If you’re new to slow cookers or think Crock Pots are a thing of the past, think again. Its basic design hasn’t changed much over the years, but ingenious new features are bringing old and new ideas together and transforming what was once a humble bean pot into the fastest way to have nutritious, home-style comfort food every day at home without breaking your back or the bank.
Intrigued? Let me show you how a slow cooker can revolutionize mealtime and give you the tips and tricks you need to get the most out of this show stopping appliance.
Let’s Start at the Top
The crockpot was invented in Chicago by Irving Naxon. Inspired by his mother to create a slow cooker for bean stew, he patented the Naxon Beanery in 1941. Thirty years later he sold the design to Rival where in 1971, it was rebranded as the Crock Pot and the rest is history. Today, Rival remains the largest producer of slow cookers. Other manufacturers have introduced comparable models, but remember that while all Crock Pots are slow cookers, not all slow cookers are brand-name Crock Pots.
What Makes Slow Cookers Tick?
Slow Cookers have three basic components: an outer metal housing with a heating element, a glazed ceramic food crock and a lid. Heat from the element is transferred through the crock where it warms food slowly until it makes condensation in the lid. This creates a vacuum seal that concentrates heat and locks in valuable flavor and moisture.
Slow cooking has very distinct advantages:
- With a low temperature around 170 degrees Fahrenheit and a high of 300, slow cookers make it nearly impossible to burn food. Trust me, I am an expert at forgetting about something on stove and allowing it overcook or even worse burn, but that hasn’t happened yet with my slow cooker.
- You can make a whole meal in minutes. Load the ingredients in the morning and come home to a mouthwatering aroma and enough time to sit down with the kids while dinner makes itself.
- Slow cookers make inexpensive meat taste gourmet. The slow heat breaks down tough connective tissue into soft gelatin while avoiding the high temperatures that can turn meats into tough shoe leather.
- Slow cookers are the original green machines. Eight hours of use takes a fraction of the energy of stovetop use, and the quick and easy clean, saves both on time and water.
Are Crock Pots Perfect?
Almost, but here are few things worth considering:
- Prolonged heat causes some vegetables to lose nutrients, but in the real world, if the ease of slow cooking gets an extra serving or two of veggies on your plate every day, it’s a small trade-off. Stay tuned for a few simple tips to help you preserve those nutrients.
- Slow cookers depend on a vacuum seal to work their magic. If your slow cooker could speak, it would tell you just one thing — put the lid down. If you’re a serial peeker, you and your slow cooker may get off to a rough start. Every time you open the lid, your letting out precious heat and moisture, and will end up prolonging the cook time.
Crock pots come in all shapes and sizes, but how should you choose the right capacity and features to meet your needs? Consider these points.
- Size - Too big is better than too small, but in general, about 1.5 quarts of capacity per person is ideal. To make a large piece of beef or a whole chicken, you’ll need at least 5-6 quarts.
- Shape - Traditionally crock pots are round, but in a nod to the slow roaster, new oval shapes are filling the gap between the two. Round pots take less space and make ladling out soups and stews easier, while oval shapes are ideal for cooking large cuts of meat.
- Manual or Digital Control - Manual controls are simple and less prone to failure, but temperature settings are limited to low, high and warm. Digital controls are more complicated, but flexible and may include a handy timer. When using timers, however, always think about food safety. Being able to preset start and stop times adds extra convenience to meal preparation and allows you to fine-tune cooking times, but while the keep warm setting will keep food at a safe temperature without overcooking it, a delayed start could allow the growth of harmful bacteria. So, exercise caution when using the delayed start functions on your slow cooker.
From baking bread and making oatmeal to braising meats and creating luscious stews, slow cookers are the epitome of convenience, but latest features put icing on the cake. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Lids that latch for easy transport
- Integrated food thermometers allowing meat temperature checks without lifting the lid
- Matching insulated carry cases
- Automatic stirring
- Stay-cool insulation (especially important with children in the kitchen)
- Start, stop and stay warm timers
- Removable, dishwasher-, broiler- and microwave-safe crocks (not all models have these features)
14 Chef Robert Endorsed Slow Cooker Tips & Tricks
- Go easy on the liquid - Slow cooking draws liquid out of food and prevents it from evaporating. Adding extra to a recipe that looks dry can compromise subtle flavors and contribute to a soggy texture. Remember vegetables will break down during the cooking process – so don’t make the mistake of adding too much liquid, it is better to error on the side of caution.
- No peeking! - It takes a slow cooker up to 30 minutes to regain the heat lost each time the lid is lifted. That translates into longer cooking times and lost moisture, so no peeking!
- Fill the pot one-half to two-thirds full - Slow cookers are most efficient when they are filled as directed. You can stretch it a little, but overfilling increases cooking time and under-filling can dry out food.
- Choose heat-friendly vegetables for optimal nutrition - Some vegetables lose vitamins when slow cooked, but heat makes other types of nutrients more bioavailable. Top produce choices for slow cookers include tomatoes, carrots and kale. The long and slow cooking process just amps up the savory notes of these vegetables. For an extra boost of nutrition, turn the cooking liquid into a savory sauce or gravy.
- Add delicate ingredients carefully -Liquid dairy products like milk and cream should be added in the last 30-60 minutes of cooking to avoid coagulation. Toss in quick-cooking vegetables like eggplant and zucchini when there’s less than two hours to go.
- Don’t use frozen meat - Slow cookers are unable to heat frozen meat to a safe temperature fast enough to prevent potentially harmful bacteria from multiplying. The USDA recommends defrosting meat first to avoid foodborne illness.
- Coat the crock - A quick spritz of pan spray or a wipe down with vegetable oil keeps foods like cheese and thick sauces from sticking, but with a disposable liner, cleaning your slow cooker is as easy as tossing a bag.
- Forget boiling noodles! - Dry pasta will cook in 4-6 hours in a saucy dish without messy pre-boiling, but be patient. They’ll seem too firm almost until the very end of their cooking time, but will soften quickly. I promise! This is a great tip if you are looking to make a single pot pasta casserole, like “Baked Ziti”.
- Crock Pots are perfect tortilla warmers - Use your slow cooker on low to keep tortillas warm and ready to fill on Fajita night. It works for French toast and pancakes, too!
- Alcohol flavors intensify in a Slow Cooker - The beer or wine in your favorite dish evaporates during slow cooking, but flavors will intensify. Recipes not designed specifically for crockpots may need to be adjusted. Typically I find, I need to reduce the volume of the beer or wine by 1/3 – feel free to replace the liquid with stock or even water.
- Sear meat to deepen flavor - A quick sear adds valuable flavor to meat dishes and enhances its texture and appearance. It’s not always necessary for dinner-worthy results, but it’s worth the effort if you have the time.
- Clean crock stains naturally with vinegar and baking soda - If your crock is discolored, fill it with water and add a quarter cup of baking soda and one cup of white vinegar. Let the mixture “cook” for an hour on high and your Crock Pot will virtually clean itself!
- Add fresh herbs and garlic at the last minute - Fresh herbs taste lifeless and garlic loses its punch with long, slow cooking. Add them within the last few minutes (normally around 30 minutes is perfect) of cooking for bright and tasty results.
- Layer food effectively - Place hard root vegetables like potatoes and turnip under meats instead of around them. The dripping fat and juices help lock in moisture and add loads of flavor.
Open your mind up to a new world of cooking
Slow cookers open up a whole new world of cooking convenience and let you put wholesome meals on the table in record time and with less effort than it takes to make cold sandwiches. If you don’t own one yet, shop carefully, but once you get it home, cook fearlessly. I have added some of my favorite items and accessories at the bottom of this post – these are all products that I have owned or tested – they are Chef Robert approved.