Jen Yellin/CNN

A slow cooker — a set-and-forget device that lets you cook an entire meal safely while you work or go to school or otherwise get things done — is one of the most forgiving kitchen devices. With a great slow cooker even absolute beginners can cook a tasty and hearty meal for their entire family.

To find the best slow cookers we prepared 48 chicken breasts, 11 pounds of black-eyed peas and dozens of onions over a course of 100 hours. It truly was a slow — and delicious — process, and in the end we found three great models that’ll let you prepare great meals with a minimum of effort.

The best overall slow cooker

The Cuisinart 3-in-1 Cook Central Multicooker gave us perfectly cooked meals, and while it’s very easy to use, it offers the best range of useful functions — browning, sautéing and steaming — of all the slow cookers we tested.

The best luxury slow cooker

If you’re looking for the absolute best fit and finish in a slow cooker, the All-Clad lives up to the company’s reputation for quality, and offers long cook times and more control over temperature than the competition.

The best budget slow cooker

For not much more money than a basic manual slow cooker, the Hamilton Beach Set & Forget gives you a flexible timer and a built-in temperature probe, plus a latching gasketed lid makes it great for transporting meals anyplace.

Best overall slow cooker: Cuisinart 3-in-1 Cook Central Multicooker ($159.95; amazon.com)

The Cuisinart 3-in-1 multicooker gave us great results and offers the best range of really usable features of the slow cookers we tested. We used the 4-quart pot, which easily feeds up to four people — the perfect amount for a breakfast, lunch or dinner for many families. It is also available in 6- and 7-quart versions if you have more mouths to feed.

Jen Yellin/CNN
Cuisinart 3-in-1 Cook Central Multicooker

The Cuisinart is technically a multicooker since it allows you to brown, sauté and steam as well as slow cook. It isn’t as full-featured as an Instant Pot, however, and is optimized for slow cooking, with the secondary functions serving mainly to let you prepare all stages of a dish in the same pot, reducing the amount of pots, pans and bowls you need to wash. The 3-in-1 even allows for combination cooking where you can switch between cooking modes in a single touch — without having to turn the slow cooker off and back on again. Once your meal is fully cooked, the slow cooker will automatically switch to the warm setting for up to eight hours.

Because of the multifunctionality, the pot is aluminum with a nonstick coating. This makes it extremely lightweight and dishwasher-friendly. While the coating used is PFOA-free — like all nonstick coatings produced for sale since 2015 — many other PFAS are still in use, and it’s unclear which compounds may be found in currently produced nonstick cookware (and in many other consumer products). If you’re concerned about that class of chemical it’s something you may want to keep in mind.

Aside from a perfectly delicious meal — during all of our cooking tests — we loved that the housing and all handles stayed cool to touch. This helps with maneuvering the slow cooker and ensuring no little hands are burnt. The cord on this slow cooker was also one of the longer ones measured, which helps if your outlet socket is slightly farther away from your cooking space.

Since this slow cooker was one of our favorites, we went one step further to test the browning and sautéing functionality as well. We browned both chicken wings and onions — before slow cooking them — and while it doesn’t switch modes automatically, we found the process extremely easy. Using this feature, we ended up with crispy chicken wings falling off the bone and mouthwatering onions with that little extra flavor. Most other slow cookers we tested didn’t have this mode, so if you want to brown ingredients you would have to do so on the stovetop first before throwing them in the slow cooker.

Best luxury slow cooker: All-Clad 6.5-Quart Slow Cooker ($249.95; amazon.com)

The All-Clad 6.5-Quart Slow Cooker lives up to the brand’s reputation for quality, high-end cookware. With its stainless steel exterior, handles and rivets and ceramic insert, this slow cooker not only looks top-notch and elegant but will also give you a perfectly cooked dinner. It also offered the most programmability and one of the longest cooking times of the models we tested.

Jen Yellin/CNN
All-Clad 6.5-Quart Slow Cooker

We tested each cooker initially by filling it with water and measuring how quickly it came up to a safe cooking temperature and how well it maintained that temperature. The All-Clad heated up fast, reaching a safe target temperature of 185 degrees Fahrenheit in just two hours and then stayed at that exact same temperature for the remaining four hours. Once switched over to the warm setting, the temperature dropped quickly, sitting around 155 degrees Fahrenheit to 160 degrees Fahrenheit for the duration of the test. This slow cooker also offers a continuous 26-hour runtime (up to 20 hours of cooking plus six hours of warming), which is longer than most others we tested.

This consistent — and predictable — temperature let us get great results. Our pulled BBQ chicken dish ended up perfectly cooked, and made for a delicious meal. The meat was tender and pulled apart quite easily. Our bean dish was also evenly heated and the perfect consistency.

Uniquely among the models we tested, the All-Clad lets you set two temperatures for a given cooking cycle. If your recipe requires you to set your slow cooker on high for a certain number of hours and then switch to the low for the remaining time, you can set those two temperatures at the beginning of your program and walk away. With the other slow cookers we used, if you are cooking a meal that requires both the hot and low temperature to be used, you’ll have to manually change the settings — requiring you to be home to make the switch.

Of course, no slow cooker is perfect, and while the All-Clad 6.5-Quart Slow Cooker is a top-notch product for slow cooking, at such a high price point, we wish it offered a few more multicooker functions, like browning, sautéing or steaming settings. The buttons and labels on the base were also small, and the handle on the lid got incredibly hot during cooking. But if you have the budget to spare, you won’t be disappointed with this kitchen appliance.

Best budget slow cooker: Hamilton Beach Portable 6-Quart Set & Forget Digital Programmable Slow Cooker ($64.99; amazon.com)

The Hamilton Beach Portable 6-Quart Slow Cooker is one of the best if you are looking to stay on a budget. This programmable slow cooker has three different settings — program, manual and probe — which gives you many options when using the appliance. While the Hamilton Beach took a little longer to get up to temperature than some of the more expensive models we tested, that didn’t impact our test meals, which were perfectly cooked.

Jen Yellin/CNN
Hamilton Beach Portable 6-Quart Set & Forget Digital Programmable Slow Cooker

Program mode lets you select a time and temperature, while manual mode simply lets you cook on low, high or warm. In probe mode, you can program the slow cooker to cook until a desired temperature is reached — instead of a specific time — and then have the appliance switch to the warm setting. The measurement is made with an attached thermometer, which you place through a small hole on the lid. The temperature is also displayed on the Hamilton Beach’s LCD screen as it cooks. Even if you don’t use the probe cooking mode, the port lets you test the temperature without removing the lid and thus allowing heat to escape.

The Hamilton Beach Portable also has latches that secure the lid, which is sealed with a gasket, making it fully spill-resistant. This makes it easy to transport, whether you’re going to a party or tailgating. The side handles are a bit small but stay cool during the cooking process, which allows you to easily move the slow cooker once you’re done cooking.

Other features include interrupt protection where the timer will continue to run so the slow cooker will continue to cook if there is a brief power outage, a one-year warranty and a dishwater-safe lid and pot.

The fit and finish isn’t as nice as on our overall pick, but at an extremely reasonable price — and not that much more than a manual slow cooker — the Hamilton Beach Portable 6-Quart is perfect for anyone on a budget who wants a fully functional slow cooker.

Everything you need to know about slow cookers

A slow cooker lets you cook at low temperatures for long periods of time, so it’s perfect for soups, stews and similar one-pot meals that don’t need a lot of attention once the initial prep is done. Because the temperatures are low, you can let them sit unattended safely, so they’re great for busy cooks or anybody who wants to get dinner started before they leave for work and have it ready once they get home. The slow cooker is often oval-shaped, with a heating element that surrounds a pot, typically made of a ceramic-like material.

Simple manual slow cookers have minimal settings — generally just high and low temperature settings, enough to make simple dishes like chili a breeze. More complex slow cookers can be set to vary temperatures over time, and can brown and sauté, pressure cook, steam, crisp, air fry and more. The goal is still the same with all of these: put your food in, spice it up, set the timer and let the magic happen.

While most of the slow cookers you will find have a similar shape (oval), sizes can range from 1.5 quarts to 8 quarts. So if you’re a party of one or a party of 10, you have options. Additionally, if you’re more adventurous with your cooking, you may opt for the 3-in-1 functionality, with browning and sautéing, or take it one step further and look at the Instant Pot multicookers that steam, pressure cook, brown, sauté, sous vide and bake. You also may be particular to the materials with inserts made out of ceramic (the most common), stainless steel or aluminum with nonstick coating.

Regardless of the materials or whether you choose a manual device or something digital and programmable, the goal with slow cookers is to cook your food while you’re away. Prep in the morning, come home from work and have a meal ready to go. The name of the appliance says it all; you are cooking the meal slowly.

While it’s always best to truly understand the functions of your particular slow cooker before tossing a bunch of food in and hoping for a delicious meal, there are some things to remember as you use any slow cooker. If you have one with a timer, use the suggested time for whatever it is you’re cooking and check to make sure it will automatically flip to a “keep warm” setting if you’re not home once it finishes the cooking program or cycle. If it doesn’t have a timer, make sure to set an alarm for yourself so you know when to turn it off or to flip it manually to “keep warm.” And while you’re cooking, don’t open that lid too often to check on the food. Allowing the heat to escape could tack on another 15 to 20 minutes of cooking time.

What’s the difference between a slow cooker and a Crockpot? Well, calling any slow cooker a Crockpot is like calling a tissue a Kleenex. Crockpot (previously styled as “Crock-Pot”) is a brand name, used for the line of slow cookers sold since the 1970s by Rival, which had bought the device from the inventor Irving Naxon, who had patented the idea in 1940. These days you can find slow cookers from brands like Cuisinart, Instant Pot, Calphalon, Black+Decker, KitchenAid, Hamilton Beach, Breville and — of course — Crockpot.

How we tested

To help find the best options for you, we picked out 11 of the most popular and well-reviewed slow cookers, ranging in price from $38 to $250. During our testing, we cooked two different meals — a pulled BBQ chicken dish and black-eyed peas — and performed a water test to get a read on the temperature accuracy of each slow cooker.

Water test: During our water test, we filled each slow cooker with 10 cups of water at 67 degrees Fahrenheit. We measured the temperature of the water every hour for a full six hours on the lowest cooking setting. We wanted to make sure that each slow cooker reached an ideal cooking temperature of between 185 degrees Fahrenheit and 200 degrees Fahrenheit. A too low temperature reading would indicate that the food would be undercooked, while too high of a temperature would overcook the food.

After six hours of cooking, we then adjusted each slow cooker (either automatically or manually, depending on the device) to its warm setting for another four hours. We took the temperature at the one-hour, two-hour and four-hour mark. This shows us whether or not a dish continues to cook on a high temperature — which would lead to overcooked food — or if it truly just keeps the food warm. We also wanted to ensure that the temperature didn’t get below 140 degrees Fahrenheit, since according to the FDA, food left at temperatures lower than 140 degrees Fahrenheit can foster bacterial growth.

Pulled BBQ chicken: In each slow cooker we prepped and cooked the same pulled BBQ chicken dish. We selected chicken for the test since chicken breast can easily dry out if overcooked. We evaluated if the chicken was undercooked, overcooked or just right, and whether or not it pulled apart easily.

Black-eyed peas: We prepared a black-eyed pea dish to see whether the beans would stay fully intact (keep their shape) when cooked until tender, or end up as a bowl full of mush.

After all that cooking, we used the following criteria to assess each model:

Build and design

  • Construction: What materials were the lid, pot and base made out of? Was there a gasket to keep the lid in place, or did it slide around?
  • User interface: Are the controls intuitive and easy to use? Were there too many controls, or were they so confusing you’d have to refer back to the manual whenever you cooked?
  • Build quality: Overall, was the base, pot and lid solidly constructed? Did the lid or any of the handles get too hot, or did they stay cool to touch, allowing for easy transport?

Performance

  • Cooking functions: Were there other cooking functions aside from just slow cooking?
  • Recipe tastiness: What were the end results of the recipes? Was there any issue with taste or consistency?
  • Temperature accuracy: Did the slow cooker hit the desired temperatures on both low and high settings?
  • Temperature stability: Did the food stay at the ideal temperature? Or did it get too hot or too cold?
  • Additional functions: Do the slow cookers offer any other functions in addition to slow cooking?

Care and maintenance

  • Ease of cleaning: How easy was it to clean both the pot and the lid?
  • Dishwasher-safe: Is the pot and/or lid dishwasher-safe?

Price

  • Did the cost of the cooker seem reasonable given the features offered and overall performance of the cooker?

Other slow cookers we tested

Calphalon Digital Sauté Slow Cooker ($119.99; amazon.com)

The Calphalon Digital Sauté Slow Cooker offers a bit more than just slow cooking capability. While you can’t sear, brown and sauté your meat and vegetables directly in the slow cooker — like you can with the Cuisinart 3-in-1 option — the pot is designed to be removed and used on the stovetop, a unique option amongst the slow cookers we tested, and helps you get maximum flavor while providing ease of use.

Unlike many other slow cookers we tested, the pot has a nonstick ceramic coating, which might be a concern for those who prefer to avoid nonstick material (like all nonstick cookware currently on the market, it’s PTFE- and PFOA-free, though there is no way to guarantee that no other PFAS may be present). The pot is lightweight and easy to clean but isn’t dishwasher-safe, and the handles got incredibly hot over the course of the cooking process.

The pot is also circular in shape — whereas the rest are oval — which doesn’t work well if you want to cook a roast or a full chicken. But at a 5.3-quart size with tall sides, this slow cooker will take up the least amount of space on your countertop.

Our main concern with this slow cooker was that during our water test, at the four-hour mark on the low setting, the water started to simmer, and by the five-hour mark was fully boiling at a 212-degree Fahrenheit temperature reading. Most slow cookers don’t hit boiling temperature until the seven- to eight-hour mark, which means your dish might be simmering for longer than you’d want with this slow cooker. While this didn’t impact our bean dish, we did find that our chicken dish was dry and not as tender as we would have liked.

KitchenAid 6-Quart ($109; amazon.com)

The KitchenAid 6-Quart is an incredibly easy-to-use slow cooker. With minimal buttons, it’s very clear how to turn your slow cooker on and off and how to set the cooking levels and timer. This slow cooker also includes a “medium” setting in addition to a “low” and “high” setting, which is a unique feature. The plug storage under the base also allows the cord to be wrapped underneath for easy storage.

We did find that this slow cooker didn’t get as hot as the rest, which means you might find yourself needing to add slightly more time to your recipes. We did this, adding about 30 minutes to the cooking time for our chicken dish and 15 minutes for our bean dish to get similar perfectly cooked results as we got with the other cookers.

With this slow cooker you can cook on the low setting for 24 hours — which is the longest time we saw. The warm setting will only automatically stay on for four hours, but during our water test, it did get down to 145 degrees Fahrenheit at the four-hour mark, and while that’s above the food safety temperature for bacteria growth, we wouldn’t recommend having it stay on the warm setting for any longer.

Crockpot 6-Quart Cook & Carry Programmable Slow Cooker ($69.99; amazon.com)

The programmable Crockpot comes with a locking lid — making it perfect to transport out of the house. There’s also a plastic gasket around the lid, which means that the top stays in place and keeps liquid from leaking while on the go.

While programming the slow cooker was easy to use, the screen is small and not very clear. The outside also got incredibly hot — one of the hottest ones we tested (along with the manual Crockpot appliance). There are also no handles on the pot, which makes handling the ceramic piece more difficult.

Cuisinart 6.5-Quart Programmable Slow Cooker (99.95; amazon.com)

The Cuisinart 6.5-Quart Programmable offers an additional simmer option, aside from the basic high, low and warm temperature settings. The interface is easy to use and will keep your food warm for up to eight hours. This is perfect if you’re cooking in the evening and hoping to wake up to a warm-cooked meal for breakfast.

This slow cooker has a sleek design with a stainless steel housing, chrome-plated handles and easy push-button controls. This is also the only slow cooker we tested that offers a retractable cord — ideal for both aesthetics and safety. But if you’re looking to save some counter space, the full rectangular base made this option much bulkier than the other slow cookers we tested.

Instant Pot Pro 6-Quart 10-in-1 ($129.95; amazon.com)

We really wanted to love the Instant Pot Pro, but despite its wide range of cooking modes, the well-known pressure cooker unfortunately fell short as a slow cooker in our testing. All of the bells and whistles didn’t make for as tasty a meal as we got with other simpler cookers.

When we cooked our chicken dish at a low setting, it had a chewy texture. And even though the chicken had an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit, we felt like it needed more time to cook. We then prepared the same dish again and cooked it on a high setting, but the chicken was then a little too tough for our liking.

Similar results happened with our bean dish, and after cooking for three hours on high — the setting we used with all of the other slow cookers — it didn’t have the same consistency as the rest. It took another full hour to cook properly.

However, if you are a family that avoids PFAS chemicals, the stainless steel pot might make it a good choice over a slow cooker that includes a nonstick coated or ceramic insert.

Breville Fast Slow Pro ($199.95; williams-sonoma.com)

Another pressure cooker we tested was the Breville Fast Slow Pro. With many capabilities — and even 14 preset shortcut programs — you can also use the appliance for many cooking options, including slow cooking. But if slow cooking is all you’re looking for, there might be too many buttons for your liking.

This is actually one of the only slow cookers we tested where we truly had to read the manual before starting. It was not nearly as intuitive as the others, but we were eventually able to get it to cook our prepped food.

Unlike the Instant Pot, however, our chicken came out perfectly cooked on a low setting after the properly allocated time. The chicken pulled apart easily, and the beans were cooked just right.

And similar to the Instant Pot, the Breville Pot is also stainless steel, if that’s preferable.

Black+Decker 7-Quart Slow Cooker ($43.46; amazon.com)

This was the first manual slow cooker we tested, and we instantly realized the benefits of a programmable cooker. The Black+Decker 7-Quart Slow Cooker lacks a timer, which takes away some of the appeal of using a slow cooker to start a dish in the morning and come home to a perfectly cooked dinner. This slow cooker will not automatically shut off — or switch over to a warming setting — once the time is over. Instead, you need to use your own external timer and then make sure you’re home once the timer goes off, or you’ll have to live with the results of cooking continuously on your selected setting until you get home.

Additionally, this slow cooker heated up fast and simmered for the majority of the cooking period during our water test. During all of our tests, the lid was extremely shaky during cooking and loud. The ceramic pot of this slow cooker was also the hardest one of the bunch to wash. The sauce from the chicken we cooked was left on the side and required a lot of soaking and elbow grease for the pot to become fully clean.

Crockpot 7-Quart Slow Cooker, Manual ($39.99; amazon.com)

Crockpot makes many slow cooker products, including a very basic manual version. Similar to the Black+Decker slow cooker we tested, the Crockpot 7-Quart Slow Cooker offers a simple dial with three settings: low, high and warm.

With this slow cooker, you have to manually turn the slow cooker off or onto the warm setting if you aren’t eating your meal right away. Like the other manual cooker we tested, it isn’t a “set and forget” device — the cook has to pay attention to get predictable results.

Unless you want the simplest possible device — at an extremely reasonable price point — that you’ll generally use when you’re around, we recommend spending a little more for a programmable slow cooker. You can get the manual Crockpot in a variety of sizes (there are 3-quart, 4-quart, 6-quart, 7-quart and 8-quart versions) and colors.

Read more from CNN Underscored’s hands-on testing: