Tuesday, January 30, 2007

What a Crock

Here we are smack dab in the middle of Crock Pot weather, and I have yet to use mine. Interestingly, I’m in a position where the complaints I have with how Crock Pots (or I should correctly say “slow cookers” since Crock Pot is actually a name trademarked by Rival for their brand of slow cooker) function shouldn’t really be an issue. Right now I’m home all day, so I’d be able to put things in a slow cooker and have it cook for just 6 or 8 hours, the way most recipes recommend.

In general, I don’t think slow cookers work the way they’re supposed to. The idea is that you put a bunch of stuff in the pot, plug the pot in, leave for work, return home and find dinner waiting. That’s the theory. When slow cookers first seemed to hit their stride, back in the 1970s (at least, that’s when I remember my mother most using a slow cooker) that was probably fine. People in general didn’t rush out of the house at 6 a.m. and come tearing back in at 6:30 at night, or later. My mother used to leave for work at a very civilized 8:30 a.m. She was generally home by 6.

Today, when I’m working, I leave my house at 6:15 and return home just about 12 hours later. That’s approximately three hours longer than my mother’s absence from the house in the 1970s. Most slow cooker recipes—at least the ones that I have—all seem to call for food to be cooked for 8 hours, give or take. That’s four hours less than I’m gone from home. I could see if my mother put something in to cook at 8 a.m., and came back home at 6 that it might be OK; slow cookers are, after all, a very low heat, so an extra hour or two really shouldn’t make too much difference. However, I have trouble believing that an extra four hours wouldn’t impact the quality of the food. Unless, of course, all you make is beef stew.

Those who develop recipes for slow cookers would have you believe that you can make just about anything short of chocolate éclairs or ice cream in a slow cooker. Yeah, maybe in their slow cooker, with them standing around developing recipes next to it all day long, available to turn if off when the cooking time is over.

Additionally, many recipes (even those for beef stew) call for a fairly significant amount of prep work prior to the actual pot-plugging-in. Slicing vegetables, dredging with flour, browning meat. This is too much work for me to undertake at 5:45 a.m., even assuming I did have the time to do it then. I’m just not that highly functional at that hour. I’d slice off a finger, or the baby would wind up dredged in flour. It would be hard to explain that to daycare.

So ideally, I should be able to prep everything the night before, put it in the pot part and refrigerate it overnight, then drop the pot into the heating element and turn it on as I head out the door. Again, however, we have that 8 hour cook time versus 12 hour “away” time issue. The obvious solution is a pot that has a timer built into it.

They make this. I was so excited when I found it. It’s called a Smart Pot and it’s made by Rival (so it’s a Crock Pot). I told my husband, “This is what we need!” and he bought it for me then and there. Smart man. Dumb me. I should have looked more carefully to see how the thing actually worked. They did almost what they needed to do, but they missed the mark in a very critical way.

The Smart Pot allows you to set the cooker to cook for two, four, six, or eight hours. After that amount of time, it shifts to a “low” or “hold” setting. The catch is that as soon as you plug the pot in and select the number of hours you want it to cook, it starts cooking. Well, duh, you say. Yes, but what it needs to do is turn itself on 8 hours before I arrive home. Assuming that’s 6 p.m., that means the pot needs to turn on at 10 a.m. The Smart Pot doesn’t do this. It needs a clock that can be set for “On: 10 a.m.” and the length of the cooking time set to 8 hours.

I see the problem the slow cooker manufacturers face. If I took a pot of food out of the refrigerator (or even just put the ingredients into the pot cold) at 6 a.m., and then it didn’t start cooking until 10 a.m., the food would be sitting unrefrigerated, growing bacteria and god knows what else, for four hours before it started cooking. Here in Litigation Land, that would be a field day for people who felt a little queasy after Mom’s Slow Cooker Spam Loaf or whatever it was. Clearly the fact that the Spam Loaf ingredients sat out for four hours before starting to cook caused bacterial growth that led to food poisoning (and never mind that the idea of Spam Loaf is, in itself, pretty nauseating). Let’s sue!

At the same time, what they’ve got now simply doesn’t work. Don’t tell me that the hold setting it uses is really, really low heat. Any heat is going to continue to cook the food. I just do not believe that four-plus hours at even the lowest of heat settings isn’t going to compromise the quality of the food produced (unless, as I said earlier, it’s beef stew—but then why do I need a single appliance just to make beef stew?).

I know I’m going to be driven to what my husband’s mother finally did. She had this same complaint about slow cookers years ago (it's not just whiny me). She went out and bought one of those timers you plug your lamps into when you go on vacation so the lights will go on at dark and back off again a couple of hours later, so it looks like someone turned off the lamp to go to bed. She plugged her slow cooker into it, set it for the correct time to begin cooking to ensure that dinner would be ready when she got home, and went off to work. None of her family ever got food poisoning that way. They got to eat more than beef stew from the slow cooker, too.

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