Ask anyone who grew up in the 1970s, and chances are, they'll remember a five-quart metal and ceramic bowl (usually in harvest-gold or avocado-green) topped with a see-through lid and with an electric cord snaking out of it: the Crock-Pot, as ubiquitous in that decade as the fondue maker and the electric carving knife.
While some foodies maintain that Crock-Pots are making a comeback, the truth is, they never really left the marketplace. Since 1971, when Rival introduced it, more than 100 million of the slow cookers have sold.
Demographic studies conducted by the corporation show that more than half of the Crock-Pot users are married and parents. Most consumers purchase Crock-Pots in the winter months, and the majority of them live right here in the southeastern U.S.
"Usually, it's the mom who uses it, but we do find a lot of men who cook with it too, like hunters, who use them to cook game, and truckers, who set them up and cook while driving," says Veronika Hayden, a product manager at Crock-Pot headquarters in central Massachusetts.
Memphian Robin Pack, who spends his days working as a product director for First Data Inc., regularly uses a Crock-Pot to prepare meals for his wife and child. "I always wanted one, but my wife was afraid it would burn down the house," he says. "I had to convince her that I really needed it, and we finally got one this year."
Can you really put raw meat and vegetables in the pot, then plug it in to simmer away while you're at the office?
"Absolutely -- that's the whole purpose," Hayden maintains. "It's perfectly safe to leave it unattended. That's the benefit of it."
Newer Crock-Pot models, she explains, have added features that will automatically shift from cooking to warming temperatures, "so that even if you're home late, the food has finished cooking and been on warm, ready to eat.
"Most recently," Hayden adds, "our biggest development has been VersaWare, a ceramic stoneware that's safe to put on the stovetop. That way you can brown meat in it on the stove instead of using a skillet. Then you add ingredients and turn it on, so it's true one-pot cooking."
The heating element inside a Crock-Pot uses about as much wattage as a light bulb to keep the temperature hovering below 200 degrees Fahrenheit, while the loose-fitting glass lid prevents pressure from building up. The technique is in direct contrast to a pressure cooker, which uses a hermetic seal and extremely hot temperatures to cook food.
Because Crock-Pots work slowly and at such a low temperature, liquids don't evaporate. And unlike poaching or boiling, liquids don't contribute much to the cooking process other than helping distribute flavors between, say, meats and vegetables.
"When I used it for the first time, I was surprised by how little water I was supposed to use," Pack admits. "But before going to work that day, I put the veggies in and the meat on top with a little bit of water, just like the recipe said. I didn't add more liquid until I got home that night, and it made a pretty good beef stew!"
Since then, Pack has cooked everything from links of bratwurst (simmered in beer, then browned on the stovetop) to a whole pork shoulder. ("It was a fiasco," he says, "because it barely fit, and I had to smush it in there.")
Most of his recipes, he says, come from an unlikely source: the "Food & Drink" section of the Goner Records message board, where garage rockers can be found exchanging tips on cooking fare ranging from jambalaya, stuffed cabbage rolls, and chicken and dumplings to short ribs, meatballs, and pork chops via the slow-cooking method.
According to Hayden, there have been nearly 100 cookbooks dedicated to Crock-Pot techniques published in the last three years. Survey the offerings on Amazon, and you'll see 500-plus titles on the subject, including Not Your Mother's Home Cooker Cookbook and The Ultimate Rush Hour Recipe Collection and compendiums of diet-friendly ideas, cheap family meals, and vegetarian recipes.
"The campiness is definitely part of the Crock-Pot's popularity," she says of the slow cooker's retro appeal, "but it factors into a health trend too. People, like busy parents and full-time workers, are thinking how can they create a more healthy and economical meal, instead of ordering pizza or getting take-out every night."