Remember that large electric appliance that looked so revolutionary back in the 70s … the crock-pot? It’s making a comeback. As hard times hit households, more and more crock-pots are coming out of storage because of their ability to make tender, tasty meals out of less expensive cuts of meat. The crock-pot craze is on and more and more folks are finding that slow cooking is a fast answer to making budget conscious, nutritious and flavorful lunches and dinners.
What’s the difference between a crock-pot and a slow cooker?
It’s simple. Crock-pots have heating elements on the sides and a removable, crockery insert, whereas slow cookers have the heating element on the bottom. Crock-pots usually have two or three heat settings (high and low and sometimes warm), while slow cookers may have a variable thermostat. The terms, however, are interchangeable and the operating principles the same: both cook with prolonged, moist heat.
Advantages of cooking with a crock-pot
It saves money. It takes tough and inexpensive cuts of meat and turns them into tender, flavorful, fall-off-the-bone goodness.
It saves time. Throw all the ingredients in the pot in the morning and come home to a fully cooked dinner.
It saves energy. Slow cookers use much less energy than stovetop or oven cooking and they keep the kitchen cool in the summertime.
It’s simple to use. It’s a great tool for beginning cooks or those with little interest or skill in the kitchen.
It’s healthy. Most recipes require no added fat or extra oil, so you can save calories and keep off the extra weight.
The crock-pot craze is definitely heating up, and manufacturers are responding with design improvements. Over the years, culinary experts have had time to experiment with different foods, recipes, timing, temperature and techniques to ensure that slow cooked meals had visual appeal and were bursting with flavor.
The popularity of slow cookers is evidenced by the increasing sales of these units (Consumer Reports tracked sales for 2007 and 2008 and discovered an increase from 8.9 million units sold in ’07 to 9.4 million in `08). There has also been an explosion of cookbooks, blogs, and online slow cooking sites. A whole subculture has developed around this simple, yet very effective kitchen helper.
How to Choose a Crock Pot
You’ll want to pick up a crock-pot that has at least a 6-quart capacity. This way you can fit larger items like spare ribs. Price is not always a factor in quality, but the amount of food that you cook in your new crock-pot makes a difference to the quality, so you want to make sure there is enough room.
Pick Up a Basic Crock Pot
Most basic crock pots are great and they are cheaper. They will have a simple on/off button. Once you’ve mastered this one, or if you want something fancy, get a programmable one. There’s really not much difference between the taste of dishes made in these, but the fancier ones are a touch more convenient.
Programmable Crock Pots
These have electronic controls and a digital timer so you can set your cooking time. Fancier ones will let you program your crock pot up to 24 hours in 30-minute sets. They will shift to “warm” mode once the cooking time has ended.
Mechanical Crock Pots
These let you set the heat to either low, medium or high; but have no timer. This means you will have to monitor the cooking time…which can be an issue with foods that require a faster cooking time or if you’re setting your crockpot when you’re at work. Some of these have a warm mode, but it must be manually turned on.
Features to Look for in Your Crockpot
Besides the above settings, check to make sure your crockpot has a strong, durable handle. If your crock pot comes with a roasting rack or cord storage – you’re in for a treat. Here are a few more things to look for:
- Removable pot. Look for crock pots with a removable ceramic pot or a non-stick pot.
- Cleaning Options. Check to see if your crockpot has an easy to clean insert and if you can pop the lid into your dishwasher. Knobs will be harder to clean than touch controls. Some stainless steel can easily attract fingerprint marks.
I love a clear lid. If you lift the lid to look at the food, you’ll mess with the cooking process. A clear lid removes this issue.
- Size. As mentioned above, a 6-quart crock-pot is best since size affects the quality of food being made…and this way you will be able to cook larger items like whole chickens and ribs.
- Shape. Choose oval. These will let you fit weirdly sized and larger items.
- Temperature Probes. Some crock pots come with temperature probes that are programmable so that when your meat reaches a certain temperature, the crock pot will switch to warm preventing overcooking.
The crock pot at the top is one of our faves and approved by our team. You can click the link to go to Amazon and purchase it.
Need Crock Pot Recipes?
We’re in love with Canadian author Rebecca Field Jager’s book, How to Make Love and Dinner at the Same Time. It has taken crock-pot cooking to a whole other level with 200 recipes specifically for slow cookers and crock pots. The book is full of hearty yet exotic meals for couples who don’t want to spend the whole night in the … (ahem) kitchen. Jager attributes the trend in slow cooking to television food channels that use the crock-pot as a mainstream appliance and the industry’s improvements in heating and design.
Things You Can & Cannot Cook in a Crockpot
Although you can’t fry chicken in your crock-pot, there are plenty of adventuresome recipes that test its limits, including lasagna and cheesecake. Some of the best types of meals coming out of a crock-pot include chili, soups and stews, roasts, barbecued anything, baked beans, and cut up chicken pieces.
There are thousands of slow cooker chili recipes available. Here is a simple recipe that is easily adjustable to any degree of spiciness.
• 2 lbs. ground chuck (or ground turkey)
• 1 cup chopped onion
• 1 green pepper, chopped
• 1 small jalapeno pepper, diced (optional)
• 2 to 3 ribs celery, chopped
• 1 large (28 oz.) can crushed tomatoes
• 1 (8 oz.) can tomato sauce
• 2 cans kidney or pinto beans, drained
• 1 tsp. pepper
• 3 tsp. chili powder
• Hot pepper, to taste (cayenne)
• 1 tsp. garlic salt
• 1 cup shredded cheese
In a large skillet, brown the ground meat. Drain well. Combine all ingredients in a slow cooker. Cover and cook for 7 to 8 hours on low, or until done.
So it’s sayonara sushi, howdy, slow cooker. If there isn’t one hiding in your attic or garage, you can purchase a new model with digital settings, non-stick coatings and even dual compartments that allow you to prepare entrees and side dishes simultaneously. It’s the perfect way to simmer dinner on a budget.