Hamilton Beach Set 'n Forget 6-Quart Programmable Slow Cooker review: Hamilton Beach's smart spin on a classic
The $59.99 Hamilton Beach Set 'n Forget 6-Quart Programmable Slow Cooker is a very straightforward slow cooker. It isn't full of innovative tech, and it doesn't appeal to modern design sensibilities, but this is one of those rare times when I don't think that's a terribly bad thing. It offers the basics and a handful of special features, like a thermometer probe for cooking to temperature and lid clips for safe and easy transport. I strongly recommend this slow cooker to anyone looking for a uncomplicated, traditional approach to cooking slowly.
A classic slow cooker with a few special features
The Hamilton Beach slow cooker has a stainless steel finish with black plastic accents on the base, display, and handles (so it won't burn you if you move it while it's warm). And the top handle doubles as a spot to attach the included serving spoon. This slow cooker measures 16 inches tall by 10 2/5 inches long by 16 inches wide and comes with an outer aluminum casing and an inner stoneware pot. The pot has a six-quart capacity and the lid is clear glass with a thin metal trim, so you can check on/salivate over your meal with ease.
The handles stick out fairly far from the sides of the Hamilton Beach unit, making it a full two inches wider than the competing $59
One feature common to both the Hamilton Beach and Crock-Pot units is that they come with clips that you can use to secure the lid for safe transport. That means that you can stick this slow cooker in your car and take it to a get-together without worrying about chili spilling all over your seats. But Hamilton Beach also added a thermometer probe to its list of features. Select probe mode, plug the probe into the provided jack and stick it through the lid vent, and the unit will automatically switch to warm mode when your food reaches the desired temperature.
It also offers a power on/off button, and Program, Manual, and Probe cooking modes. There's also an enter button and up and down arrow buttons that let you select cooking time, heat setting, and a target temperature for the probe.
When you first turn on this slow cooker, the display will flash "SEL." You need to select one of the three modes to continue. If you pick program, you will need to use the up and down arrows to select a desired cooking time. Then press enter. Next, it will ask you to select a heat setting -- either High or Low -- then press enter, at which point it will start cooking. The display will alternate between the remaining cooking time and the heat setting, and it will automatically switch to Warm mode when the timer finishes counting down.
Manual mode leaves out the timer and the Warm mode. You simply select High or Low, and the heat comes on. This gives you the opportunity to be more involved in the cooking process. And in Probe mode, you need to select the heat setting and desired temperature to get started. While it's cooking, the slow cooker display will switch between the desired and the actual temperature. When the probe reaches the right temperature, it will beep and automatically switch to Warm mode. If not manually turned off, the slow cooker will power down after 14 hours.
All of that is a bit more involved than the simpler, set-and-forget Crock-Pot. It's certainly not overly complex, but you might need to read through the manual once or twice to get it all down. I do wish the display was a bit more thoughtfully designed -- it borders on clumsy. There's a power button on the left side of the screen and arrows on the right side, mode options below, and an Enter button below the mode options. In some cases, you will have to make at least six different button selections just to start the cooking process. Not ideal.
A closer look at slow cooking
I have few complaints about this slow cooker's performance. It consistently produced good food within the expected time frame. That, combined with its practical features and $59 price tag make this a highly recommendable slow cooker. This and the Crock-Pot cooker are both perfect options for when you want to sit back and let your slow cooker handle dinner.
We also tested the $129.99
We used this test to set a performance baseline -- which slow cooker would reach the highest temperature the fastest, etc., and how (if at all) would that correlate to the food tests? We tested the slow cookers for eight hours on Low and then for four hours on High. On Low, the Breville slow cooker began to boil the fastest and maintained that temperature for the remainder of the test. The Frigidaire followed, then the Crock-Pot, and then the Hamilton Beach. The Ninja got hot very quickly, but it never reached boiling. Instead, it leveled off at 207 degrees Fahrenheit.
On High, every model except the Frigidaire reached boiling, with the Ninja in the lead. The Frigidaire slow cooker never exceeded 191 degrees. This is where we began to notice a pattern that would remain consistent throughout testing. The Ninja and Breville slow cookers had a tendency to reach a higher temperature faster than the others. The Frigidaire generally undercooked food when on High, yet overcooked when set on Low. The Hamilton Beach and Crock-Pot models are very similar and generally maintained a middle ground between the extremes of the Breville, Ninja, and Frigidaire slow cookers.
We wanted to know how well each of the five slow cookers would cook a whole 5-pound chicken. First, we cooked them on High for four hours. All chickens with the exception of the Frigidaire were dry, the ones in the Breville and Ninja especially so.
Next we tried adjusting the cooking time down to three hours on High. The results were pretty similar. The Breville and Ninja chickens were still dry, the Hamilton Beach and Crock-Pot less so, while the Frigidaire chicken was just barely cooked to the safety standard of 160 degrees Fahrenheit. None of them really nailed this admittedly challenging test. You might get better results if you're willing to experiment, but prepare to burn through a lot of chicken to find the appropriate setting.
I also cooked a whole chicken using the Hamilton Beach Probe mode, where the slow cooker automatically switches to Warm when it reaches the preselected temperature. I periodically checked the probe temperature against the food thermometer we use in other testing and they were always within a couple degrees of each other. So, the good news is that the probe is accurate. You do still need to be careful, though. If you select 160 degrees as the desired temperature for your chicken, make sure to put the probe in a spot where you think it will cook the slowest. That way, you can feel confident that the rest of the chicken is also cooked to at least 160 degrees.
Macaroni and cheese
We also tested how well the slow cookers would handle more delicate ingredients, so we found a slow-cooker macaroni and cheese recipe and set it on Low for six hours. Now, macaroni and cheese is delicious and not particularly hard to make, but this recipe did not turn out well with any of the five slow cookers. In all fairness, that was the fault of the recipe rather than the slow cookers in this case. The recipe required eggs and it really turned out more like an eggy noodle casserole than it did melty macaroni and cheese.
That's OK, though. The test was still very illuminating. It also confirmed our initial water boil test results. The Breville macaroni turned out very brown and overdone. The Ninja wasn't far behind. The Hamilton Beach and Crock-Pot looked a bit better, and the Frigidaire actually had a dark brown ring around it that confirms that it does tend to undercook on High and overcook on Low.
We cooked the beans on Low for six hours, on High for three hours (plus two hours on warm mode), and then on High for three hours (plus two hours unplugged to see how well they retained heat without warm mode). After six hours on Low, the Breville beans were pretty mushy, again followed closely by the Ninja's beans. The Hamilton Beach, Crock-Pot, and Frigidaire beans landed in the middle, not significantly under- or overdone.
On High for three hours, the Breville and Ninja beans were less mushy, the Hamilton Beach and Crock-Pot beans came out a bit more al dente but still done, and the Frigidaire beans were undercooked.
We also wanted to see how the slow cookers held the heat with the beans on Warm mode. After two hours, the Hamilton Beach stayed the warmest at 181 degrees, with the Ninja close behind at 179.5 degrees, then the Frigidaire at 171.5 degrees, the Crock-Pot at 170 degrees, and the Breville at 147 degrees (the Breville doesn't include a Warm mode, so we simply turned it off and let it sit covered, where it held to a barely food safe 147 degrees).
Next, we wondered how well the other four slow cookers would retain heat compared to the Breville's 147 degrees. The Hamilton Beach was still at 156 degrees after 2 hours, the Crock-Pot dropped to 148.5 degrees, the Frigidaire to 144 degrees, the Breville to 140.5 degrees, and the Ninja came in dead last at 131 degrees. While the Breville did have a nearly 7 degree swing between the two tests, it was still above the "safe for consumption" temperature of 135 degrees. The Ninja was the only slow cooker that fell short here. But, some of them did hover pretty close to the line. So, if you have the option, I would suggest switching on the Warm mode, or at least monitoring the temp with a thermometer.
We let the pot roast cook on Low for six hours. Each roast was fully cooked after the allotted time, but we all agreed that they had cooked very differently. The Breville and Ninja roasts cooked very quickly and bordered on overdone, the Hamilton Beach and Crock-Pot pot roasts were somewhere in the middle, and the Frigidaire's pot roast was on the lower end of done.
I really like this Hamilton Beach slow cooker. It offers all of the features I want from a slow cooker and none that I don't. I especially love the lid clips for easy transport as well as the thermometer probe. It also retained heat the best and comes with a serving spoon -- giving it an slight edge in features over the probe-less Crock-Pot model we tested. And it retains all of those desirable classic settings, too, such as Low, High, Warm, and Timer.
If you can get past its awkward display panel layout, I think you'll appreciate the value, performance, and transportability of this $59.99 Hamilton Beach slow cooker. The Crock-Pot has a lower profile design, so if maintaining counter or cabinet tidiness is a big priority, you might have a look at that one instead. And if you want something a bit more fancy, the $199.80 Ninja is a decent, if less portable choice for its oven mode and other advanced cooking features.