Cooking – A Home Cook’s Slow Cooker Primer

A Brief History of the Crockpot/Slow Cooker

During the depression of 1936, Irving Nachumsohn Naxon, who was born in New Jersey in 1902, invented the Crock-pot, or the Naxon Beanery, as it was then referred to. The inspiration for the Crockpot stems from stories Naxon’s mother told him of her life in a small Lithuanian village. With the coming of Sabbath, Jewish women would fill their cooking pots each Friday evening with meat, potatoes, beans, and vegetables and carry them to the bakery. After the baker’s ovens were turned off to honor the Sabbath, the pots would be placed in the cooling ovens to cook slowly in the residual heat. When Sabbath was over, the stews were ready to eat. This dish was known as Cholent and is still cooked to this day.

The Beanery was rebranded in the 1970s after Rival Manufacturing acquired the original design and gave it the name Crock-pot. In keeping with the 1970s love of color, the Crockpot came in a variety of colors and even came equipped with a recipe book. The target audience was ‘the busy working mother,’ but today, the crockpot/slow cooker is an essential cooking appliance in most households in America and the world.  Single women and men are particularly enamored with the slow cooker, as meals can be prepared in advance with minimal effort. There was, however, a short period when the slow cooker fell from grace. When the micro-wave made its appearance, the slow cooker fell from grace, but the slow-cooker remained a staple in many homes, and, by the 1990s, the slow-cooker began its come-back as a favorite way to cook.

Choosing and Purchasing a Slow Cooker

Below are some of the most important considerations when purchasing a crockpot/slow cooker.

Heating

When considering this aspect of the cooker, time should be taken to consider the method of heating. For example, does the removable pot sit on the heating element (the element will be on the bottom of the cooker)? Alternatively, does the heating element run up the side of the base? The difference is usually in the name of the appliance. Crockpots tend to have heating elements that run around and up the sides of the cooker to allow even cooking. However, the slow cookers sit on an element base, and the pot itself can be removed and used on the oven top or in the oven as a separate pot. This type of appliance requires food to be stirred occasionally as it can stick to the bottom of the dish. While the cookers are different from each other, the term slow-cooker and Crockpot have come to mean the same in the popular mind.

One Size Does Not Fit All

The shape and size of the slow cooker are essential when making a purchase. What will be cooked in the pot? Frequently small, round crockpots are chosen to suit one person or because they are small enough to store away in a cabinet. However, the size or shape may not accommodate a small chicken or ribs, so the Crockpot will not be used as often as it could be had a larger size or shape been chosen. If the cooker is purchased to make soups and bean stews, then perhaps a smaller size may be more appropriate.

Slow-Cooker Construction

The most popular slow-cookers come in porcelain or ceramic. Others have removable metal dishes. The preference is an individual one. It is important to remember that where a base and cooking pot are fused together, cleaning becomes more difficult, which in some ways defeats the object of having a convenient cooking appliance. The best way to cook in a slow-cooker is not to remove the lid as this releases heat while cooking. It is advantageous, therefore, to have a glass lid so that you can see how your cooking is progressing. Glass is a much better option than an opaque design.

  • Timer

Again, this is a matter of preference. Some slow cookers come with a timer, which is extremely useful for those people out of the house for a long time due to work or other commitments. A timer means that the cooker can be preset so that the food is cooked for the right amount of time without the need to manually turn the slow cooker off.This prevents the food from becoming overcooked.

The Warmer Function

Most slow-cookers now have a warmer setting. This is an absolute boon for keeping food warm until it is needed. Keeping food warm for dinner parties is extremely useful, so moving the pot from kitchen to table becomes convenient and practical. The warmer setting also allows the food to cool for a while before eating.

How to Use Your Slow Cooker

The Importance of the Slow Cooker Lid

Having a glass lid on a slow-cooker enables the user to see how the food is coming along. However, it is essential not to lift the lid to stir or just to admire the delicious concoctions simmering within because every time the lid is lifted, the cooking temperature drops, which lengthens the cooking time. It is best to leave the top on while cooking.

Slow Cooker Safety Tips

According to Good Housekeeping (2018), there have been very few house fires caused by slow-cookers. Between 2011 and 2015, there were only “70” cooking fires that involved a slow-cooker (p. 1). This is a significantly low number, but nevertheless, any appliance that creates heat needs to be used safely. Here are some tips to ensure peace of mind:

  • Before setting up the slow-cooker for use, ensure that the cord is not damaged. There should be no exposed wires and no fraying. Do not attempt to use electrical tape to repair the damage. Appropriately dispose of the appliance after cutting the cord from the cooker.
  • Ensure that when the cooker is in use, it is not close to any flammable materials such as curtains and towels. Take special care to keep the slow cooker away from cooking oils. Also, do not use a counter that is situated near the sink.
  • When the slow-cooker is not in use, unplug and store it away in a cabinet, making sure that the cord is not bent in such a way as to cause fraying.
  • A cursory look around a yard sale will reveal the odd slow-cooker or two. Make sure that second-hand appliances are in good condition. If the cooker smokes or gets too hot when in use, dispose of it. If the slow cooker is old, it is wise not to purchase it.
  • It wise to ensure that smoke detectors in the home are all in working order. Check batteries regularly.

Cooking Tips for the Slow Cooker

Pay Particular Attention to How Much Liquid Goes Into the Pot

Never fill the pot more than three-quarters full as the temperature required for the slow cooker will not be adequately reached. Not enough liquid and the food may burn or stick to the bottom of the pot.

Err On the Side of Caution When Using Recipes That Require Alcohol

When cooking in a regular pot on the oven, the temperature reached is much higher than in a slow-cooker. Alcohol is boiled away under these circumstances or evaporates when cooked in a pot without a lid. When cooking in a slow cooker, this doesn’t happen, so the result can be a dish that has an extremely burned liquor taste, which masks the flavor of the food.

Thaw Frozen Food Before Cooking in a Slow-Cooker

Thawing frozen food is common sense, really. Because the meat takes a long time to thaw in a slow cooker, the stage at which harmful bacteria may be present in the food is too long, so it can be dangerous to health.

Liquids and Slow Cooking

Water

The trick to making tasty, rich gravy in a slow-cooker is to make sure you have the correct amount of water that the recipe requires. For example, braising a piece of meat that falls off the bone, smothered in a thick flavorsome sauce, requires just a small amount of water: maybe only just covering half of the meat. Too much water will make the gravy too thin. 

Broths

Making broth in a slow cooker is inexpensive and very satisfying. The Crockpot comes into its own when making broth because the best broth is simmered for as much as 36 hours. The broth needs only a variety of vegetables, meat bones, and a dash of lemon and perhaps a bay leaf. Cover with enough water to almost fill the pot. When cooked, strain the vegetables and bones, and the remaining broth can be used immediately or bagged up for the freezer.

Milk Products Such as Cream, Milk, and Sour Cream

Dairy products do not do well in a slow cooker because they separate and curdle, making a mess of the recipe. Add dairy products at the end of the cooking period and stir in slowly.

How to Prep Ingredients for Slow Cooker Use

 Meats

The slow-cooker loves cheap cuts of meat. Shoulder of lamb, chicken thighs and brisket can be turned into works of art. All fat should be trimmed before the meat is placed in the pot. The fat on the meat won’t reduce down in the slow cooker, so it is vital to take the time to do this. You will not require as much water to cook the meat as would you would in an oven pot. When modifying traditional recipes, it is suggested that the liquid should be around a third of what would typically be used.

Vegetables

Preparing vegetables for the slow-cooker is much the same as would be done for other methods of cooking. Scrub carrots and top and tail. Carrots work better in the slow-cooker if they are diced. Make sure the vegetables are clean and peeled where necessary and diced if they take a while to cook, for example, potatoes, carrots, and turnips work better diced.

Pasta and Rice

As a general rule, it is best to add pasta or Rice to the Crockpot about twenty to thirty minutes before the cooking time has come to an end. If you put the pasta in too soon, then it will turn to a soggy mess. Make sure there is enough liquid in the pot for the pasta to absorb. If not, then add about half a cup of hot water with the pasta. If using whole grain pasta, put it in the pot about thirty-five to forty minutes. Add Rice about forty minutes before the end of the cooking period.

The Topping (biscuits and dumplings)

Dumplings for the slow cooker are prepared in exactly the same way as for oven top or inside oven recipes. Combine all the dry ingredients together in a bowl and then add small pieces of butter. Mix in the milk and mix to a soft dough consistency.  Make into balls in the palm of the hand (around a tablespoon) and then gently drop them into the soup/stew about thirty minutes before the cooking period is over. Make sure the lid is secure and continue cooking.

Ingredient Load Precedence

Most of the ingredients for slow-cooker recipes all go into the pot at the same time. However, for best results, it is good to have loading precedence as follows

  • Meat: first, Together with root vegetables such as carrots and turnips.
  • Vegetable: second,Including sliced onions, peas, and beans, tomatoes, etc.
  • Pasta and Rice: third, 20 to 40 minutes before the cooking period is over.
  • Toppings:  fourth, Dumplings/biscuits around the same time as pasta and Rice.
  • Dairy: last, Sour cream, cream, and milk are added when the cooking period is complete.

How to Adapt other Recipes to the Slow Cooker

Many people remember the delicious aromas spilling out of the kitchen from when they were small children. Warming casseroles and stew pots full of flavorsome meats and vegetables always seemed to greet a hungry family at the end of a long day. These recipes have been passed down over the generations, and now nanny’s stew and grandma’s chicken soup (with a little twist here and there) have found their way into the slow-cookers of the modern-day. Below are some favorite recipes that have been adapted for the slow-cooker using everyday ingredients. Meatless recipes are suitable for vegans and vegetarians.  Hearty soups such as pea and ham are suitable to serve any time of the year. The ingredients are inexpensive to buy, so in times of hardship, they provide the family with their daily supply of vitamins and nutrients.

Meatless Monday Stew

Leftover vegetables from weekend meals are used together with frozen or fresh vegetables that can be used together with frozen or fresh vegetables. This recipe serves four people.

  • 1 cup of frozen vegetables/fresh vegetables
  • 1 cup of frozen peas
  • Half a cup of diced onions
  • Half a cup of pearl barley or lentils
  • 1 can of either tinned tomatoes or baked beans
  • A dash of bottled sweet chili sauce or Worcester sauce
  • 1 cup of chicken or vegetable stock
  • Add at least half a liter of water, but the amount depends on the required thickness of the soup.

This soup can be bulked up by serving with dumplings or potatoes.

Peppery Carrot and Parsnip Soup

  • 6 large carrots
  • 6 parsnips
  • Pepper to taste

Place in the slow-cooker with 1 liter of water and cook for around six hours. Blend the cooked soup to make a thick soup. Before serving, add a splash of chili sauce.

Pea and Ham All-in-One

Sliced or diced leftover smoked ham or a whole cut of roasted ham can be used in this recipe.

  • Smoked ham
  • 1 half-liter of water
  • I half-liter of chicken stock
  • 2 cups of peas

The result should be a thick, hearty meal. This recipe can be adapted to use leftover cooked meats, including chicken beef or pork, instead of smoked ham.  If using meat such as beef or lamb, use beef stock instead of chicken or vegetables. To spice up a beef recipe, add oxtail soup if available. The thickness of the soup will change a soup to a casserole or a casserole to a heavy stew. Adding potatoes will change the consistency, but it will need a lot more water. The ham recipe does not require salt as the ham provides the salty seasoning.

Closing Summary

The crockpot/slow-cooker remains a popular culinary addition to any kitchen. Its versatility fits the modern-day quest for more time and more labor-saving appliances. Over time cooks, both amateur and professional, have experimented with new ingredients and old favorites to produce recipes that appeal to people of all ages and nationalities. Using very little electricity cooker suits the need to preserve energy. Its record of safety ensures that the cooker can be left unattended for many hours, and its modern design means that it doesn’t have to be hidden away in the back of a kitchen cabinet.

The slow-cooker serves the needs of different types of families, whether financially secure but who have a scarcity of time, to families who have lots of time but a scarcity of funds. Slow cooking methods using simple ingredients can turn into rich nutritional meals to suit any budget. Through the ages, mothers have learned how to feed growing families, and single people have learned how to prepare meals with limited waste and little effort. The slow-cooker is the turn-to appliance for convenience and versatility.

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