It’s Too Darn Hot (or, Crockpot Woes, why did they raise the temperatures to make them cook hotter??)
Did you know that Bob Fosse, that Great and Bizarre choreographer of the sixties and seventies choreographed a small dance sequence in 1953’s Kiss Me Kate? His first on-screen choreography ever? …Sorry, strange stream of consciousness there–the musical Kiss Me Kate, to the song “Too Darn Hot” from said musical, to my crockpot woes coming rapidly to a boil…
Confession time: All these months I’ve been blogging about my deep love for my slow cookers, I have neglected to mention the frustration they have caused when they heat up too fast, boil too hot, and finish my food way ahead of when I wanted them to. I’ve always assumed I was doing something wrong, and eventually I’d figure it out and enjoy the delight of blissful slow cooking like the rest of the world. But guess what–the rest of the world is apparently in the same boat.
Turns out, over the past 5-10 years the manufacturers of crockpots decided it was too dangerous to let food cook slowly all day, so they raised the cooking temperatures by about 20 degrees for each setting…which is to say, now “low” is more like “simmer,” and “hot” is more like “boil rapidly,” and either option has the high likelihood that your food will dry out and burn about an hour or two before your recipe is scheduled to be finished. It means that anything you wanted to just sit there quietly and let flavors meld over a few hours will get much of its flavor boiled off, or changed, that red sauce must be babysat, hot cocoa must be closely monitored to prevent icky-scummy-skin formation, and meats must be tested periodically before they become shoe leather.
(There are ways around this…but for the moment let me just rant a bit.) This ticks me off supremely. To me it’s another facet of our litigious society, where the manufacturers have to protect themselves from the ignorance of their customer base, and make everything as idiot-proof as possible. Also of the fact that our food supply is fundamentally unsafe, so manufacturers have to make sure we take every possible step to cook the pathogens and unfriendly bacteria out of everything we make so that we won’t be made ill by the food produced by the guys in the flu factories. Yes, I want to be safe. Yes, I want to eat Real Food, cooked well. But dammit, I want my slow cooker back.
There, I’m done. Yes, that was sort of a stupid rant.
But, then…is there any way to reclaim the working stiff’s ability to throw ingredients into the pot in the morning and come home to a beautifully cooked dinner, which is after all the reason we love–or used to love–our crockpots?
A couple of thoughts:
- If you have a crockpot that’s more than 5 years old, keep it!!! Do not even think of tossing it for a new model. (Or if you are, think about asking me if I’d like to take it off your hands.)
- Shop for vintage crockpots on ebay or at your local thrift store
- Babysit your new recipes the first time you cook them, and take good notes about what you had to change to make things work correctly in whatever crockpot you have. You may need to add extra liquid or shorten cooking times significantly to make it work out.
- Make sure your crock is always pretty well filled. The instructions will say that it should always be “2/3-3/4″ full of food when you start, but if what you’re cooking will cook down significantly, you may need to try for “completely full” at the beginning in order to be at 2/3 full by the time things cook down and the thing starts simmering busily, which the old crocks never did on low heat.
- Bear in mind, when cooking pieces of meat, that the meat will usually go through a stage of “too dry” before it hits “soft and tender and falling apart.” I’m sure there’s a chemistry lesson in this, but I don’t really know how it works. But it’s why you have to cook pot roast and stew so long. Again, in a hotter crockpot, you may need to add more liquid to make sure it doesn’t all cook off (which it shouldn’t do in a closed system, but somehow it always does anyhow), but if you cook your meat long enough it should eventually hit that tender stew-y stage. Or you could just follow Michael Pollan’s suggestions and not eat so much meat.
- I have not tried this yet, because in my desire to not be a big old consumer-buyer-of-things-i-don’t-really-need and also to cope with my small kitchen the idea of purchasing a fourth crockpot seems a little ludicrous, but if you can kick in the extra money to buy a programmable slow cooker, either one where you can set the temperature to which you want your food cooked, or one that lets you set the cooking time precisely and then have it automatically kick down to “warm” (which is somewhere just a little cooler than the old “low”–not really hot enough in most pots to actually cook on, but when you’re cooking basic vegetable products it can last a good long time on the warm setting) after a set amount of time. My current pot only has 8-hour and 10-hour options on low, which at the current heat setting is ludicrous; beans are the only thing I cook that can take that much time in the crock. A programmable cooker also would give you the option of exploring some of the lovely breakfast recipes you can make in a slow-cooker–oatmeals and bread puddings and stuff of that nature–and let them cook overnight. (A friend just sent me a couple…I will post about them as soon as I get to try them!)
Other than that…I got nothin’. It’s a sad thing. Once a food hits boiling and sits there for a while, you lose so much of the flavor, and it’s just tragic. Mulled cider, marinara sauce, pretty much anything you make loses all subtlety of flavor after that much time at a Real Boil. And forget anything like mulled wine or glogg–the alcohol just cooks right off, and what’s the point of that?
So…anyone got any other tips? Ways of getting past this annoying quality in our crockpots? Because this is just…sad.