First, 21-year-old Amy Fleishans chops up apples and gathers cinnamon oatmeal.
Next, she puts all the ingredients into a big slow-cooker pot and plugs it in.
Then she goes to bed.
Fleishans, who is a student at Arizona State University, eats slow-cooked food just about every day, for every meal. She turns on her slow cooker in the mornings to make dinner and the night before to make breakfast – in this case, cinnamon apple oatmeal – that are healthy and home-cooked. “My days are just so full,” she said. “I start classes at 7:30 a.m., then I go straight to internships, so by the time I get home at night I’m exhausted and I’m starving. I don’t want to just go get a hamburger or a slice of pizza.”
Fleishans belongs to a new generation, whose members are embracing their parents’ cooking appliance as a way to cook cheaply and have dinner “magically done” as soon as they walk in the door. Consider it a resurgence of slow cookers, some known by the brand name Crock-Pot, where a fast-food lifestyle and slow-food mentality meet via a slow heating of food in a big ceramic pot. Many factors have contributed to the slow cooker’s resurgence, including the health, low cost and ease of preparation. And it’s not just the typical beef stews and chilis that can be made in a slow cooker – these days, there are recipes online for apple crisps, meat loaf, eggs, casseroles, pudding and even candle wax.
Slow cookers are making their comeback in big-box stores and at garage sales alike. Though it couldn’t release specific numbers, Target Corp. reported that sales of slow cookers have exceeded expectations over the past year and particularly over the past few months, according to Jana O’Leary, a Target spokeswoman.
Stephanie O’Dea, whose recipe book “Make It Fast, Cook It Slow: The Big Book of Everyday Slow Cooking” has made its way onto the New York Times best-seller list, said she started using her slow cooker at the beginning of 2008. The move came about as part of a challenge to prepare something new every day in her cooker and write about it on her A Year of Slow Cooking blog.
Since then, the blog has grown in success – the San Francisco resident gets 20,000 visits to her site every day – and her collection of slow cookers has grown to eight.
“I got my first when I was 21 because I thought it was time for me to be a little more domestic,” said O’Dea, who is now 33. “I just followed the instructions and found out it was really easy, that I didn’t have to know what I was doing. Just throw it all in and push the button.”
Rival introduced the first slow cooker to the market in 1971 after acquiring a similar device called a beanery from the company Maxon Utilities, according to Sandy Oliver, a food historian in Islesboro, Maine. She explained that the slow cooker entered the market during an opportune cultural shift, which increased its popularity. Women, who had recently entered the workforce, enjoyed its ease, while those suffering from the high cost of gas during the 1970s fuel crisis enjoyed its low-voltage frugality.
But by the early 1980s, the slow cooker lost its popularity. “Like with any brand, when it comes out, everyone wants to do stuff with it,” Oliver said. “So there’s this little flurry of experimentation with this new technology, and then it flattens right out.”
Harry Rosenblum, owner of New York City cooking supply store the Brooklyn Kitchen, said slow cookers may have seemed to die off more in the ’80s because the trend then was excess.
“I don’t think people wanted to talk about slow cooking and buying the cheapest cut of meat,” Rosenblum said. “People wanted to talk about having steak, really extravagant stuff.”
Because of the recession, frugality has once again become a focus. Elizabeth Briggs, a professor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., said the Crock-Pot can turn cheap cuts of meat, like beef shank, into succulent delicacies. “With the economy and everything,” she said, “you are able to use a lot cheaper cuts and make them more flavorful.” For an extra kick in flavor, she suggests searing the meat before cooking.
But the difference between today and the ’70s is that slow cookers are resurging in a really big, 21st-century, techno-age sort of way. The cookers themselves have evolved, now with temperature settings and “keep warm” options. Cooker enthusiasts are taking to the blogosphere to recount their favorite recipes and tips. Facebook groups and fan pages are cropping up, like 58-year-old Frank Bagdon’s Crock Pot Blog fan page, which now has more than 6,000 fans. Members of the page post pleas for slow-cooking help, like “I’m looking for the recipe for the Split Pea Soup???” – for which Bagdon will post the recipe shortly on his blog – and “Help … I have boneless skinless chicken breasts, boil in a bag of rice, frozen broccoli and shredded cheddar … What else can I throw in the crock pot liquid??” Chicken broth or barbecue sauce was the unanimous answer.
Some people have even managed to bank off of the slow cooker’s popularity. Beth Bergren, 59, runs 68 different slow-cooker classes under the business name What a Crock! throughout Minnesota. In her two-hour classes, which cost between $20 and $39 and include her cookbook What a Crock! Manual, she teaches how to make family favorites in a slow cooker, as well as how to avoid the common pitfalls first-time users face.
Bergren’s biblical rule, which she is sure to divulge to every slow-cooker virgin, is to fill the pot only two-thirds to three-quarters full. “If it isn’t,” she said, “that’s when you get burnt food or dried-out food.” She also suggests having water at the bottom of the cooker if you are placing a porcelain, metal or Pyrex dish in it, to avoid cracking.
Despite the slow cooker’s economy and ease, Briggs explains that the slow cooker has given us something even more valuable: the ability to have home-cooked meals together.
“The weird thing is,” she said, “we have a bad economy. Yet the upside is that we’re eating more quality meals with our families. People can’t afford to go out, but they’re dining together at home. They’re able to spend more time with each other.”