on October 21, 2010
I purchased this cooker to replace a Kenmore I had that cooked everything way too hot. I hesitated on buying this one, though, because a couple of reviews said it takes too long to reach a safe temperature. I decided to buy it anyway and do some of my own tests. I figured that if the reviews were correct, I could always start cooking on high and then turn down after the first couple of hours. Since I was replacing a cooker that cooks too hot, I didn't want to end up buying another cooker with the same problem.
As some other reviewers have said, this cooker is advertised as a six-quart model, but really can only comfortably hold five quarts. I suppose you could squeeze an extra quart into it but you'd probably end up with a mess afterward. In all fairness, though, my older cooker (also advertised as a six quart model) also really only holds five quarts unless you push it. I'm sure all manufacturers overestimate the capacity of their cookers in pretty much the same way.
I did a lot of research on slow cooker safety when I got this product. Some sources are a lot stricter about temperature than others. At the most extreme, experts say a slow cooker should get to 160 degrees in less than two hours (160 degrees is the temperature necessary to kill Salmonella). At the other extreme, experts say a slow cooker needs to get to 125 degrees in less than three hours (125 degrees is the temperature needed to kill Staphylococcus). This is probably a good place to note that Salmonella can't cause illness if it's dead, so as long as you cook to 160 degrees you won't get sick even if Salmonella is present. Staphylococcus, on the other hand, produces a toxin as it multiplies, and that toxin isn't destroyed with cooking--so if Staphylococcus is present and is given enough time to grow, you'll get sick no matter how hot or how long you cook your food. Ideally, you want your cooker to reach a temperature that destroys Staphylococcus as quickly as possible.
As soon as I got this cooker I did some tests as recommended by some of these slow cooker safety websites.
The first site told me to put two quarts of water in the cooker and see how long it takes to reach 160 degrees. With just two quarts of room temperature water, the cooker reached 160 in well under two hours. With five quarts, however (maximum capacity), it took two hours and 45 minutes. Now, I have no idea why this website said to use two quarts instead of, say, three. Does that mean that this cooker isn't safe to use with more than two quarts of liquid? At any rate, it did pass the test and the website in question was one of the stricter in terms of how fast a cooker should heat up. On high it took 1 hour and 45 minutes for five quarts to reach 160, so if you are particularly concerned you can always cook on high for the first two hours, then reduce to low.
Two quarts of room temperature liquid got to 125 degrees, at the other end of the spectrum, in less than an hour. So this cooker passes that test, too. Five quarts took slightly less than two hours, still well within the recommended three hour range.
Interesting to note that these same websites also say not to cook roasts or whole chickens in any slow cooker, regardless of how fast it heats up ... which is news to me. Isn't cooking a pot roast nine tenths of the reason why most people buy a slow cooker?
I hope this is enough information for shoppers to make an informed decision on whether or not they feel this cooker is safe to use. In my opinion, if people were getting sick from this product it probably would have been pulled off the market by now, but that's just one person's feeling on the subject. Please also note that I am not a food safety expert, and you should in no way take anything I've said in this review as my personal endorsement that this cooker is safe, because I could be completely wrong. This is only my own, uneducated opinion.
As far as effectiveness of the cooker goes, like I said, I bought mine to replace a Kenmore that burned everything if I left it on low for more than four hours. The first thing I tried to cook in this Hamilton Beach was a pot roast (against safety advice apparently). At 8am I set it up to with the temperature probe, and when I got home at 1pm it was already on warm. I could have turned off the pot and put the roast in the fridge to reheat later, but I wanted to see how it would do if I left it all day. So I left it on warm, and when I took it out (nine hours after it went in) it still looked pretty good. My old cooker blackened everything and turned it into jerky when left that long (even on warm), but this roast still looked totally edible. When I cut into it it did seem a bit dry, but it was definitely tender and wasn't even falling to pieces, which is what meat left in a crockpot for a long time will often do. So while this is far from a perfect result, it's a huge improvement over my old cooker. If I'd taken the roast out a lot earlier I think it would have been close to perfect. I feel like I can pretty confidently give this cooker four stars; I'd like to have something that can run all day and still produce a juicy roast, but the modern obsession with cooking everything really hot in order to kill bacteria makes it pretty unlikely that these days you could find a cooker that would do that.
I haven't had this model long enough to know if it will suffer from some of the shut-off problems other reviewers have complained about. I did make sure to mail in my warranty card, just in case. If I do experience this problem, I'll post an update.
UPDATE: May 3, 2012 - I've had this cooker for about a year and a half now. I use it once a week and still haven't experienced any trouble with mine, though it looks like some people continue to have the random shut-off issue with theirs. I'm guessing it's a common problem with a small percentage of these cookers, but since I've never had the problem I can still recommend this machine--just make sure to send in your warranty card in case you get one of the lemons.
SECOND UPDATE: August 20, 2014 - I've still got my pot, and I'm now using it two times a week. I've never had it randomly shut off and I've owned it for nearly four years. At this point, I would actually be OK with it failing because I feel like I've got more than my money's worth out of it--tons of great food, nothing really gets overcooked and it still works exactly as well as it did when I got it.