Using a Slow Cooker
In the early 1970s, Rival Manufacturing released the Crock-Pot, the original slow cooker. Little did they realize, their 1976 advertisement that exclaimed, “cooks all day while the cook’s away,” would be the exact reason slow cookers would become popular again years later.
The slow cooker that we know and love today, originally gained popularity in the 1970s as an American-produced electrical appliance, but its humble beginnings can be traced back much further. A Jewish custom that prohibits working from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday inspired a gentleman, named Irving Naxon, to apply for a patent for a device he called the Naxon Beanery in 1936.
Naxon credits the idea for his invention to his grandmother, who often shared stories of her youth being spent working in a Lithuanian bakery where she would prepare a popular meat and bean dish called Cholent. Just like that, the idea for one of America’s most used kitchen appliances was born.
Naxon’s patent was specifically for a portable, electric household cooking appliance that could cook food slowly on a low temperature. The appliance design, similar to a Dutch oven, consisted of an electric appliance inside of a metal casing that contained heating elements that allowed heat to flow evenly up the sides of the cooking pot, thereby cooking the food inside.
Naxon was awarded the patent for the cooking appliance in January 1940; however, it was originally marketed as a portable bean cooker. While his Naxon Beanery never grew to great popularity, in 1970 Rival Manufacturing purchased the rights to the cooking appliance. Two years later, they released the Crock-Pot, which many consider the most popular brand of slow cooker. Many people even use the terms Crock-Pot and slow cooker interchangeably.
The Crock-Pot, which cost $25 at the time, was considered relatively expensive. Despite
the steep cost, the appliance maker sold millions before competition increased
from other retailers and the invention of the microwave. The slow cooker remains
a staple appliance in today’s homes.
Slow cookers prepare foods at temperatures between 170° F and 280° F over an extended period of time. The slow cooker’s wrap-around design assures that foods cook evenly. Additionally, the combination of direct heat, steam and lengthy cooking time destroys bacteria that may cause food poisoning, making it a safe and cost-effective way to prepare food.
It is important to follow the manufacturer guidelines when determining what setting
and the length of time at which to cook specific foods. Here are some things to
keep in mind when preparing meals using a slow cooker:
- Start clean. Be sure the slow cooker, utensils and preparer’s hands are clean prior to meal preparation. Clean cutting boards, utensils and hands when changing from preparing one food to another.
- Thaw first. Never place frozen poultry or other meat in a slow cooker. When cooking on the stove top or in the oven, it is completely acceptable to thaw foods as part of the cooking process. When using a slow cooker, thawing food as part of the cooking process may allow food to remain in the temperature danger zone (40° to 140° F) where illness-causing bacteria grows rapidly, thereby increasing the risk of food poisoning. Food should be thawed using one of the following approved methods:
- In the refrigerator;
- In a sink covered by cold water. Water must be changed every 30 minutes until food is thawed. Never let food sit out on a counter or sink to thaw.
- Preheat. To minimize the risk of food becoming unsafe by remaining in the temperature danger zone for too long, preheat your empty slow cooker on the highest setting for approximately 1 hour. Use the time to prepare your ingredients.
- Follow the manufacturer’s lead. Adhere to the recommended heat settings and suggested cooking time guidelines provided by the manufacturer of the slow cooker. Following guidelines other than those provided by the manufacturer increases risk of illness. Additionally, the quality of food may be affected.
- Placement. Arrange food in the slow cooker based on the amount of time needed to reach safe internal temperatures. For instance, vegetables require a longer cook time than meats, so placing vegetables on the bottom and sides of the slow cooker next to the heat source ensures the vegetables reach a safe internal temperature.
- Resist temptation. Removing the lid of the slow cooker during cooking reduces temperature within the cooker between 10 to 15 degrees and increases cooking times by approximately 30 minutes (University of Minnesota Extension, 2017).
- Temperature check. Always use a food thermometer to be sure that food has reached the required internal temperature for safe eating. Test foods by inserting the stem of the food thermometer past the dimple located on the thermometer stem into the thickest part of meat (usually the center). Do not let the tip of the thermometer touch the bottom or side of the slow cooker. It is important to use a thermometer specifically made for the food you are checking.
- Poultry – 165° F for 15 seconds
- Ground meat – 155° F for 15 seconds
- Seafood – 145° F for 15 seconds
- Roasts – 145° F for 4 minutes
- Eggs – 145° F for 15 seconds
- Fruits and vegetables – 135° F for 15 seconds
- Cool down. Once food has been cooked to a safe temperature, eat food immediately or place in a shallow pan to help food cool down to 40° F or below within a 2-hour time frame. Cutting larger cuts of meat into smaller portions prior to placing in the refrigerator helps speed cool down time and slows the rate of growth of illness-causing bacteria.
- Reheat leftovers. When reheating leftovers, heat them on a stove top or in the microwave – not in the slow cooker – to an internal temperature of 165° F.
Ideas for delicious, easy frozen meal preparation can be easily found on the internet via blogs, food websites and special interest groups. While these resources provide recipes that are appealing to both the eye and hectic schedules of families and single persons alike, they are often written by individuals who are not food safety experts. This lack of expertise increases the spreading of misinformation that could put your family or friends at risk for food poisoning.
Slow Cooking Today
While the slow cooker sold by the millions in the 1970s, one could argue it is just as popular today. Research conducted in 2011 found that 83 percent of American households own a slow cooker. More so, the sale of slow cookers increased by more than three million between 2011 and 2014.
Why are slow cookers suddenly popular, again? The increased interest in this appliance seems to be tied to two concepts:
- They are time efficient: In the 1970s, the time efficiency of the slow cooker was one of the major marketing angles used to sell the product. One popular slogan was “Cooks all day while the cook’s away!” With many women entering the workforce for the first time during this era, time efficiency was one thing that made the slow cooker attractive. Today, women continue to enter the workforce at a steady rate. That, stacked with busy social and family lives has resulted in a renewed interest in the slow cooker.
Meals can be prepared on a budget: One of the great things about the science behind slow cooking is it allows cooks to choose cheap cuts of meat they may have once strayed away from completely. The low, slow-cooking technique allows these cheap cuts of meat to become tender and more flavorful throughout the process. Whole meals can also often be prepared in the slow cooker with fewer (or less expensive) ingredients. Since many meals require fewer ingredients, people may choose to cook and store larger batches to last several days.
Needless to say, slow cookers are, once again, one of America’s favorite kitchen appliances because everyone is interested in slow cooking in a fast world!
Jamie Mullins, WVU Extension Agent – Calhoun and Gilmer Counties
Dana Wright, WVU Extension Agent – Logan County
Adapted from a lesson created for the West Virginia Community Educational Outreach Service, a service organization supported by WVU Extension Service.