Set it and forget it: A primer on crockpots

The slow cooker — the easy set and forget magic culinary bullet — is now making a serious revival like the song “Everything Old is New Again.” So working moms, single parents, bachelors or bachelorettes, college students or those who just hate to cook can once again put a hearty, shoestring, no-fuss meal on the table rather than bring home a bag of fast-food transfatty monsters.

In honor of bestselling cookbook author Mable Hoffman, the queen of crockpot fame who recently passed away, here’s a nostalgic look at the kitschy appliance, its evolution, and some modern tips for using this gadget as safely and healthfully as possible.

Mable the crockpot maven

Thirty-five years ago, Hoffman, a California resident whose resume included food stylist for Better Homes and Gardens magazine, a bachelor’s degree in home economics, recipe developer for Sunkist Growers, and food writer preparing marketing reports for the U.S. Department of Agriculture was enlisted for the job of compiling a crockpot cookbook.

A newlywed publishing mogul who hired Hoffman had just received a half-dozen new-fangled electric slow cookers as wedding presents and was clueless about how to operate them. Hoffman experimented with recipes using 20 crockpots in her test kitchen in Solana Beach, and in 1975, “Crocker Cookery” became an instant blockbuster.

This breakout book launched Hoffman as a cookbook author, following with a string of bestsellers, some receiving the coveted R.T. French Tastemaker Award, currently the James Beard Cookbook awards. Her national book tours included television cooking demonstrations, preparing food in the hotel in the morning, and returning to the room to wash the dishes in the bathtub.

Hoffman, crockpot trailblazer who inspired millions of cooks over the years, whose remarkable life should be celebrated, died last month at age 88 in North County.

In the beginning

Slow cooking was the method used by prehistoric people when they tenderized their leathery slabs of meats and tough, strawlike wild roots in open fire pits for several hours.

In the modern culinary time line preceding the crockpot, slow cooking was affiliated with the food institute of Wilma Flintstone to soften the tough meat of old hens, and prepare pots of soups, stews and baked beans.

In 1970, the Naxon Corp. of Chicago developed a crude bean cooker called the Beanery, the precursor to the modern crockpot. Rival bought the rights to this appliance, tweaked it and launched the finished product one year later as the Rival Crock Pot Slow Cooker.

Over the next three years, Rival refined its original model by adding a removable liner made of stoneware, so the leftovers could be easily stored in the refrigerator. By 1981, crockpot sales reached $30 million, thanks in part I’m sure to Hoffman’s cookbook guidance.

Today, high-end appliance and cookware companies are offering their bells-and-whistles versions of the original crockpot, some selling for as much as $400, making a very fine and generous wedding gift.

Crockpot pluses

After prepping your meats and veggies, the crockpot runs the show. Easy, wholesome meals such as chicken gumbo or cacciatore, vegetarian curry dishes, lamb stews and turkey chilis can be started in the morning and ready hours later when you return from work or an outing, without tinkering around in a hot kitchen.

For die-hard carnivores, if you must eat meat, long, slow simmering in the crockpot does the job of breaking down the rubbery, fibrous collagen in chewy cuts, morphing it into tender morsels of butta in the mouth.

A final big boon: One-pot meals also save on the cleanup.

Cadillacs of crockpots

As with all cookware, stainless steel is better than Teflon-coated or aluminum, which potentially leach toxins into the food when scratched or cracked. All-Clad makes a state-of-the-art 6 1/2-quart stainless steel beauty with a programmable timer and three heat settings, while Cuisinart has an oval-shaped version with a brushed-chrome finish, and a shift to “warm” mode when cooking is done.

Crockpot alerts

  • Make sure the slow cooker sits on a dry, flat surface, not touching the walls or other items or appliances, and never use extension cords.
  • Inspect the inside of the crockpot before adding food. Toss the cooker if it has cracks, chips or flaws of any kind.
  • Always defrost any fowl, fish or meat before cooking.
  • Cut meat into chunks, never whole bodies.
  • No peek-a-boos; keep the lid shut. Every peek adds 20 to 30 minutes to the cooking time, and escaping steam could burn you.
  • Choose high-moisture recipes such as stews, soups or sauces.
  • Do not overfill the crockpot. Don’t go beyond the three-quarters mark.
  • Do not use cookers to reheat foods.
  • If the internal temperature of the food has not reached 165 degrees F, then the food’s not done.
  • Don’t use raw beans, such as kidneys, which contain a toxin called phytohaemagglutinin. This is destroyed by boiling, not slow cooking. So soak or boil first, or use canned beans.
  • Toxic bacteria can form if additional ingredients are added midstream. So add extra cooking time to prevent food-borne illnesses.
  • Slow cooking is veggie-unfriendly and makes them lose trace nutrients. Blanche or saute before tossing in the crockpot so more vitamins will remain whole.