Free Recipes In The VJJE Recipe Weekly!
Discover The Leading Recipes Newsletter!
Privacy Policy
Home
Food Mousepads
Cooking Tips
Food Dictionary
Ingredient Substitutions
Food Funnies
Email Us
Slow and Low
Is the Way to Go

By Mark Bittman

It cost me $30. I call it the Monster of Braising. I use it almost every day.

Go ahead and sneer. I love my slow cooker.

Essentially a small, closed electric pot that provides extremely low and reliably even heat, the slow cooker is simple, safe and, as long as you don't try to stretch its capabilities, virtually foolproof.

You may know it as the Crock-Pot. The Rival Company, now owned by the Holmes Group, trademarked that name when it introduced the product in 1971.

But slow cookers are made by a host of companies: Farberware, Proctor Silex, even Black & Decker. And recently, as the cookers have been given new looks and new functions, even food snobs like me are realizing their potential, albeit a little later than the more than perhaps 100 million Americans who already own one. Ask yourself this: Is it time for an attitude adjustment?

"The slow cooker is steadily growing in popularity," said Douglas Kline, a spokesman for the Target chain, which is based in Minneapolis. The company carries eight styles of slow cookers ranging in price from about $10 to $50 and is expanding the line.

"There is a trend toward eating meals in," Mr. Kline said. "Couple that with the reality that everyone is working and strapped for time, and the slow cooker is the perfect appliance."

The slow cookers you'll find at Target and at other national chains offer stainless steel or plain white exteriors, and incorporate programmable features like timers and automatic on and off switches, which make them even easier to use. They are still not chic, but, man, are they practical.

In recent weeks, I have used my Crock-Pot (it's a Rival, as are about 80 percent of the slow cookers owned in the United States) to make chicken stock, cassoulet, congee, choucroute garni, slow-cooked pasta sauce with ribs, black beans, white beans, lamb stew with olives and vegetables, short ribs with Chinese spices, and pork loin with milk and garlic.

While I was running errands.

While I was working.

In my sleep.

And I'm not joking.

None of the recipes I made was especially creative, but without the slow cooker they require at least intermittent attention. To make my Chinese-style short ribs, though, I unceremoniously dumped some ribs, soy sauce, water and a few other ingredients into the pot, turned the thing to low and went to bed. The next morning, my house smelled like heaven. The short ribs were tender beyond belief, and the stew was as delicious as any I've ever produced.

Talk about slow food! In fact, barring a return to the days of household servants, braising cannot get any easier.

Until recently, there has been something of a divide between the slow cooker and the adventuresome home cook. An interesting confluence of factors, however, is now bringing the two together.

First, whenever there's a difficult economy, people turn to cheaper cuts of meat. Cheaper cuts of meat, of course, take time to tenderize. But these days, unlike those in tough economic times of the past, many more households have two breadwinners, making it unlikely that there will be someone home all afternoon to cook. And no one walks in at 6 p.m. and starts braising lamb shanks.

Second, those cheaper cuts lamb shanks, short ribs, pork cheeks, brisket are suddenly in vogue in the country's best restaurants, not so much because they're cheap (on the contrary, in restaurants they're overpriced) but because, among other reasons, they taste so good.

Enter the slow cooker. As Patrick Hind-Smith, a senior buyer for Williams-Sonoma, said: "We added a slow cooker to the company's catalog a couple of years ago. I took one home to try it out and discovered cuts of meat I used to turn up my nose at."

The slow cooker's reputation, however, has long suffered from its image as the tool of the bored housewife, a machine filled with cheap meat and putatively convenient ingredients like cream of mushroom soup or taco mix (whatever that is).

At least for those in the crowd that considered "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" its culinary bible, the slow cooker was never much more than a bad joke. My wife and I received a Crock-Pot for our wedding in the mid-1970's. We took one look at the corn-and-vine motif, put it back in the box and returned it to the store.

People with lofty culinary goals may have snubbed them, but most American households own a slow cooker. And those numbers are rising. According to a June 2002 study commissioned by the Betty Crocker Kitchens in Minneapolis, 80.6 percent of United States households have a slow cooker, up from 76.5 percent in 1996.

Sales of slow cookers, said Kelly Lockwood, vice president of global communications and design for the Holmes Group, rank just behind the microwave and toaster oven (neither of which is really suitable for cooking) in sales of countertop food-preparation appliances higher, for example, than blenders and way higher than food processors.

Sales of slow cookers slackened in the 1980's, as most people discovered the so-called joys of takeout, prepared and microwaveable foods, but the mid-1990's saw a resurgence, and now there's a veritable boom. Rival alone expects to produce five million Crock-Pots this year.

What should you make in yours? The mass-market press devoted to slow cookery is generally unhelpful, though recently I have seen some appealing chili recipes, discussions of stews made with real vegetables and, in the current issue of Better Homes and Gardens magazine's "All-Time Favorites: Slow-Cooker," a recipe for Cuban pork that I actually want to make.

Andi Bidwell, senior food editor of Betty Crocker Kitchens, which publishes several slow-cooker titles each year, said, "Home cooks across the country may not be terribly interested in going way far afield, but they do want some new things." She mentioned Carolina-style pulled pork a natural for the slow cooker and an onion soup in which the onions caramelize effortlessly.

Moderately experienced cooks can figure most of this out by themselves. It's likely that after you've tried a few recipes adapted to the slow cooker, you will create your own adaptations. On the second day of my proud ownership, I made stock, combining chicken, vegetables, parsley and water. I turned the heat to low and left the house; when I returned, it was done. This was not exactly creative cooking, but I could not have been more pleased.

THERE are limitations: If you want browned meats, for example, you're going to have to do some skillet work before setting your pot to bubbling. You're probably not going to make dessert in the thing.

What the slow cooker is best for is braising. Period. For the most part I want mine for those cuts of meat, and things like beans, that take a long time anyway. Indeed, for its ability to transform cheap cuts of meat with an almost unbelievable lack of input on the part of the cook, the slow cooker is worth the price. A six-quart programmable Rival Crock-Pot sells for $50 or less. (If you're frugal, look in a church thrift shop; you'll find the one I returned in 1976, or a similar model, for $6.)

The new slow cookers are not only pretty good looking, they feature innovations designed to make them easier to use. Some machines, for example, will switch on at a preset time, cook for four to six hours on high or eight to 10 hours on low, then automatically switch to warm. (The difference between high and low is the time it takes for the cooker to bring food to 212 degrees, the ideal simmering temperature; warm is between 140 and 160 degrees.)

I'm not sure such advances are necessary. My machine has no more than a switch that says high, low and off.

For the recipes here, I did little more than take some of my favorite braised dishes, skipped the browning step (actually, I could not resist browning the meat for the cassoulet before adding it to the cooker), and doubled or tripled the cooking time.

It doesn't seem to matter much. The slow cooker demands less involvement on your part in fact, stirring is counterproductive during the first hour or two, because it defeats the slow but steady buildup of heat in the closed environment. There are foods chicken, for example that you can overcook, but as long as you choose things that you want to cook to death anyway, it isn't going to happen.

A couple of final recommendations. Unless you are interested in pushing things to the limit, don't mess around with recipes that have you add pasta or the like to already cooked meat at the last minute (or, in this case, at the last hour); if you want precise timing, switch to the stove top. Don't, of course, add uncooked meat to cooked meat unless it will have a chance to become fully cooked before serving; food prepared in the slow cooker must reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees for at least a minute in order to be safe to eat.

But as long as you don't rush things, this will not be a problem. And since rushing is not what this is about, you have nothing to worry about. Except, perhaps, your attitude.

Recipe: Pasta With Tomato Sauce and Ribs
Recipe: Short Ribs With Chinese Flavors
Recipe: Slow-Cooker Cassoulet


A Great Gift Idea For Anyone ...
Including Yourself!

Click Here For Kitchen Aprons



Click Here For Free Cookbooks


Home
Cheese Glossary
Measurement Equivalents
Food Safety
Wine Glossary
Ingredient Equivalents
Email Us

Copyright 2011 by e-cookbooks.net All Rights Reserved.
e-cookbooks.net is a Division of VJJE Publishing Co.
8430 Gee Road Canastota, NY 13032
1-877-210-9600