Tools of the Trade: Crockpots, aka Slow Cookers

22 Oct

Well, summer is finally over, even here in San Francisco. I’ve been seeing the signs for weeks now, but in the last few days I’ve finally accepted that fall/winter is finally here. For example, this morning I was greeted by this sight from my porch:

"Computer, what is the nature of the universe?"

“Computer, what is the nature of the universe?”

With this turn of the weather, my mind (and stomach) has started craving hearty harvest meals like stews, squashes, and rich soups. All of these foods are made imminently more accessible by one of the staples of the paleo kitchen, the crock pot.

Before I started cooking for myself, I used to think crock pots were kind of a joke. The one my family had was an ancient contraption in 1970’s brown that lived in our storage space and was only ever dragged out to do things like reheat a giant vat of canned chili for 4H potlucks. I always thought that it, like my parents’ fondue pot, was a relic of a foodie fad that had already come and gone.

But then I started teaching myself to cook by reading cookbooks and recipe websites and I began to notice a theme. There were many recipes out there for thick, tough (and cheap!) cuts of meat, and their preparation instructions were generally one of the following:

  1. Do a bunch of tricky steps and pre-prep to get the materials set up in a Dutch/French oven, then sit around all day watching it while it’s on the stove or in the oven.
  2. Throw a bunch of food into the crock pot and forget about it till delicious.

I was intrigued. I had no idea how crock pots worked but it seemed like the lower barrier to entry than all of the cast iron magic. I borrowed an old crock pot from my mom (sadly the 1970’s behemoth had passed away a few years prior) and starting giving it a shot. One of my first major recipes was a pork and butternut squash stew. I remember being astounded at not only how good the recipe turned out, but how easy it was to throw everything in the pot in the morning and come home from work to find dinner warm and ready to go at the end of the day. I quickly branched out into roasts and soups. I raved about my new-found food sorcery to my mom, apologizing for internally mocking the device for so many years. That year for Christmas she upgraded me from the hand-me-down to a new, even larger one.

As the years have passed I have discovered other uses for the pot, including pulled pork, bone broth, and even rendering tallow (although when I tried the tallow render it didn’t turn out as well  as I had hoped. I have since relegated myself to simply buying pre-rendered tallow from my butcher, although that comes with its own set of hazards).

I am certainly not the first paleo person to discover the ease crock pots bring to hearty home cooking, as any Google search will bring up many one-off recipes, entire websites, and a whole slew of cookbooks on Amazon. So if you’re looking for inspiration, it is easy to find.

As for choosing a crock pot, its a very simple device that is surprisingly cheap, but there are many out there with features that can help you scale to your needs. Some come with built-in timers, but you can also rig up a similar feature by using a plug timer from the hardware store. Some allow you to program settings, changing the heat from high to low automatically partway through the cooking. This is useful if you have a recipe that recommends different cooking temperatures and you’re going to be out of the house all day, but I often get by with simply cooking the recipe on low the entire time. I do, however, recommend you get a crock pot with some sort of snap on/sealing lid, especially if you plan on taking the whole pot to-go for a potluck or something (I had a bad experience involving the old hand-me-down crock pot, a vat of chestnut soup, and the back of my car). I also recommend you go right for the large oval 6-quart pots, especially if you plan on cooking big roasts of meat or enough stew to portion out for multiple days.

Full disclosure, though, I admit that now that I am more adept at cooking, I prefer to use my Dutch/French ovens for slow cooking when I can, since it gives me more control over the browning flavors of the food. But for days when I’m going to be out and about and want to come home to a warm meal, I don’t hesitate to pull out my trusty electric domestic partner and let it do the cooking for me.

Do you have any favorite slow cooker recipes? If so, please share them in the comments!

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