In 1970, the Rival Manufacturing Company acquired Naxon Utilities Corporation of Chicago, along with the rights to a small electric bean pot called the Beanery. After a redesign, the new gadget was released as the Crock-Pot® Slow Cooker in August 1971. The timing couldn’t have been better since interest in home cooking was on the rise. Women flocking to the workplace, as well as housewives, were looking for ways to save time, money and household fuel – in short supply as a result of OPEC oil embargoes. One solution was the Crock-Pot, which came with a recipe book and the slogan, “Cooks all day while the cook’s away.” It became a culinary icon of the 1970s.
Since then, slow cookers – the accepted generic name – have evolved along with individual food preferences. The original round cookers, in hues of orange, avocado and harvest gold, had non-removable inserts. Today’s slow cookers reflect modern kitchen design and offer a wide range of amazing options.
The convenience of a slow cooker is undeniable with minimal prep and clean up, the use of one pot and unattended cooking. These cookers can even be used to keep foods warm, whether prepared in it or not. A slow cooker uses far less energy than an oven or stovetop, so the kitchen stays cool, even in summer.
Determining which size (or sizes) to buy depends a lot on the size of family and lifestyle. For families larger than four, a 5- to 7-quart model is suggested. For four or less, buy a 3- to 4-quart model. A 1 1/2- to 2-quart size is ideal for making small batches of food and can feed two. Mini slow cookers are perfect for sauces, dips and chocolate fondue.
Most slow cookers have two temperature settings – high and low – plus a warm setting to safely hold foods a short time. Low heat (around 200 degrees F.) is best for tougher cuts of meat that need long, slow cooking – six to 12 hours – overnight. High heat (around 300 degrees F) cooks foods in three to six hours, but sometimes less.
The newer models often cook faster, which is good to remember when making vintage Crock-Pot recipes. Deluxe brands may be fully digitalized with an alarm system in case the power goes off. Some models have racks in the bottom for steaming and come with carrying cases for toting food to potluck parties.
Current food preferences are reflected in the dishes prepared in slow cookers, especially since most are concerned with nutrition and strive to use more local, fresh ingredients. Interest in ethnic foods and cooking with fresh herbs and spices has never been higher.
There are two ways to prep ingredients for slow cooking; both are acceptable. Dump all the ingredients in at once, or dirty one additional pan and quick-sauté meats and aromatic veggies to build additional layers of flavors. This step also can remove extra fat from meat before it goes into the stoneware bowl. It’s good to precook some foods like uncooked sausage, bacon and kidney beans (see Slow Cooked Dried Beans).
Even with all the time in the world, or no time at all, the slow cooker is a valuable kitchen tool. Slow cooking isn’t an exact science and at times, there can be variables in recipes. But follow the principles of slow cookery, experiment and learn to make the necessary adjustments, then adapt favorite recipes to make this cooking method a beneficial one.
Shredded Mexican Chicken
Chicken thighs provide high-quality protein and stay moist in the slow cooker. Boneless or bone-in thighs work fine. The shredded meat can be used for dishes like burritos, tacos and tostados. Add toppings to the tacos and tostados: shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, shredded cheese, salsa fresca, guacamole and cilantro-cream (minced cilantro mixed into sour cream). Alternately, substitute cubes of pork shoulder or beef chuck for the chicken; cooking times will need to be increased.
2 to 2 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 10-ounce can red enchilada sauce
1/2 cup chunky salsa
1 small to medium sweet onion, cut in half, thin sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 rounded teaspoon Roasted Ground Cumin (McCormick)
3 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon BÚFALO® Chipotle Hot Sauce or mashed chipotle en adobo
crispy-fried, folded taco shells or crispy-fried, flat taco shells (made from corn tortillas)
toppings, as suggested above
Put the ingredients, except taco shells and toppings, into a medium or large slow cooker. Cook about 3 hours on high heat or 5 to 6 hours on low heat or until chicken is tender. Cool slightly then remove from the pot and shred with two forks. Moisten chicken with sauce from the slow cooker. Spoon into taco shells or pile onto tostado shells; add toppings, as desired. Serves 4.
Red Pepper Mac & Cheese
A bowl of warm, creamy mac and cheese is like a culinary hug. But this is not like the popular box kind that first appeared in 1937. Long, slow cooking and a trio of cheeses results in a creamy, luscious mac and cheese that will please family and guests. It’s all about the cheese, so use quality natural cheese, including some with a sharp flavor.
8 ounces (2 cups) small elbow macaroni
1 small sweet onion, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 12-ounce can evaporated milk
1 1/2 cups whole milk, as needed
black pepper, to taste
2 large eggs
10 ounces (2 1/2 cups) shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
10 ounces (2 1/2 cups) shredded Pepper Jack or Monterey Jack cheese
1/2 packed cup grated, aged Asiago or Pecorino Romano cheese
about 3/4 cup small-diced, roasted red bell pepper
Cook macaroni in ample water with 1 tablespoon salt for 4 to 5 minutes; rinse under cool water and drain well. Pasta will be underdone. Add to a medium or large slow cooker along with onion. Melt butter in a large microwave bowl; pour in canned milk then whole milk. Whisk in pepper and eggs. Toss the 3 cheeses together; set aside 3/4 cup. Stir combined cheeses and bell pepper into milk mixture. Pour into slow cooker with macaroni; stir ingredients. Cover and cook about 3 hours on low heat. Check mac and cheese after 2 hours; stir and sprinkle with reserved cheese and paprika; continue cooking just until done. Serve hot or warm. Refrigerate leftovers; microwave to reheat. Serves 6 to 8.
Tomato Vegetable Soup
Soup is one of the easiest dishes to make in a slow cooker. Long, slow cooking coaxes maximum favor from the ingredients. Substitute any favorite fresh or frozen vegetable or seasoning for those suggested. The fresh basil may be omitted and a little pesto can be stirred into each soup portion. For a heartier dish, add some shredded, cooked chicken.
32 ounces (4 cups) rich homemade or ready-made, reduced-sodium chicken broth or vegetable stock
1 1/2 cups tomato juice
1 14.5-ounce can petite-cut diced tomatoes with juice
1 medium sweet onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 trimmed celery stalk, diced
2 carrots, scraped, sliced
1 small red or green bell pepper, diced
1 cup shredded tender cabbage
2 medium zucchini, cut in cubes
1/2 cup corn
1 teaspoon each dried oregano and thyme
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 1/2 cups fresh-cooked or 1 15-ounce drained can cannellini or garbanzo beans
sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 packed cup chopped, fresh basil leaves
freshly grated sharp Asiago or imported Parmesan, to taste
Combine all the ingredients in a medium or large slow cooker, except salt, pepper, basil and cheese. Cover and cook about 5 hours on high heat or 8 to 10 hours on low heat. One hour before soup is done, stir in fresh basil and season to taste. Serve each portion with a topping of grated cheese. Soup tastes even better the second day. Serves 6.
Variation: For a Mexican flavor, use petite-cut diced tomatoes with chilies and substitute 1 teaspoon Roasted Ground Cumin (McCormick) for thyme and 1/2 cup cilantro for the basil. Other options include pinto beans or black beans and Queso Fresco, a crumbly Mexican cheese, for a topping.
Creamed Corn with Herbs
32 ounces (2 pounds) frozen white or yellow corn, partially thawed, or about 8 to 9 ears fresh
1 small sweet onion, chopped
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
1/2 cup diced, roasted red or green bell pepper
1/2 to 3/4 cup half and half or milk
8 ounces cream cheese, cut in large cubes
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, in pieces
sea salt and white pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon fresh or frozen snipped chives
Into a medium or large slow cooker mix all ingredients except salt, pepper and chives. Cover and cook 3 to 4 hours on high heat or until bubbly, stirring every hour. Before serving, season with salt and pepper and stir in chives. Serves 6 to 8.
For a special treat, stir in 1 to 2 cups thawed, frozen butter beans (a smaller cousin of the lima) or butter peas (pea-shaped baby limas with a sweet flavor). If necessary, thin the corn slightly with additional half and half or milk, especially when reheating the leftovers.
Apple Sauce with Rhubarb
The tart, unique taste of rhubarb subtly enhances the flavor of this hearty, rich applesauce – a blend of fresh apples, dried apples and apple juice. Serve as a side dish with pork, ham or chicken, or serve warm with ice cream or a favorite yogurt.
5 large Granny Smith apples, about 3 1/2 pounds
1 5-ounce bag dried apples (like Sun-Maid)
1 or 2 rhubarb ribs, if desired (discard leaves if attached; they are toxic)
1 1/4 cups apple cider or apple juice
1/2 cup sugar
thin strips of zest from 1 large lemon
juice from 1/2 fresh lemon
1/2 cinnamon stick
1/4 teaspoon each ground cloves, nutmeg and ginger
pinch sea salt
Peel, quarter and core apples; cut in thick slices. Put into a medium or large slow cooker. If used, trim ends of the rhubarb; cut in thick slices. Add to the pot with the remaining ingredients. Cook 2 1/2 hours on high heat or 5 hours on low heat or until applesauce is thick with chunky pieces. Discard cinnamon stick. Serve warm, or cool and refrigerate. Serves 4 to 6.
Slow-Cooked Dried Beans
Boost the flavor of nutritious dried beans as they cook with seasonings like onion, garlic, herbs, spices and hot chilies or a 2-inch square of umami-rich, dried kombu sea vegetable. Sweeteners, acids and salt can slow bean softening; add when beans become tender. Cooking times vary with the type and age of the bean. Julia Child cooked dried beans in a slow cooker, but first she gave them a quick-soak to remove – in her words – “the rooty-toot-toots.” (It also helps to buy fresh-crop dried beans.) Serve beans as a main dish or side dish, use as an ingredient or in soups.
2 cups dried beans, such as Great Northern beans, black beans, pinto beans, lima beans or black-eyed peas, rinsed and picked over
6 cups water or vegetable broth (enough to keep beans covered during cooking)
sea salt and black pepper
To give beans a quick-soak, cover with 2 inches water in a large pot. Boil for 2 minutes. Remove from heat; cover and soak one hour. Drain beans and add to a medium to large slow cooker with 6 cups hot water. Cook 2 1/2 to 3 hours on high heat or 6 to 7 hours on low heat or until beans are tender but not mushy. Add salt during the last 1/2 hour of cooking. Serve beans hot or cool in liquid then refrigerate. Makes 5 to 6 cups beans.
NOTE: Canned kidney beans may be a wiser and easier choice for crockpot recipes so be very careful to cook them above 175 degrees until completely done. As few as 4 or 5 raw or undercooked kidney beans can cause illnesses from kidney bean lectin, a toxic agent. Health experts recommend a 5-hour soak, then drain off the water and boil the beans at least 10 minutes before adding them to a slow cooker to finish on high heat.
Hoisin BBQ Pork
Serve this succulent pork as an entrée or in a flavorful sandwich that is a riff on the Vietnamese specialty, bahn mi. Simply shred or thin-slice the meat and serve on warm, crusty baguette pieces or French or Italian rolls and top with Pickled Vegetables (recipe follows), some thin sliced red onion and a few sprigs of mixed fresh herbs: cilantro, mint and basil. Buy light crusty rolls, not the rustic chewy kind. Bolillos from Mexican bakeries work well too. The meat is also delicious stuffed into taco shells, piled onto burger buns or served on jasmine rice.
1 medium sweet onion, halved, sliced
about 3 pounds boneless pork shoulder or Boston butt, excess fat trimmed, cut in half
black pepper, as desired
1 cup Bull’s Eye Sweet & Tangy Barbecue Sauce, or preferred flavor
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup Chinese hoisin sauce
1/2 cup catsup
1 teaspoon five-spice powder
1/2 to 1 teaspoon hot chili sauce or red pepper flakes
1/3 cup tangy orange juice
Place onion then pork into a medium to large slow cooker; sprinkle with black pepper. Combine remaining ingredients and pour over pork. Cook 8 to 10 hours on low heat. Remove pork from cooker; cool 10 minutes then shred or slice. Sauce from the pot can be served with the meat. Serves 6 to 8
Variation: Substitute four bone-in pork chops cut at least 1-inch thick for the pork shoulder. Pork chops can be browned on both sides before adding to the slow cooker.
In a saucepan, combine 1 cup rice vinegar, 1/2 cup water, 1/4 cup sugar and 1 teaspoon salt. Heat and stir to dissolve sugar. Pour into a large jar to cool then add 2 medium carrots, a 2- or 3-inch piece of daikon radish, 1/2 red bell pepper and 1 small seeded cucumber, all cut into julienne strips about 2-inches long. Cover and chill 1 to 2 days; drain before using. For heat, add minced hot serrano or jalapeño chile, to taste.
It looks like cake, but this comfort dessert is very moist and tender. The recipe begins with a cake mix, but it doesn’t end up tasting like one. The end result will be popular with its elusive, delicate, spiced flavor, especially when topped with ice cream, whipped cream or caramel sauce. It’s best served right out of the slow cooker while warm, but no one will refuse leftovers that are reheated in a microwave.
2 packed cups baby carrots, shredded or grated in a food processor
3/4 cup safflower or canola oil
4 large eggs
grated zest of 1 orange
1 cup fresh orange juice
1 cup regular sour cream or Greek yogurt
1/4 teaspoon each ground cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 box Betty Crocker® SuperMoist® carrot cake mix
1 3.4-ounce package instant butterscotch pudding mix
1 8-ounce can crushed pineapple with juice
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped, toasted nuts, if desired
Prepare carrots; set aside. By hand or with a mixer, whisk together oil, eggs, zest, juice, sour cream, spices and vanilla. Beat in cake and pudding mixes 2 minutes or until well blended and smooth. Stir in reserved carrots and pineapple. Coat the inside of a medium to large slow cooker with vegetable spray. Pour in batter. Sprinkle with nuts, if used. Cover with lid and cook 2 to 2 1/2 hours on high heat or until cake is fragrant, spongy and pulls away from the pot slightly. Cool 15 minutes, then spoon into bowls, adding toppings, as desired. Serves 6 to 8.
Hearty Breakfast Oatmeal
The slow cooker will free up time while cooking breakfast cereal, with no tending or watching for boil-over. This amount of oatmeal works best in 1 1/2 quart slow cooker; if doubling, use a 2 quart cooker. Steel-cut oats are whole-grain groats cut into tiny pieces. When cooked, they offer hearty texture, flavor and nutrients. Toppings might include dried fruit pieces, fresh berries, chopped toasted nuts, crunchy granola, milk, cream, maple syrup, honey or brown sugar, ground cinnamon or nutmeg, or my favorites – homemade chunky apple sauce and a big spoonful of Greek yogurt. Steel-cut oats are available in bulk bins at supermarkets, or look for brands like Bob’s Red Mill, McCann’s and Quaker.
1/2 cup steel-cut oats or thick-cut oats
2 cups water (2 1/4 cups for thinner porridge)
1 tablespoon toasted wheat germ, optional
big pinch sea salt
Combine ingredients in the slow cooker. Cook without stirring about 1 1/2 hours on high heat. Stir and scoop into bowls while warm; add desired toppings. If time is short, make oatmeal up to 3 days ahead, using 2 cups water. Cool and refrigerate in an airtight container. Reheat portions in the microwave, thinning with water, as necessary. Leftover oatmeal can also be used for making bread. Serves 2 to 3.
A Baker’s Dozen Tips for Slow Cooking
• Read the slow cooker’s instruction manual carefully before beginning. The heat, plus the long cooking time and steam buildup destroys any bacteria, making slow cooking a safe process.
• For best results, fill the stoneware bowl at least 1/2 to 2/3 full. Dried beans expand more than double their size.
• One hour on high heat generally equals two hours on low heat.
• Use a handy instant-read thermometer to check certain food temperatures like large cuts of pork (cook to 160 degrees F).
• If the pot has a hot spot, remove the lid (avoiding hot steam) and use potholders to carefully lift and rotate the crock of food. Quickly replace lid.
• It may be unavoidable, but remember that removing the lid slows down the cooking time 15 to 20 minutes.
• Don’t add solid frozen foods, especially during cooking. This slows down the cooker considerably.
• Add delicate fish and seafood to sauces near the end of the cooking time. The same goes for fresh herbs, to retain flavor.
• Foods that need the longest cooking go on the bottom of the pot. Cut veggies the same size for even cooking.
• Coat the inside of the pot with cooking spray or use slow cooker liners for easy clean up.
• An immersion blender is useful for pureeing batches of soup right in the crockpot.
• A portion of canned milk helps prevent curdling in dishes with a large amount of milk, like macaroni and cheese.
• Slow cooker foods need less liquid than traditional braised dishes and there will be far less evaporation.