Monday, November 30, 2009

Slow Cookers - Design and Cooking

One way I like to make my days easier is by not having to worry about dinner when I'm exhausted. Slow cookers seem to have undergone a revival in recent years, but, unfortunately, the design of 20 years ago seems to be better than today's.

I have a 5-quart Rival Crockpot that I purchased in the mid-1990s. It has a solid glass lid that is fairly heavy. I never knew how important that lid was until I decided to buy a smaller slow cooker for our 3-person family (the cooker must be filled at least halfway, or food will burn; 2.5 quarts is a lot of food, and I don't always want to fill up the freezer).

Today's slow cookers generally have glass lids as well, but they are not all glass. Most have a plastic handle that is attached with a screw, and the thin glass lid is framed by metal. The weight of the lid is significantly less than the old style, and presumably the cost to manufacture and ship is reduced, because this design seems to have been universally adopted.

The problem is that this new lid design does not seal as tightly as the heavy glass lids. Slow cookers spit out water and the lids rattle around as the steam pressure builds. Spilling water all over my counter is not something that I consider desirable in an electrical appliance!

A review of some slow cookers can be found on . Cooks Illustrated has some commentary that is available without a subscription, and test results that require a subscription or a trip to the library.

After unsuccessfully scouring thrift stores for a model of the old design, and learning that my mother-in-law is planning to make use of the one that's been sitting in her basement for a few decades, I tested several different new models. I've finally located one that is acceptable, with only minor spitting of water, and only on the high temperature setting after several hours. The design to look for is a crock with small grooves in the rim where the glass lid rests, that allow the accumulating water to stream back into the crock. Also, the width of the slow cooker has an impact; I think it is likely that a round crock will spit less than an oval crock due to a heavier lid per unit area.

The one I found happens to be branded as a Rival, but not all Rivals have this crock design. I also located a smaller, house-brand cooker that has the same crock design and the same insignia on the bottom of the crock (and which does not spit at all, despite heating to the same temperature). I suspect that there is a huge factory in China that makes most of these appliances, no matter what the brand.

For the record, my favorite slow cooker cookbook is Beth Hensperger's Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook; she includes many reasonably healthy recipes, as well as many vegetarian and vegan recipes.

A few things that I like to cook in the slow cooker:
  • Beans. Soak overnight, start on low in the morning, done for dinner.
  • Soup. Get all the dinner prep done before noon and have some great soup for dinner. I like to do this when I have a busy afternoon scheduled.
  • Chicken stock/soup. After roasting a chicken, I put the carcass in the slow cooker and cover with water. I leave it on low overnight, and strain it in the morning. If we will eat chicken soup for dinner that night, I add vegetables and let it cook on low all day, adding brown rice about an hour before dinner. We buy free-range, natural poultry, and I find them to be very low in fat, so stock made with the bones and skin is not greasy at all.

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