Crock-Pot Confidential

The Slow Cooker Isn’t Just for Stew Anymore

By Liza Hawkins | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 02.20.16 – Dining, Food & Drink

Chris Spear, personal chef
Chris Spear’s Smoked Gouda Grits with Country Ham
Christine Van Bloem, owner of The Kitchen Studio Cooking School
Christine Van Bloem’s Turkey Hominy Chili

We often associate the birth of the Crock-Pot with the post-WWII era, a time when women were starting to join the workforce and modern gadgets designed to ease the burden of housework were being marketed to busy moms. It was the norm for families to eat dinner together daily, and the Crock-Pot was the answer for many mothers looking to make their lives easier. It allowed for a hot, home-cooked meal ready in time for supper—even if mom worked outside the home.

The story behind the original crock pot patent is a humble one. Inventor Irving Naxon was inspired by his Lithuanian grandmother and her “low and slow” cooking process for a recipe called cholent, which baked for hours using the fading heat in the bakery’s oven. He was determined to replicate that methodology by way of a modern appliance that allowed even heat distribution (a problem with previous slow cookers) and could be portable. After receiving his patent in 1940, Naxon’s appliance was first manufactured as the “Naxon Beanery” in the 1950s. It was eventually acquired by Rival in the 1970s and renamed with the familiar Crock-Pot moniker that’s still in use by the brand today.

Simply put, the Crock-Pot is a vessel in which home cooks can take a hands-off approach to slow cooking. If you don’t own a Crock-Pot brand slow cooking appliance, what you have on your hands is actually a slow cooker. Like Q-Tip, Kleenex and Ziploc have become everyday names for objects we use—despite really being brand names—so has Crock-Pot. That being said, not all slow cooking methods happen by way of this convenient, programmable, “set it and forget it” slow cooker appliance. A Dutch oven or a covered ceramic crock, for example, can emulate the same cooking ability of a Crock-Pot, just like how Naxon’s grandmother used to employ the bakery oven in the early 20th century.

Terrific practicality and portability aside, the Crock-Pot has, over the years, garnered side-eyes glances from foodies who believe the idea of cooking anything for hours upon hours is akin to culinary death, save expertly cooked barbecue, traditionally prepared mole, or sous-vide. But that’s changing.

“One thing that I am is realistic. Not every family has the time to pull together a creative dinner every night not made of packaged and processed foods,” says chef Christine Van Bloem, owner of The Kitchen Studio Cooking School in Frederick.

These days, even Food Network chefs are thinking out-of-the-box with slow cooker recipes ranging from macaroni and cheese to peach cobbler. And internet blogger sensations like 100 Days of Real Food use a slow cooker to prepare rich homemade chicken stock, fresh applesauce and even flavorful overnight oatmeal that’s ready just in time before work and school. “Bottom line: A slow cooker is a fantastic tool for getting dinner on the table for busy families,” insists Van Bloem. “Used correctly, and as more than a dump-and-run tool, a slow cooker can work for just about anyone. Don’t listen to the snobs that sniff and look down at you for using a slow cooker. You do you.”

“Don’t listen to the snobs that sniff and look down at you for using a slow cooker.”—Christine Van Bloem, chef

Most people who roll their eyes at a slow cooker invariably think of it as a place to mix and match cream of mushroom soup with various cuts of tough meat to make some semblance of a roast or stew. Perhaps that was true decades ago, but the slow cooker’s use has evolved beyond a convenience tool, thanks to tips and tricks developed by foodies.

Taking the time to build and develop flavor profiles before adding ingredients to a slow cooker allows for layer upon layer of savory tastes to come together. “A lot of people want to put everything in the Crock-Pot and just go, but you won’t develop flavors the same way,” explains Chris Spear, a personal chef in Frederick. “I like to season my meat and brown it in a pan, and then deglaze it with a liquid, often wine. Then I’ll put the meat and the pan liquid in the Crock-Pot with the rest of the ingredients. That little extra work makes a big difference in the end result.”

Van Bloem agrees: “If you’re preparing a roast, take a few extra minutes to season and sear it before adding it to the slow cooker. You’ll develop an extra layer of flavor that will make your dish infinitely better.”

In addition to building flavors before adding everything to the slow cooker, both Spear and Van Bloem have a few more tips to ensure a successful—and modern—Crock-Pot experience. Spear prefers dark meat chicken and beef with some marbling because they stand up to longer cooking times. He also cautions overcrowding your slow cooker, sharing, “I remember one New Year’s party where too much food was put in [the slow cooker], and when people arrived the food wasn’t even close. I think we ended up microwaving the food and putting it back in the crock pot just to keep it warm. Now I only fill it two-thirds at most.”

Another pro tip is to keep the slow cooker’s lid on tight … and don’t peek. “Resist lifting the lid on a slow cooker, regardless of the fabulous aromas,” adds Van Bloem. “Every time you lift the lid during the cooking process, you add 20-30 minutes of cooking time.”

Not all slow cooker recipes are the same, nor are the cooking methods transferrable. Slow cookers come in all shapes and sizes, as well as a variety of volumes. Fancier models also have settings that automatically shift to “warm” after the set cooking time, or allow for things like steaming fish and on-the-go, spill-free transport functionality. There’s “smart cooking” technology, which lets consumers pick the protein and set the time for when the meal needs to be done cooking. The Crock-Pot turns itself on at the calculated hour, and promises to have the meal cooked and ready right on time.

“Pay close attention to the size cooker your recipe calls for, as it impacts cooking a fair amount, and also cooking times,” advises Van Bloem. “You wouldn’t want to stick a dish with chicken breasts in the cooker in the morning, because even if your slow cooker switches automatically to ‘warm’ after the time’s up, it will continue to cook … leaving you with chickeny leather. Yuck.”