed well first - the more starch you rinse from the rice, the better the finished result.
Slow cooker storecupboard essentials
- If you're cooking rice in your slow cooker, buy the easy cook varieties and rinse until the water runs clear, otherwise you'll be left with a sticky mess.
- Gravy browning will add colour to stews, as food cooked in a slow cooker is usually pale. Marmite will do the same job. Season at the same time.
- Use arrowroot or cornflour to thicken sauces, by removing a spoonful of sauce from the pot, and whisking in 1-2 tbsp before returning to the pot.
- A dash of cream or crème fraîche at the last minute will enrich sauces and soups.
Test kitchen top tip
"Take time to brown your meat really well. Slow cookers tend to ‘leach’ meat of its colour, so it’s important for both the appearance and flavour that the mince, chunks or joints are well browned to start with. As liquid in the food doesn’t reduce, flavours don’t become more concentrated with this cooking style, so you need to pack in as much flavour as you can."
Try one of our slow cooker recipes...
This review was last updated in April 2016. If you have any questions, suggestions for future reviews or spot anything that has changed in price or availability, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do you swear by your slow cooker? We'd love to hear your recipe ideas. Plus, if you're a fan of kitchen kit, we have a guide to pressure cookers too...