Welcome back to Home Economics for Men, the series that teaches you – the single man of the 21st century – the ins-and-outs of culinary self-sufficiency.
Convenience food burning a hole in your pocket? Are you looking less like Dwayne Johnston and more like Peter Griffin thanks to take-out indulgences? This is the series for you.
Last time, we talked about the importance of knowing the meat market, and how cheaper, tougher cuts are often the most flavorful when prepared properly. But how do you go about preparing them properly? Does it mean slaving over a hot stove for hours on end to get the best flavors out of them?
Thanks to the help of a very handy kitchen device, it doesn’t have to be! The slow cooker has been a fixture in American households since women joined the workforce en masse in the 1970s, and with good reason. It’s an amazingly useful tool for hassle free cooking that really gets the most out of cheap ingredients. In short, it’s the dream tool for a budding home economist!
In this edition, we’re looking at the history of the slow cooker, talking about how it works and telling you how to get the most out of one in your cooking.
Slow Cooker vs Crock Pot:
Before we start, it’s worth clearing up the distinction between slow cookers and crock pots, as these two terms are often used interchangeably and can cause some confusion.
Both slow cookers and crock pots are made up of the same base elements – a glass lid, a pot and a heating element. What typically distinguishes the two is that the crock pot’s pot is made of ceramic or porcelain, while the slow cooker’s pot is made of metal. For today’s purposes though, we’re using the two interchangeably, as the cooking procedures are generally the same.
The history of the slow cooker
Invented in 1940, the crock pot was the brainchild of an inventor named Irving Nachumsohn (who went by the surname Naxon). Nachumsohn created the crock-pot as an aide for Jewish housewives who were forbidden from cooking on the Sabbath. The device allowed for dishes such as cholent (a traditional Jewish stew from eastern Europe) to be prepared the night before, cook slowly overnight and be ready and warm to eat on the Saturday.
A hit with its intended audience, the slow cooker “saved the Jewish housewife” according to “Jewish Slow Cooker Recipes” author Laura Frankel. However, it would be 30 years before crock-pots and slow cookers found their way into the majority of the American homes.
In no small part, this boom was a result of the large numbers of women entering the work force in the 1970s.
Traditionally, cooking appliances were marketed towards homemakers. But, the manufacturers of slow cookers realized the potential benefits that their product could offer working women. Namely, that – with some simple preparation in the morning – the slow cooker would provide a hot, nutritious meal by the time the family got home. In 1975, the Mabel Hoffman’s “Crockery Cookery” – a recipe book geared towards the burgeoning crock-pot market sold half a million copies in four months, cementing the slow cooker’s status as a must-have appliance.
In the past two decades, the slow cooker has seen a massive resurgence in popularity. As the Washington Post noted in 2015, sales of slow-cookers doubled between 2001 and 2014. This time though, observers related the boom to an expanding interest in cooking among men, as well as a shift in the division of labor between the sexes.
How it works, and how to use it
Though it might seem like a marvel, the slow cooker is actually a pretty straightforward device. Typically, it comprises of three units; a base, with a heating element, a vessel where food is placed – most often a heavy stoneware receptacle, and a glass lid.
If you’ve ever used a Dutch oven, you’re probably familiar with the mechanics of the slow cooker. Heat emanates from its base, working up the sides of the cooker and then into the food. The steam generated from the heat then creates a vacuum seal with the lid. As a result, temperatures in the slow cooker remain consistently low. This helps to keep moisture during cooking, and also means that the liquid in the stock pot does not become concentrated or evaporate during cooking.
As a result, slow cookers are ideal for two kinds of cooking; poaching , which works well for fish and lean cuts like chicken breast, and braising, which is ideal for tougher, inexpensive cuts of meat like shoulder of pork, brisket of beef or lamb shank (more on this in a minute).
Slow cookers typically have a low and high, and warm setting. What you use will depend on the dish you’re making. Tougher cuts typically benefit from a longer cooking time, so are best on low. Soups and stews might use low or high depending on the ingredients you’re using. Generally though, the low setting is your go-to. A slow, gently cooked dish will really bring out the flavors and a longer cooking time means you can head out for the day and not worry about needing to come back and switch off the cooker.
The benefits of using a slow cooker
As I’ve already mentioned, slow cookers took off in the 1970s because they offered convenience to working women who suddenly found they had less time on their hands to prepare nutritious meals. Unsurprisingly then, the most obvious benefit to a slow cooker is that it provides a low-effort way to prepare a full meal.
Typically, slow cooker recipes call for only one step preparation. You simply need to chop your ingredients, place them in the pot, add your liquid and then let the slow cooker do the rest. Some recipes might require you to brown meat or sauté onions before adding them to the dish, but even with this additional step, you’re looking at maybe a 20 minute prep time max for a good lunch or dinner (some slow cookers even come with a browning function to streamline this process).
I’ve talked before about the benefits of batch cooking in this series, and this is somewhere the slow cooker really comes into its own. Slow cookers come in different shapes and sizes, with volumes ranging from 1 ½ to 7 quarts. While a smaller pot might seem like a no-brainer for bachelor or couple living, I’d recommend going large – 6 quarts and upwards. A meal from a 6-quart pot typically serves six, which means you can build up your freezer reserves really quickly.
Using a slow cooker already cuts down on your meal prepping process, but having a stockpile of home-made ready meals is seriously handy, especially when things come up that prevent you from cooking, or you’re getting fatigued as the week draws to a close.
Oh, and as far as time saving goes, the other advantage to a slow cooker is that it cuts down on washing up. At the end of meal prep, you’re usually only faced with a single pot, and the slow, gentle cooking means you don’t have to worry about burnt on dirt and grime.
Finally, slow cookers are also incredibly useful when it comes to getting the most out of cheap cuts of meat. As I mentioned in the previous article in this series (LINK BACK HERE) cheap cuts like shoulder, shank and brisket are pound-for-pound more flavorful than their premium cousins. The key to unlocking these flavors, though, is cooking these meats for longer. Fortunately, this is pretty much exactly what the slow cooker is designed for, getting you close-to-restaurant quality flavors without a huge amount of effort.
Things to remember when using a slow cooker:
Trim fat from your meat: You don’t need to add oil to a slow cooker recipe. Things cook so slowly in there and with enough moisture that the contents won’t catch. This means you don’t need a lot of fat on your meat either, as it won’t drain away. If you leave it on, you might end up with pools of oil in your stew.
Don’t add too much liquid: Because the slow cooker creates a vacuum, any liquid you put in the pot isn’t going anywhere. As a rule, reduce a given recipe’s liquid content by roughly a third when using a slow cooker. The pot should never be more than three quarters full, and you ideally want the liquid to just cover the meat and vegetables.
On the subject of liquid, just as it doesn’t evaporate in the slow cooker, it also doesn’t thicken. To combat this, you can either roll your meat in a small amount of flour before adding it to the slow cooker, or use a little bit of cornflour at the end of cooking.
Leave the pot alone: When slow cooking there’s always the temptation to lift the lid and check/taste the contents. But, slow cookers are at their best when left alone to do their thing. Each time you take the lid off, you break the vacuum, reduce the heat and increase the cooking time, so leave it alone as much as possible.
Slow Cooker times:
Want to know how to adjust normal recipes for a slow cooker? Fortunately, BBC Good Food has put together this handy guide.
If a dish usually takes:
- 15-30 mins, cook it for 1-2 hours on High or 4-6 hours on Low
- 30 mins – 1 hour, cook it for 2-3 hours on High or 5-7 hours on Low
- 1-2 hours, cook it for 3-4 hours on High or 6-8 hours on Low
- 2-4 hours, cook it for 4-6 hours on High or 8-12 hours on Low
And that wraps up this Home Economics for men series. Over the past five lessons, you’ve learned the basics of cooking healthy, tasty food on a budget, and how to maximize your time doing it. We hope you’ve enjoyed it, and that your wallet and waistline have as well!