Slow cookers, often called Crock-Pots after the original, may seem like a throwback to the 1970s but it turns out that twice as many households use one today as did just a generation ago. In fact, according to an industry report on eating patterns, one in five families plans to  use a slow cooker within the next two weeks. And with their electronic controls and better safety features, slow cookers have come a long way as Consumer Reports discovered in its last slow cooker tests.

“The beauty of the Crock-Pot is that it’s an unattended appliance,” said Henry Balzer, an expert on food and diet trends and author of the NPD Group’s Annual Report on Eating Patterns in America. “The majority of us have one,” he said, adding that 83 percent of American households owned a slow cooker in 2011. “Ownership has increased and we are significantly increasing the usage of slow cookers.”

Given the number of today’s two-earner families and overstuffed schedules, that comes as no surprise. Perfect for soups, stews, and tough cuts of meat, slow cookers are designed to simmer food at a low temperature, generally between 170° and 280° F, for an extended period of time. The newer models feature electronic controls that let you program cooking time, usually in 30-minute intervals, and that automatically switch to warm when cooking is done.

Consumer Reports tested six slow cookers and judged five to be very good overall. The slow cookers (all with a 6-to-7-quart capacity) turned out tasty spare ribs, pulled pork, honey chicken wings, and apple brown Betty. The finished food didn’t vary significantly in taste and texture from model to model, and price—ranging from $40 to $250—didn't predict performance. Where one rose above another was in convenience features, such as a locking lid, programmable controls, and easy cleaning.

Our top slow cooker was the All-Clad 99005, which costs $250. But for one-fifth the price, you can get the Hamilton Beach Set 'N Forget 33967, which has a programmable timer and a probe that monitors internal temperature. That comes in handy when you’re cooking a whole chicken or roast. A lid that locks prevents spills if you’re taking the cooker along to a potluck or tailgate and the ceramic insert is oven-safe for easy reheating.  The Hamilton Beach 33162 mechanical slow cooker, $40, performed almost as well and has similar convenience features. But it has to be turned on and off manually.

For slow cooker recipes, check Crock-Pot’s website, which sponsors a recipe contest each year in which the winner is proclaimed, wait for it, a Crock Star. You can also find free recipes on Epicurious.com and the Food Network website, among other recipe websites. And America’s Test Kitchen has a new cookbook, "Slow Cooker Revolution" that features the 200 best recipes from its tests of 1,500.

Slow cooker safety tips
As easy as they are to use, slow cookers can pose a health risk if the food is not cooked properly. The federal Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends the following.

More From Consumer Reports

  • Keep perishable foods refrigerated until prep time. If you cut meat and vegetables in advance, store them separately in the refrigerator.
  • Always thaw meat or poultry before putting it into a slow cooker.
  • Match the amount of food to the capacity of the slow cooker; check the owner’s manual for suggested amounts. Make sure you add the right amount of liquid.
  • Never place a cold stoneware insert into a preheated slow cooker. Let them heat up together.
  • If the power goes out during the process and you are not at home, discard the food even if it looks done. If you are at home, finish cooking it by some other means such as on a gas grill or at a neighbor’s.
  • Don’t put a hot stoneware pot into the refrigerator, a sudden change in temperature can lead to cracks. It’s better to transfer any leftovers into a shallow container and store that in the refrigerator.
  • Don’t reheat leftovers in a slow cooker. Instead use a conventional stove or microwave and heat to an internal temperature of 165° F. After that, you can return the food to the slow cooker for transport or serving.—Izabela Rutkowski

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