At a glance, slow cookers and Instant Pots, a top-selling brand of multicookers, look like siblings. These standalone devices bubble away on a countertop while you handle other tasks. They come in a range of capacities, from small models for feeding a couple to large ones pulled out for extended family. Still, their key differences affect cooking approach and time as well as cost.
Focused on one task
Minimal, efficient settings
Easy to use and clean
Heat levels can vary widely
Handles many tasks, including slow cooking
User-friendly when pressure cooking
Available with various features and price points
Manual needed to navigate settings and features
The choice of slow cooker versus Instant Pot depends on how and what you are cooking. The simple, straightforward settings and features of slow cookers let you start a meal in the morning and then forget about it until dinnertime. Today’s Instant Pots typically have a slow-cook setting but are primarily electric pressure cookers that drastically cut cooking time. They also carry a plethora of features and add-ons, usually at a higher price.
To help you choose between a slow cooker and an Instant Pot, keep scrolling for a rundown of how they perform head-to-head on common kitchen tasks.
Hamilton Beach Programmable Set & Forget 6-Quart Slow Cooker
What It's Best For: Braising meat, cooking dried beans, streaming custard, fermenting yogurt, one-pot meals, serving fondue, melting chocolate, thickening fruit butter
If low-and-slow cooking fits your lifestyle, this is our top choice. During testing, it was easy to use and cooked evenly, without burning its contents. A detachable probe monitors the internal temperature of a whole chicken, roast, or other large cut of meat that fits neatly in the 6-quart oval crock, bringing it to an exact temperature before the cooker switches to the warm setting. You can also program in a cooking time or set the temperature to high or low. This slow cooker is lightweight and designed for transport, with sturdy handles that stay cool, a gasketed lid, and clips to hold the lid in place and attach a serving utensil.
For a smaller option, we recommend the Crock-Pot 4-Quart Oval Manual Slow Cooker.
Instant Pot Duo Plus 8-Quart Multi-Use Pressure Cooker V4
What It's Best For: Browning raw meat, steaming fish, steaming rice, fermenting yogurt, sautéing vegetables, cooking hot cereal, hard-boiling eggs, sterilizing bottles and utensils
If you want the option of slow cooking or pressure cooking in one device, this is our top choice. It handles many other jobs, too, including cooking sous vide and even baking a cake. This version comes with an attractive stainless steel finish inside and out, and the lid, inner pot, and accessories are all dishwasher safe. Built-in safety features and customizable programmed settings are designed for ease of use, as are the step-by-step cooking instructions displayed on an LCD screen. Instant Pot emphasizes the quiet steam release on this model, an upgrade from the pressure release valve of older versions.
When we tested Instant Pot models, the Duo Plus came out on top, thanks to its incredibly clear and intuitive controls as well as its versatility. Essentially, all the Instant Pots we tested did a great job pressure-cooking pork shoulder and beans and rice, so what sets this model apart is its additional settings. This thing can sauté, steam, cook rice, make yogurt, and lots more. It has 25 customizable programs to go with specific recipes. With the pressure valve open, it even works as a slow cooker.
For a more affordable option, we recommend the Instant Pot Duo 7-in-1 Pressure Cooker.
A slow cooker focuses on one task: cooking food low and slow. Some models come with bonus features, like the temperature probe and clip-on lid of our top pick, but an effective slow cooker really only needs three settings (warm, low, and high) and the option to set the cooking time. These streamlined machines usually weigh and cost less than multicookers. With so many styles from so many manufacturers available, knowing your slow cooker’s heat levels, cooking times for certain foods, and ideal seasoning adjustments help in avoiding overcooked or bland food.
An Instant Pot is primarily a pressure cooker but more user-friendly than many stovetop styles. Low-end models have limited functions, but others—including our top pick—have an array of uses, from steaming and sautéing to cooking rice and making yogurt. This makes an Instant Pot a good all-in-one machine. Versatility comes at a cost, and not just on the price tag. With so many features and functions, including preprogrammed settings and Wi-Fi capability on some models, you may experience push-button overload.
Winner: Slow Cooker
Meats simmering for hours in a stock on a stovetop require regular tending. In a slow cooker, the process might take just as long but can happen after you leave the house. Oval slow cookers comfortably hold large cuts of meat, like a whole chicken. You can use an Instant Pot’s pressure-cooking setting to quickly cook a roast or other large piece of meat, but the manufacturer recommends cutting it in thirds.
Sear Lean or Rare Meat
Tender, lean meat, like chicken breasts and pork fillets, dry out when cooked slowly at low temperatures or quickly under high pressure. Neither an Instant Pot nor a slow cooker develops the seared exterior and rare or medium-rare center of a properly cooked steak. Instead, reserve tender meat for the grill or sear it over high heat in a skillet.
Winner: Instant Pot
When you steam fish and shellfish on a stovetop, you have to pay attention to the heat and the water level in the pan. Instant Pot models that can steam without pressure let you press a button and then focus on the rest of the meal. A slow cooker can damage the delicate flavor of most seafood, although it tenderizes tough meats, like squid and octopus.
Cook Dried Beans
Winner: Slow Cooker
Dried beans need time and monitoring on a stovetop so that foam doesn’t spill over the pot’s rim. Slow cookers take longer, but the hands-off process results in tender, evenly cooked beans. The real benefit is that most beans don’t need to be soaked before they are added to a slow cooker, according to the Bean Institute. Pressure cooking beans can take as little as 20 minutes, and many Instant Pot models have a preprogrammed setting just for beans. But since beans need to soak before pressure cooking, planning ahead is still required.
Winner: Instant Pot
An Instant Pot makes cooking rice worry-free with preset options, including ones for white or brown rice in newer models. The rice cooks with pressurized steam, so it takes a few minutes for the Instant Pot to get up to pressure, but after that, it shaves off cooking time, particularly for brown rice. In a slow cooker, rice can take two to four hours, depending on the variety, and it may not cook evenly, depending on how hot your slow cooker runs.
Browning Raw Meat
Winner: Instant Pot
Without browning, raw meat tastes bland, whether cooked in a slow cooker or under pressure. If you are using a slow cooker, this extra step must happen on a stovetop. With an Instant Pot, you can both brown and cook in the inner cooking pot—no extra skillet to clean up. Once browned, an Instant Pot gives the flexibility of cooking slowly at a low temperature or quickly under high pressure and heat.
Winner: Slow Cooker
A large, wide slow cooker makes an ideal water bath for savory and sweet custards and puddings. It keeps the water temperature consistent while the custard slowly cooks and sets. Self-saucing pudding cakes, with a layer of sauce that works down through the batter as it bakes, also work well in a slow cooker. An Instant Pot can steam custards, too, but its tall, narrow sides make the custard pan awkward to remove.
Winner: It’s a tie!
Yogurt making is a waiting game, so it’s possible to use either a slow cooker or an Instant Pot. An Instant Pot takes less time overall, but you need to jump in during the first few stages, until fermentation begins. If you have other kitchen projects, the Instant Pot may suit your needs, but the slow cooker may be better on a busy day or for an overnight culture.
As multicookers have evolved, some have offered features designed for home canning, but the size and power of these electric devices have not held up to testing. Researchers from Utah State University discovered that electric multicookers cannot produce the consistent results required for safe pressure canning. A stovetop pressure canner that holds at least four quart-size jars remains the safe way to can low-acid foods. A slow cooker never gets hot enough for home canning.
When you are trying to rapidly toss meat and vegetables in a stir-fry, the typical straight-sided, deep pot of a slow cooker or Instant Pot presents challenges. Neither quickly heats like a sturdy pan set on a stovetop burner. For a stir-fry, a thin-walled wok heats rapidly and offers the most space for moving its contents. A heavy-bottom skillet works in a pinch, but the result will be more of a sauté than crisp, seared vegetables.
Should you buy a slow cooker or Instant Pot?
Do you prefer cooking low and slow while you get on with your day, hot and fast to put dinner on the table, or both? If you get a meal cooking and walk away, a slow cooker will do the work for you, generally with fewer controls to learn and at a lower cost than a multicooker. To start and serve a meal quickly, and still have the option to cool slowly, an Instant Pot will be worth the investment.
If you have both devices, which should you use? For low, slow cooking, either device works. Still, if you choose the slow cooker first, you can keep your Instant Pot free for a side dish. For quicker meals, choose an Instant Pot and its pressure-cooking, steaming, and sautéing settings.
Why Trust The Spruce Eats?
This story was written by Julie Laing, who has been a writer and editor for more than 25 years and writes the weekly newspaper column and food blog, Twice as Tasty. Every kitchen tool and gadget must earn its place in her 500-square-foot home as she bakes, preserves, ferments, grills, and eats well year-round. Julie published her first cookbook, "The Complete Guide to Pickling," in 2020.
Urvashi Pitre. Classic Pot Roast. Instanthome.com, 2021.
The Bean Institute. Cooking Beans in the Slow Cooker. 2020.
Merrill C, Allen K, Haws S, Hunsaker T, Mathis P, Wray P, Serfustini E. Why Electric Pressure Cookers Are Not Pressure Canners. Utah State University, February 2020.