If Pinterest is to be believed, slow cookers are the saviors of busy people and family dinners everywhere. According to the Los Angeles Times, about 83 percent of American homes include a slow cooker. But for every person enthusiastically pinning their favorite recipes, there are 10 more who have shoved their cooker into a dusty nether region of the kitchen. So what is with the slow-cooker craze? Is it worth owning and using one?
Slow cookers were developed by Irving Naxon, who originally called them bean pots and wanted an easy way to make his great-grandmother's cholent recipe. Bought out by the company Rival in the early '70s, the slow cookers were rebranded as Crock-Pots and introduced to the masses. As the decade progressed, more women began working outside of the home, and slow-cooker sales skyrocketed.
Now every major appliance manufacturer has their own version of a slow cooker for sale. While the bells and whistles of each brand may vary slightly, all slow cookers are essentially the same. A round or oval lidded pot, typically made of ceramic, is nestled in a metal container with an electric heating element. This allows for ingredients to be cooked over long periods of time at low heats with little supervision needed.
Indeed, this "set it and forget it" mindset is what proponents of slow cookers cite most frequently as its major benefit. Who doesn't like coming home to the smell of dinner almost ready? And the long, slow cooking process is ideal for cheaper cuts of meat, leading to savings on the grocery bill. Seems like a win all around! So how can you get the most out of your slow cooker?
Planning ahead is slow-cooker doctrine. A quick Google search reveals there is not a lack of recipes from which to choose. Every manner of meat is covered; there's even a burgeoning vegetarian and vegan slow-cooker movement. As with any recipe, you should read through it thoroughly to make sure you know what you need and how to follow the instructions.
You'll get the most out of your slow cooker if you capitalize on what it does best: cooking things for long periods of time over consistent temperatures. The recipes that are most popular, and yield the best results, center on tough cuts of meat (which are typically less expensive), such as pork shoulder or beef chuck. The slow cooker tenderizes these chewier cuts of meat into a melt-in-your-mouth texture.
You will need time to get to know your slow cooker. Depending on the brand and capacity, there can be huge variations between settings. The first time you use your machine, you might want to do so on a day you're home. That way, should anything go wrong or your meal cook quicker than expected, you'll be there to deal with it.
While many recipes recommend you toss all the ingredients into the pot, set the temp and walk away, a little extra preparation can result in something even more delicious. Making boeuf bourguignon? It's the perfect stew for a slow cooker, and while you will get a perfectly serviceable meal no matter what, if you sear the meat in a pan first and then saute the veggies before putting it all in your slow cooker, the end result will be spectacular.
A hidden secret of slow cookers is that they're not just good at making stews. You can make dessert in them, too. The even, low heat is perfect for cheesecakes, bread puddings and custards. Because slow cookers trap moisture, you need to find and use recipes specifically developed for slow cookers. Others might have too much liquid. Also be sure to check how old a recipe is, because advances in technology have resulted in sleeker, more efficient slow cookers. A recipe from the '70s might suggest an eight-hour cook time, but in a current machine, you might only need five or six hours.
There are plenty of side dishes that benefit from slow-cooker love, as well. Root vegetables can easily be prepared in a slow cooker. You can even make hot cider, applesauce, mulled wines and hot-buttered rum in a slow cooker. Perfect for holiday gatherings!
So yes, it is worth owning and using a slow cooker. Time to search the corners of your kitchen, dust off the pot and set it to work.