The lazy (or busy) cook’s best friend, the slow cooker, is present in 83 percent of households in the US, according to a study released by US-based marketing research firm NPD Group on August 31.
With cooler temperatures on the way slow cooker season is approaching, offering slowly simmered stews, soups and meat sauces that require so little preparation that no one has an excuse to leave their kitchen totally cold during the wintry months ahead.
A slow cooker, often called a crock-pot, is a countertop electrical appliance that cooks food at relatively low temperatures for very long hours.
The long cooking time and low temperatures allow cooks to load up a crock-pot with ingredients and leave it untouched for even up to eight hours, making the device a hit with hurried parents and busy workers. Sales of slow cookers are increasing, from 8.9 million units in 2007 to 9.4 million units in 2008, according to the US publication Consumer Reports.
The method tenderizes less expensive cuts of meat, providing cost as well as time savings. And because slow cookers stay warm for a long time, they are popular at potlucks and other social gatherings.
But the convenient time-saving appliance is often viewed as a gourmet’s nightmare.
“I don’t want to sound like a snob, but the usual kind of crock pot cooking is not the kind of thing that serious cooks would have company over for,” said cookbook editor Rux Martin, according to book industry publication Publisher’s Weekly on August 31. Amazon already lists several hundred slow cooker cookbooks on their website with publishers hawking their latest updates this month.
Success with slow cookers depends largely on timing, as meat and vegetables can become tasteless if overcooked, leading some to view slow-cooked food as bland and limp. Slow cooking does extract some of the vitamins and nutrients from food, especially vegetables.
But dishes that can bubble benignly seem to be tailor-made for slow cookers, such as hearty soups and stews, or Italian dishes such as Bolognese-style meat ragouts and beans in garlic with herbs.
The modern slow cooker, an electrical update to the traditional bean-pot, was developed in Chicago under the trademarked name Crock Pot in 1971.
A round cooking pot of ceramic or porcelain is encased in a metal housing and topped with a lid that sits in a groove to provide a low-pressure seal. Slow cooker settings are based on wattage, not temperature, but they generally range between 77-93°C (170-200°F). Nearly all recipes include sauce or liquid, which transfers heat from the pot to its contents, distributing flavors as the center slowly marinates.
Cleaning up requires a simple cleaning of the usually glazed pot, making the entire affair only slightly more labor-intensive than slapping together a sandwich.