Let’s be honest, that was always going to be the title of this piece. Anyway, hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes Quick Tips, where Jon explores some facet of food culture and brings back the facts for you. Today’s topic du jour (which, food fact, mean’s “of this day”, so I just basically said “today’s topic of today”) is Crock Pots, and, more broadly, slow cookers. What are they? Where did they come from? How do we use them? Let’s take a quick look at a slow cook.
The Easy Braise Oven
Quick linguistic term here: as we noted on Monday, technically speaking, “Crock-Pot” is a brand name for a line of slow-cookers from Rival, that has been almost completely genericized (the process where a proper noun or trademark becomes the default term for a specific product. Like how all tissues are called “Kleenex” and adhesive bandages are all “Band-aids”). As such, I’m going to use the terms somewhat interchangeably. I’m also going to have a section on the actual history of the Crock-Pot brand, so that won’t be confusing at all.
In order to minimize confusion, this is Irving.
This will make sense later.
I lied about minimizing the confusion.
Slow cookers are generally pot-shaped appliances with a ceramic or metal insert, in which food is deposited, almost always with liquids. The appliance itself contains several heating elements that surround the insert, and that bring the food to a simmering temperature. Note that second to last word: slow-cookers are meant to bring foods to a SIMMER, not a boil. This is relevant for a great deal of reasons we’ll get into later. It’s also very useful for puns: “I’m simmering with rage/resentment/lust.” Though, “simmering with lust” feels like a description of a brooding Jane Austen love interest, so try to only use that pun if you’re in the midst of a Regency-era England themed party with anachronistic cooking allowed.
I hang out with enough historians that such an idea is quite possible, as well as why I double checked to be sure I was nailing Austen's literary time-period. If I had said "Victorian" or "Edwardian", I assure you, someone would have mocked me for it.
Crock-Pots really took off in the 70’s for mildly complicated social reasons. By which I mean “women started entering the work force en masse, but were still expected to manage the household as well, so Crock-Pots let them work all day AND put dinner on the table.” The ACTUAL complications come from “why did this happen in the 70’s?” Whose answer comes with many components of various weight and scope, such as “the modernization of home appliances allowed domestic duties to be done with very little time/input compared to previous generations”, and “widespread access to prophylactics, including the birth control pill”, as well as “the women reaching maturity in this time period had seen the adult women in their homes go to work during World War 2 as children, thus opening their minds to the possibility.” And even MORE things, like “the beginnings of economic stagnation relative to the prosperity of the 50’s”, and "the relatively low energy demands of the Crock-Pot fit well with the ongoing energy crisis" all of which I think is cool to talk about and analyze, because I’m a huge nerd.
Anyway, nowadays something like 80% of American households have at least one slow-cooker, though whether or not anyone IN the household knows how to use it is less clear. My family has…Jesus, I’m pretty sure that there are at least 6 slow-cookers in the house right now. That’s wild.
These are the 2 we keep in the actual kitchen. The others are more...obscure.
So, having just briefly touched on their history, and then pulled out of it, taking the temp of the situation, let’s now fully dive in, and get to the bottom of the potentially surprising history of Crock-Pots and slow cookers. In order to make that as bracingly shocking as jumping in a pool, let’s start with the statement that Crock-pots were made to copy The Jews.
Lithuanian Jews, specifically.
Oh, there’s no walk-back here, that’s literally the stated origin. Slow-cookers were invented by a guy named Irving Naxon, which sounds like a comic book villain name, but is apparently real. You met him earlier. His Lithuanian mother (or grandmother, There’s some dispute) had mentioned to him that she used to make a bean-based stew named “cholent” back in the old country during the Shabbos. This is important, because even if you don’t know much about Jews, you may know this line from The Big Lebowski.
There's a lot going on here. Vietnam Vet, Anti-German Racism, Bowling League politics. The Big Lebowski is nothing if not layered.
Yes, Jews have, historically, taken the Sabbath/Shabbos rather seriously. Jewish towns essentially shut down from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday, with basically no work able to be done. (As a side note, Jewish and Christian workers aligning over the importance of the Sabbath is why we have the modern “weekend”: both groups needed their respective holy day off work.) Cholent was designed to allow the family to eat a nice meal without breaking that rule. A pot with beans was slid into the just-extinguished bakery ovens on Friday, and as the massive clay ovens slowly cooled, they cooked the stew. Saturday night, you took the pot out of the oven, and boom: you cooked dinner without doing ANY work that day. At this point, typically a man would begin to musically expound on the importance of tradition, or curse that the love matches of his daughters frustrated him in many ways. Look, I’m a middle-class modern man raised in a mostly Presbyterian household, Fiddler on the Roof is the only insight I have into 19th Century Eastern European Judaic culture.
This may have biased me to the number of Microphones found in the typical Jewish village, for instance.
So Naxon made a patent for a device meant to replicate those cooking conditions, so he could remake his mother’s stew. Which is why the original name for Crock-Pots was “Naxon’s Beanery”, a name so catchy, it’s hard to imagine why they ever changed it. The idea caught on for a BIT, and then fell out of popularity. Naxon made other products, and in 1970 Naxon’s company was bought by The Rival Company. And no, the Rival company weren’t actually “rivals” with Naxon. That’s just their name. I can’t find why. They were founded by a Russian immigrant named Henry J Talge, so it’s not like it’s named after him. Anywho, Rival got really lucky right here: they bought the company and its patents, and found this weird Bean cooking pot in it and said “huh. Guess we should do something with this.” They had one home economist tinker around with it, and she turned out a small cookbook of recipes you could make with the device. They retooled the look, and launched the newly named “Crock-Pot” in 1971 for $25.
They made $2,000,000 on it that year.
The next year, it was $10,000,000
By 1975, they made NINETY THREE MILLION DOLLARS IN SALES. THAT YEAR.
Literal stacks of cash.
Also, fun fact, the dollar was worth about 4.5x more back then, so in today's money, it's 4 and a HALF of those pallets.
And then, flush with success, the bottom fell out of the market. Kind of. See, Rival had to contract another company to help match production, that company leaked the designs…By 1976, there were 40 different companies making slow-cookers. By 1977, Rival was “only” making 32 million a year on the Crock Pot.
Eventually everything stabilized, and the world moved on. Just as we must, to talk about how to USE a crock-pot correctly, with all the pit-falls and boons that can be explored.
A Kitschy Kitchen Guide
So, now you know where Crock-Pots come from, and what they are. Here’s some tips on how to use them!
First, DON’T. OPEN. THE LID. Or at least, not without paying attention. See, due the reduced size of the cooking elements (compared to say, an oven) Crock-Pots rely on the already generated heat to continue. Every time you open up a slow-cooker, you steal heat from it, adding anywhere between 15 to 30 minutes to the cooking time.
BEWARE THE BEANS. Given the history of the dish, this is actually kind of funny, BUT, certain types of beans (Most beans, in fact, but particularly kidney beans, fava beans, and broad beans) contain a chemical that is no bueno for people. (It’s called PHA or…sigh… phytohaemagglutinin. That’s gonna suck to say.) It’s killed off by boiling the beans for 30 minutes, but, as we noted, Slow Cookers don’t boil food. In fact, the lower heat of the slow cooker can actually INCREASE the toxin levels. Canned beans are pre-cooked, so you don’t need to worry about them, but don’t put raw uncooked beans into a slow-cooker. It’ll make you REAL unhappy (we’re talking “exiting from both ends” level of medical misery) . It MIGHT even kill you. And that would suck.
Even further associated Fava Beans with food murder.
AIM LOW, SCORE HIGH: slow-cooking is particularly rewarding with cheaper cuts of meat. This is because meat is generally priced based on relative ease of eating: softer meats with less connective tissue is more expensive. Heat of a slow-cooker is sufficiently high to gelatinize connective tissue, while the long cooking time gives that tissue time to dissolve. Thus inexpensive cuts of meat become impressively tender, while an already expensive cut of meat would actually become somewhat tough, as the lack of connective tissue meant that the meat just cooked without as much internal mitigating moisture.
Lastly, and this is a very weird little note: while it’s almost impossible to burn food in a slow-cooker, you can still render it unappealing: the vitamins in many veggies break down dramatically in a slow-cooker, and if you drastically over-cook a dish (by say, cooking 14 hours instead of 8), you can totally undo the both the structural integrity of the components and the integrity of their flavor compounds, resulting in a brown goo without many vitamins or much flavor.
This stew is probably fine. Turns out most people DON'T go around photographing their failure.
Beyond those rules of thumb, you should feel free to explore the machine to your heart's content. We've used it on the site to make shredded pork for Red Curry Taquitos, which is a perfectly valid option. I've seen it used to make dips for parties: a friend of mine specializes in "Shit Dip", AKA "Liquid Crack", because drunk College student LOVE it, which is a secret blend of ingredients that I think includes Velveeta cheese and canned chili. (UPDATE: I was correct, though I don't think I'd have gotten the last ingredient without help. It's Cream Cheese) You can use it to make mashed potatoes, or hot drinks in the autumn/winter. You can use it as a chafing dish/heating tray (those things at buffets that keep the food warm.). Crock-Pots are pretty versatile. I have a cookbook that tells me that if I wanted to, I could make an entire Thanksgiving dinner in them, except for the turkey. Potatoes, stuffing, bread, vegetable sides, you name it.
And that’s it. Almost everything you need to know about Slow-Cookers, and probably quite a bit you didn’t, brought together. I have to say, I’m glad I dove into the history of the product: as our higher-tier Patrons know from this month’s call, I was afraid this post would be interminably dull, as we’d considered making it before, and pushed it back several times out of a sense of "what the hell do we even SAY?". I was pleasantly surprised that things weren’t nearly as boring as I feared. There were Lituanian Ovens, Multi-million dollar cooking crazes, and Irving Naxon, the newest James Bond villain!
As ever, if you want to support the site financially, you can use Patreon to help us make this all work. If you’re leery of spending your hard-earned cash, or committing to an ongoing financial relationship, we understand, and really should consider like, a PayPal page for 1-time donations…while I mull that over, I’ll point you in the direction of our Facebook page, where you can support us socially without spending a dime! Share our content, invite your friends to like us, it all makes Jon feel a little happier. Hopefully reading these does the same for you.
MONDAY: I THINK I SAID WE WERE DOING BRATWURST. WHICH MAKES SENSE. I MEAN, IT’S ALMOST THE FOURTH OF JULY. TUBE-MEAT PRODUCTS ARE A GOOD FIT FOR THAT.
THURSDAY: I WANTED TO CONNECT A “LOOKING IN ABROAD’S PANTRY” FOR GERMANY WITH THE BRATWURST, BUT IT FEELS A LITTLE WEIRD POSTING ABOUT GERMANY RIGHT AFTER THE FOURTH, SO WE’LL SEE.