One small benefit of apartment living is the olfactory pleasure derived from the cooking of people living around you, particularly during the long winter months. As I've thawed out while waiting for the elevator, inhaling the comforting smells of #1A's hearty beef stew, I've wondered: Why can't I come home to these aromas (and this food) in my own apartment, even though I'm at work all day? I have neither a cook nor or a stay-at-home husband, but there is an answer: a slow cooker.
How does a slow cooker work its magic? Slow cookers cook via indirect heat—the metal, electric standing unit is lined with coils that transmit heat to the crockery insert—and because there's no open flame or heated surface, they can be left unattended. Cooking at this low, constant temperature over an extended period of time means that no stirring is required. In fact, stirring is much discouraged; lifting the lid on a slow cooker releases heat integral to the cooking process.
Since no evaporation occurs, the food in a slow cooker braises in its own juices (as well as any liquid added at the outset). Tough cuts of meat, like pot roast, break down over time into tender morsels. These cuts, which are often cheaper than their filet counterparts, thus make slow cooking affordable as well as convenient. And hearty stews and chilis, thick soups, and braised legumes make for some of the best slow-cooked foods—all perfect comfort food for a cold winter day.
Slow cooking has a long history: The Puritans slowly steeped their baked beans in molasses and pork on Saturdays to avoid cooking on the Sabbath; Native Americans slow-cooked tough roots in baking pits to soften them up. But modern cooking appliances and conveniences, such as the electric oven and frozen food, allowed for quicker meals. Slow-cooking was relegated to the back burner, so to speak.
Then, in the early '70s, the Rival Company, known for its "Juice-O-Mat," "Ice-O-Mat," and "Can-O-Mat" convenience appliances, resurrected the idea of slow cooking. The company acquired the rights to the "Beanery," a primitive slow cooker, and gave the appliance a much-needed makeover. The Crock-Potslow cooker was born.
The timing couldn't have been better. During the energy crisis of the 1970s, Americans were encouraged to conserve electricity, and Crock-Pots operated at a very low wattage. In addition, many women were abandoning their traditional roles as homemakers, either entering the work force or engaging in various pursuits outside the home. The Crock-Pot and its motto—"Cooks all day while the cook's away"—fit their new lifestyle.
But like avocado-colored furniture and shag carpet, Crock-Pots mostly became a relic of the '70s. Then suddenly, in the last four years, Rival has experienced a 20 percent increase in sales, which it attributes to the need for today's families to make fast, healthy food quickly and easily. The tough economy sparked interest in slow cooking as well, as families penny-pinched by cooking at home instead of eating out, and opted for cheaper, tougher meats in lieu of their gourmet counterparts. Plus, the skills required for a typical slow-cooked meal are practically nil, generally involving no more than chopping a few vegetables and throwing a hunk of meat into the pot, or pouring some broth over a bag of dried beans and diced onion. Perform these simple tasks, turn the pot on, and—voilà!—your meal is ready when you arrive home from work.
Today, Rival sells more than 15 Crock-Pots that vary in size and functionality. And although Rival sells 85 percent of all slow cookers on the market, more companies are offering their own version of the product. Gone are the days of Mom's harvest gold crock and Grandma's white pot with orange and puce flowers. Today's pots are sleek and modern, with an array of bells and whistles such as digital timers and automatic warm settings.
I set out to sample eight different slow cookers, both low- and high-end: four very different Rival Crock-Pots, and the others from West Bend, Farberware, All-Clad, and Cuisinart. I spent approximately 119 hours slow cooking, made more than 15 different dishes from braised lamb shank to rice pudding to pot roast to chicken soup, and donated countless Tupperware-fuls to friends and neighbors.
Scores were based on the following: