Reviewing slow cookers almost seems unnecessary. The core function of the category is so simple, and the fundamentals have changed so little over the electrified version's, we didn't expect to see much differentiation between products.
It's for that reason that we stuck with the higher-end models in this roundup. We saw some variation in cooking performance between models, at least between the ceramic-crock and the metal-crock-based units, but the real differences came down to peripheral features, design, and usability. How many cooking modes do you get, how well do they work, are they designed to travel well -- that kind of thing.
I'll admit that
Breville's take celebrates the slow cooker with an elevated design that still retains a classic, minimalist look and feel. Its controls consist of a single dial for selecting cooking modes. That's it. You get no timer, not even a warming function. The one innovative note is the cast aluminum inner pot that you can put directly on a burner to give meat an initial sear.
Breville obviously put some thought into making this a cooking apparatus that's spare, yet versatile. The idea is a good one, but it didn't quite succeed. The all-metal lid prevents you from peeking without removing the lid, and like the all-metal Ninja, this unit also runs hot, finishing off food much faster than its competition that uses ceramic-coated, cast-iron crocks. We understand the temptation to speed cook times, but a slow cooker that doesn't cook slow enough misses the point.
The Kleenex of the category, this Crock-Pot delivers on the promise of countertop slow cooking. From travel-friendly features like lid locks and a cord wrap, to simple heating modes (including a warm function), to basic usability elements like a glass lid and a vent for a cooking thermometer, the Crock-Pot Cook & Carry stays true to the slow-cooker formula, but adds just enough to justify the higher price tag. It helps that it cooks well, too.
Frigidaire wants $99 for this slow cooker. Good looks and a larger-than-average crock are worth paying for, but with few convenience features, and underwhelming performance on its high setting, we can't stomach that kind of a premium.
This Hamilton Beach unit landed in a virtual tie with the Crock-Pot for our favorite slow cooker (both with an MSRP of $59.95). Its overlarge handles take up more counter space than necessary, and the lack of a cord organizer will be annoying, but it makes up for it with its cooking features, including a built-in temperature probe and a variety of useful automated cooking modes. Like the Crock-Pot, this one also mostly sticks to the classic concept of a slow cooker, but with a few smart extras that you'll be glad to have.
The Ninja Cooking System is easily the most ambitious slow cooker in the group. With the ability to sear and bake in the cast-aluminum pot directly over its own heating element, this Ninja seems to want nothing less than a takeover of your entire kitchen. We found that its cooking performance matched the aggressiveness of the Breville, the other model with a metal-based crock, so it doesn't quite deliver on the low-maintenance cooking experience most people expect from a slow cooker.
The extra cooking modes work well here, though, and if you like the idea of experimenting with a more versatile small cooking appliance, this might be worth checking out. The $199.99 MSRP sounds intimidating, but if you shop around you can find it discounted by 50 percent or more.