“I’m never quite sure whether or not to believe some of these slow cooker recipes,” a friend complained on her Facebook page. “I tried several back in the day, following each to the letter, and often ended up with something burnt or otherwise inedible.”
Welcome to Slow Cooker Hell.
Now, before the minions start yelling at me for being an elitist food snob, know that I have two slow cookers: an old one, and a new one. My old slow cooker is a church supper rescue, and it’s so old that it’s the same model featured on the cover of Crockery Cookery, 1971, by Mable Hoffman, the first cookbook entirely dedicated to slow cookers. In 1971, only 1 percent of American household kitchens had a microwave. Instead, it was the newly mass-marketed slow cooker, released under the brand Crock Pot™, which represented a modern, aspirational way of preparing economical, nourishing dishes for the family.
Perfect for moms trying to hold down a day job while getting a hot supper quickly on the table, the ‘70s slow-cooker also fit the needs of a then-faddish food group, vegetarians, who ate a lot of beans. The initial marketing campaign was so successful that, like Jell-O, Coke, Kleenex, Ski-doo, and a host of other American products, the Crock Pot brand became synonymous with the thing itself.
The Crock Pot—i.e. the electric slow cooker—was sleek and safe, but it was also, well, slow. Uh…is this thing on? How do you make it cook stuff? Hoffman’s genius idea was to write an appliance-specific cookbook that explained how to get this truculent device to make food you’d actually consider eating. Since then, Crockery Cookery has sold more than six million copies, making it one of the bestselling cookbooks of all time.
Lest the success off Hoffman’s cookbook be waved off as a fluke, in 2000, the Fix-It and Forget-It Cookbook: Feasting with Your Slow Cooker, by Phyllis Pellman Good, ended up selling five million copies.
Despite those terrifying sales figures—or perhaps because of them—foodies like to pretend that crock pots don’t exist. Serious chefs hate crock pots because it’s impossible to layer flavors and textures using them. You can’t sear the meat, caramelize the vegetables, or sauté the garlic. You plop in all the ingredients, close the lid, and wait. And wait. And wait.
And yet, if big-box store shelves are any indication, slow cookers are more popular than ever. Online, Walmart offers 577 different models (though the category also includes steamers and rice cookers); in store at Target, there were at least a dozen variations on the shelves when I popped by last week for birdseed.
I didn’t buy a new slow cooker because I already have a fancy one, which is stored in the basement, collecting dust. Same goes for the slow cooker owned by my college roommate Jen, a fabulous stay-at-home cook who has a custom caterer’s kitchen with two dishwashers. She entertains often and cooks daily. As far as slow cookers were concerned, “I have had some success—and some not so,” she emailed me, explaining that she tried making short ribs in a slow cooker and they came out so greasy and fatty that her daughter hasn’t been able to look at them since. “I traumatized her!! Bad mommy!! LOL!”
The short ribs debacle was two years ago. She hasn’t used her slow cooker since.
It’s not that the slow cooker doesn’t have its uses. My boyfriend calls my slow cooker the “Food A-Rac-A-Cycle,” like the one featured on the animated show, The Jetsons because he sees me dump dry beans in, and chili comes out. It’s magic! But according to lots of cookbooks and food blogs, your slow cooker is actually the food replicator on the Starship Enterprise, spitting out amazing facsimiles of cheesecake, enchiladas, spring rolls, lasagna, frittatas, meatloaf, mac n’cheese, bread pudding, and just about anything, really.
Except it doesn’t.
What bugs me about slow cookers is that it’s the cart before the horse. It’s the fact that recipes try to MacGyver it into doing strange tricks instead of accepting that it does one thing really well—braising tough cuts of meat—and everything else is a stunt, like using your hairdryer as a dust buster. They come packaged in breathless promises to wave away cooking worries whereas in reality, they’re incredibly demanding.
Sure, they’ve now got a retro vibe vaguely associated with the casual pleasures of home cooking, but reality of slow cookers is that they are serious pains in the ass. Read any slow cooker recipe, and it will soon become clear that it’s a persnickety diva whose demands must be met, or it will callously ruin supper to spite you.
It only likes the right amount—not too much, not too little. The Goldilocks Rule applies: the quantities have to be just right. If you’re using it to cook fresh raw vegetables, each piece must be the same size—not sorta, not kinda, but exactly the same, and no cheating! Never remove the lid while cooking. If you do, your dish will dry out. If you lift the lid again to add water, your dish will end up soggy. Either way, the failure will be your fault. Because you broke the rule and peeked.
For sheer cussedness, slow cookers are rivaled only by old-style Soviet washing machines, which they resemble in more ways than one. A demure device the shape and size of a lobster pot, the Soviet washing machine promised to liberate women from the drudgery of a daily domestic chore. Simply plug in a cord, fill it up, and push the ON button. But the damn things went by weight, accepting a mere 2 kilos of dirty laundry – no more, no less. Get it wrong, and the agitator would seize up. When that happened, you had to adjust the laundry soup recipe. Take out a shirt. Add a pair of undies and one sock. Stir, and close the lid tightly. Then cross your fingers and back away while keeping both eyes on it.
Don’t let it see your fear. And for God’s sake, keep the lid on!
Since they were first introduced in the 70s, slow cookers have turned into the lady version of car engine cuisine. As they drive, some truckers use the engine to heat up soup, beans, and what-have-you in cans: it’s the guy version of slow cooking while you’re hard at work. But…food in cans. Isn’t that the abomination slow cookers are trying to get away from? As one reviewer of Good’s book wrote: “I was surprised and disappointed with the number of recipes calling for pre-processed foods like frozen meatballs and canned chicken. Why do these things need to be cooked for 8-10 hours;
Well, exactly. They don’t, but one way to get around the persnickety is by dumping in canned applesauce to make applesauce, or canned chicken soup to make chicken soup. (These are actual “crockpot cooking” recipes.) On the opposite side of the spectrum, you’re cheerfully told that your crockpot can make sophisticated yet kid-friendly “delights” such as Crockpot Coconut Hot Chocolate. This can be done. But after you add all the ingredients to your crockpot, you have to lift the lid and “stir and whisk every 15 minutes.” For two hours.
Why not just prepare it on the stove and just get the whole thing over with in ten minutes? Why add the extra steps just so you can make it in your crockpot? The Byzantine addition of multiple steps is pretty much true of all the crockpot recipes that aren’t chili (and heck, it’s even true of good chili): several steps require cooking the regular way, using skillets and pots on the stove. Even more annoyingly, very few crockpot dishes require cooking for 9 hours, which is the generic length of time that working people are out of the house. So you really can’t push the button and walk away, unless your plan is to come home to a pot full of half-scorched, half mushified meatballs and create the perfect excuse to go out to dinner.
Which, when I think about it, just may explain the slow cooker’s popularity. Burned baked beans, anyone?
Paula Young Lee is a writer, historian, and backwoods cook. She is the author of several books including Deer Hunting in Paris (winner 2014 Lowell Thomas Travel Book Award, Society of American Travel Writers), and Game: A Global History for Reaktion’s “Edible” series. Follow her on Twitter @paulayounglee.