Fans affectionately refer to them with names like “recession-fighting machines” and “crackpots.” They call themselves “crockpotters” and wax poetic with a fervor normally reserved for religion, politics or love. “My entire family life revolves around the Crock-Pot,” says one. “I have not only embraced the Crock-Pot but am making out with it.”
Welcome to the slow-cooker movement. The new slow-cooker movement.
For many, it’s all about the convenience. A reluctant convert, Jane Park now rattles off a list of advantages: “I like that the house smells good all afternoon. I like that it eliminates the 5 o’clock panic of, ‘Oh, my gosh, what am I going to throw together for dinner?’ I like that I can make enough at a time to have leftovers. I like that the cheaper cuts of meat often work best.”
Others, like Goodwin Liu, love the potential. His expertise includes constitutional law and education policy, but in his spare time the associate dean and professor of law at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall likes to experiment with his slow cooker. A favorite discovery? Sweet potatoes. “I like to cook sweet potatoes over low heat -- they come out to a lovely mash.”
No, we’re not talking about your mother’s slow cooker here. Or her recipes. Forget the harvest gold floral patterns -- there are stainless-steel models out there that could be mistaken for mini-Hummers without the wheels (and they’re all electric).
And while stew may be fine, have you ever tried meltingly tender Cuban-marinated pork shoulder? How about a colorful lamb tagine, the fragrant aromas of cinnamon, honey and dried fruit perfuming your house all afternoon? Let’s not forget dessert -- perhaps some white-chocolate bread pudding? (You can cook up a quick whiskey caramel sauce while the pudding quietly bakes away on the counter.) It just takes a little know-how and patience.
Good -- and convenient -- things really can come to those who wait.
It all started with the Crock-Pot. Rival introduced the slow cooker to the market with the Crock-Pot brand in 1971. Almost overnight, the Crock-Pot enjoyed a popularity matched only by the fondue pot and defined a certain kind of culinary “chic” for the decade.
It “cooks all day while the cook’s away,” one 1976 advertisement declared. The Crock-Pot promised complete meals, cooked slowly over long periods of time, costing mere pennies to operate and requiring little, if any, supervision. Rival posted Crock-Pot sales of $2 million its first year on the market, and sales peaked at $93 million after just four years. Inevitably, it wasn’t long before competitors jumped on the bandwagon and flooded the market. By the end of the 1970s, sales of slow cookers, including the Crock-Pot, decreased dramatically.
Of course, the slow cooker also had its detractors -- and most complaints were about the food. Many thought everything tasted the same no matter what was in the pot. Others claimed the food dried out despite the closed cooking environment (the lid should prevent moisture from escaping). Some complained about the lack of flavor, others about the lack of visual appeal. Still others said the slow cooker just made mush.
Andrew Schloss, author of the new “Art of the Slow Cooker: 80 Exciting New Recipes,” says quality wasn’t really a consideration with many of the early recipes. “Earlier recipes were so much about convenience that a lot of the food wasn’t that good. Convenience started to trump quality.”
People liked the convenience of the slow cooker, they just didn’t necessarily like what had been cooked in them. Recipes began to evolve -- slowly -- as interest in the slow cooker grew once again over the last several years. And the cookers evolved too, with manufacturers offering different sizes and inserts (some that allow for conventional stove-top cooking) as well as offering programmable timers, “smart” settings and digital probes. Slow cookers improved cosmetically too.
Today, about 83% of American households own a slow cooker, according to the NPD Group, a leading marketing research firm. Of these households, almost half used a slow cooker within the past month.
Stephanie O’Dea blogged about using her slow cooker every day last year. Also known as the “Crockpot Lady,” her adventures (crockpot365. blogspot.com) were a hit, landing her a spot on the “Rachael Ray” show and spawning a cookbook, due out this fall. She believes the slow-cooker resurgence has a lot to do with the economy. “With the recession, people have realized they need to make real food at home.”
O’Dea, an avowed non-cook, liked the idea. "[Traditional cooking] is much more fast-paced and you run the risk of burning or doing something wrong. I wanted something simple, not too hard.” When she started slow-cooking, the meals were simple, mostly soups and stews.
But as the year progressed, she found herself taking on more and more complicated recipes, including falafel, tamales and even a delicate chocolate mousse. “There are so many things you can do with a Crock-Pot that you may not think of.”
Schloss agrees. The key, he says, is “using the machine to its advantage. It does some things well, and you should emphasize those things.”
A meat tenderizer
The obvious advantage to a slow cooker is the long, slow cooking process. Start with a recipe that complements this process, keeping in mind that tough, inexpensive cuts of meat are often perfect. The long, slow cooking process tenderizes the fat and connective tissue in the meat to a buttery texture.
For that Cuban pork, bone a picnic shoulder and remove the skin and outer fat. Cut the meat into large cubes -- don’t cook a single large piece of meat in a slow cooker because the length of time it takes to cook through could render it unsafe to eat. Then season them and place them on a bed of sliced onions. Add a little broth, start the cooker and let it go. Serve the pork with black beans and rice one night, then use the leftovers as part of another meal (salad, burritos, etc.).
To add another layer of flavor, take a few extra minutes to brown the meat, and add ingredients in stages to maximize their potential. Making lamb tagine, for example, you could just throw everything in the slow cooker and forget about it. But the dish will be better if you take a little time. Start by browning the meat. Season the lamb pieces and saute them quickly -- this toasts the spices on the meat and will add richness and color to the dish (a lot of slow cookers now come with stove-top-safe inserts so you can brown and cook in the same pot, minimizing dirty dishes). Then, throw almost everything in the pot and let it go. About an hour or two before you’re ready, toss some dried dates on top of the mix. They’ll cook just long enough to soften but won’t turn to mush.
Perhaps the most important thing is just getting to know your slow cooker. Many models today heat more quickly than in the past (a recipe written 20 years ago calling for eight hours of cooking time might be done in six with one of today’s models), and because there’s no industry standard with respect to heat, the “high” and “low” temperature settings vary -- sometimes dramatically -- between makes and models.
O’Dea recommends starting with the recipes in the booklet that comes with the unit -- generally they’ve been well-tested for that particular machine. Master them, then play around.
And consider the possibilities. A slow cooker can make a perfect “second” oven, freeing the main oven for the main course or other dishes when company’s expected. It’s also perfect for summer cooking -- use the cooker instead of an oven to keep the kitchen cool.
Finally, consider the slow cooker for desserts -- the low, consistent heat is perfect for dense cakes, crumbles and even custards. Try it with bread pudding: Assemble and bake the pudding in the slow cooker, then serve as is or put it in a hot oven for 10 or 15 minutes -- the custard will souffle and get a wonderful crunchy crust. Serve it with a warm caramel sauce for an easy dessert.
And maybe you’ve got an old fondue pot in the garage that you can use to keep the caramel sauce warm. Tres chic.
White-chocolate bread pudding
with whiskey caramel sauce
Total time: 1 hour and 10 minutes, plus baking time (about 1 1/2 hours on high, 3 hours on low)
Servings: 8 to 10
Note: This recipe calls for finishing the bread pudding in the oven so the topping is lightly toasted and colored, as with oven-made bread pudding. If possible, cut the bread the night before making the pudding to allow the cubes to dry out.
For the bread pudding
2 cups heavy cream
1 1/4 cups white chocolate chips
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 cups milk
2 eggs, beaten
3 egg yolks, beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 loaf (1-pound) stale French or Italian bread cubes, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 cups toasted pecans
1. In a medium saucepan, heat the cream over medium heat. Meanwhile, place the chocolate chips in a large mixing bowl. When the cream comes to a simmer, remove the pan from the heat and pour the hot cream over the chocolate chips, whisking until the chips dissolve. Whisk the sugar into the mixture, then the milk, eggs, egg yolks and vanilla to form a custard base.
2. Add the bread to the bowl, gently stirring to coat the cubes with the custard base. Set the mixture aside to allow the bread to soak, about 45 minutes, tossing every several minutes so the cubes completely and evenly soak in the custard base.
3. Toss the pecans into the soaked bread mixture, then pour the mixture into a greased slow cooker insert. Cover the insert and place it in the slow cooker. Set the cooker to high heat and cook just until the custard is set in the center, about 1 1/2 hours (the time will vary depending on your model and type), or about 3 hours over low heat. The pudding is done when the custard is set in the center. Turn off the slow cooker, uncover and remove the insert.
4. While the custard is cooking, heat the oven to 400 degrees.
5. Place the slow cooker insert in the oven and continue to bake just until the top of the pudding is lightly colored and toasted. Remove to a rack to cool slightly.
Caramel sauce and assembly
1/3 cup whiskey
1 1/3 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon corn syrup
1 3/4 cups heavy cream
6 tablespoons ( 3/4 stick) butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 teaspoons vanilla extract
White chocolate bread pudding
1. In a small saute pan, pour the whiskey and place the pan over medium-high heat. Gently and carefully tilt the pan over the flame to flambe the alcohol (the alcohol will catch fire). Immediately remove from heat and let the flame continue to burn; the flame will self-extinguish when the alcohol is burned out of the whiskey. Set the whiskey aside.
2. In a large saucepan, combine the sugar, water and corn syrup, stirring until the sugar has the consistency of wet sand. Place the saucepan over high heat and cook until the sugar dissolves and begins to boil. Do not stir the sugar, as this may cause it to seize.
3. While the sugar is cooking, combine the cream, butter and salt in a saucepan over medium heat. Keep an eye on the sugar while you’re heating the cream to keep it from scorching. Cook until the butter melts, stirring it into the cream. When the mixture has come to a simmer, remove from heat.
4. Continue to cook the sugar until it darkens to a rich caramel color, 7 to 10 minutes -- the sugar will darken quickly and noticeably and will smell faintly nutty. Swirl the pan as the sugar darkens to judge the true color of the caramel (the sugar may darken in patches if there are hot spots on the stove). Watch carefully as the sugar can easily overcook at this point and burn.
5. As soon as the color is a rich caramel, immediately remove the pan from the heat and quickly add the cream mixture in a slow, steady stream. The sugar will bubble and steam as the cream is added; be careful as both the mixture and steam are very hot. Carefully stir in the whiskey and vanilla.
6. Stir the caramel until it stops bubbling, then remove to a heat-proof container until needed. This makes about 2 1/2 cups sauce.
7. When the pudding is baked, spoon generous helpings into warm bowls. Drizzle the whiskey caramel sauce over it and serve immediately.
Each of 10 servings: 1,023 calories; 13 grams protein; 101 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 64 grams fat; 30 grams saturated fat; 242 mg. cholesterol; 423 mg. sodium.
Lamb tagine with dried fruit
Total time: 40 minutes, plus cooking time (3 to 4 hours on high; 6 to 8 hours on low)
Servings: 6 to 8
Note: Serve the tagine spooned over couscous or rice. Sprinkle with toasted almonds and serve each portion with a wedge of lemon. This recipe requires a 5- to 6-quart slow cooker. The lamb shoulder should be weighed after it is boned and trimmed.
4 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon finely ground chile powder
3 pounds boneless, trimmed lamb shoulder, cut into 2-inch cubes
1/4 cup flour
2 tablespoons oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 large onions, cut into 1/2 -inch slices lengthwise
10 shallots, peeled and left whole
4 teaspoons chopped garlic
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 cup dried apricots
1/2 cup raisins
1 tablespoon honey
2 to 3 cinnamon sticks
1 1/2 cups vegetable broth, more as needed
1 cup pitted dates
1. In a large bowl, stir together the cumin, turmeric, salt, pepper, paprika and chile. Add the cubed lamb and toss until the pieces are evenly coated with the spice mix. Sprinkle with the flour and toss to give the lamb a light coating of flour (you may have a little flour left in the bottom of the bowl; save this to thicken the tagine).
2. Heat a large saute pan or stove top-safe slow cooker insert over medium-high heat. Add the oil and butter. When the butter has melted, add the lamb pieces in a single layer (this may need to be done in more than one batch) and sear until the pieces are browned on all sides, about 8 minutes per batch. Remove the lamb with a slotted spoon back to the large bowl.
3. Add the onions and shallots to the pan. Saute the onion and shallots until the onions are just softened and slightly golden, about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove the pan from heat.
4. Place the onions and shallots in an even layer in the slow cooker insert (if not already in use). Stir in the garlic, ginger, apricots, raisins, honey, cinnamon sticks and broth. Place the lamb pieces over the onion mixture in an even layer. Gently sprinkle any remaining flour over the lamb.
5. Cover the insert and place it in the slow cooker. Set the slow cooker to the high heat setting. After 2 hours, remove the lid and sprinkle the dates over the lamb. Replace the lid quickly (heat is lost whenever the lid is removed) and cook an additional 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until the lamb is fork-tender.
6. Remove the insert from the heat and briefly prop the lid open to allow the mixture to cool slightly. Gently stir the lamb with the vegetables and fruit; the apricots and dates will crush easily if stirred too hard.
Each of 8 servings: 528 calories; 40 grams protein; 49 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams fiber; 21 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 125 mg. cholesterol; 1,255 mg. sodium.
Cuban-style pork shoulder
Total time: 20 minutes, plus cooking time (4 hours on high; 8 hours on low)
Note: Serve the pork with black beans and rice. This recipe requires a 5- to 6-quart slow cooker.
9 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons salt
4 teaspoons dried oregano
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons black pepper
2 teaspoons ground chile pepper
2 dried bay leaves, finely crumbled
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
2 tablespoons vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
2 tablespoons lime juice
5 pounds pork shoulder, bone and skin removed and cut into 2-inch cubes
1/3 cup vegetable or chicken broth
1. In a large bowl, combine the garlic, salt, oregano, cumin, black pepper, chili pepper, crumbled bay leaves and orange zest. Stir in the vinegar, orange and lime juices to make a coarse paste. Add the pork pieces and toss until the pieces are evenly coated with the spice paste. Set aside to marinate while you finish the other preparations.
2. Trim and cut the onions lengthwise into 1/4 -inch-thick slices. Arrange the slices in an even layer on the bottom of the slow cooker insert. Pour the broth over the onions. Arrange the pork in an even layer over the onions, pouring over any reserved marinade.
3. Cover the insert and place it in the slow cooker. Set the cooker to high heat and cook 4 to 4 1/2 hours until the pork is fork-tender. Remove from heat and crack the lid to allow the mixture to cool slightly. Gently stir the pork with the onions and serve.
Each serving: 456 calories; 47 grams protein; 8 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 25 grams fat; 9 grams saturated fat; 165 mg. cholesterol; 2,015 mg. sodium.