Chances are it's still there, way in the back of the pantry. Just push aside the fondue pot and the sun tea jar, and bingo: It's the plug-in slow cooker, more famously known as the Crock-Pot.
Introduced by Rival in 1971, the Crock-Pot is making a big comeback. While consumers have always used some form of slow cooking to produce convenient dinnertime meals that simmer all day, the current wave of interest in the countertop appliance also factors in the economy.
“They're great for tenderizing tough cuts of meat,” said Andie Bidwell, a food editor in the test kitchen of General Mills-owned Betty Crocker. “You can make a stew or a rump roast or use any dark meats like chicken thighs.”
The benefit, of course, is that these cuts tend be much less expensive than steaks and chops. According to statistics released during the Annual Meat Conference in March, sales of pricier cuts of beef are down as consumers cut back on spending. Sirloin sales have fallen more than 10% and porterhouse just over 12%, while less expensive items are moving at a faster pace.
Betty Crocker, known to generations of Americans not just as a food brand, but as a publisher of cookbooks, has noticed the uptick in slow cooking and is preparing to publish a new hardcover edition of “Fast Slow Cooker.”
“Many folks don't want a lot of prep time, so the ‘Fast Slow Cooker’ has to do with what you can put in the cooker in 10 or 15 minutes, and still come home to a great meal,” said Bidwell. “You can put in lots of root vegetables, lots of the tougher cuts of meat — and soups and stews are great to prepare in slow cookers.”
But is such fare healthful? Devin Alexander, a Los Angeles-based chef and cookbook author who's worked on the television reality series “The Biggest Loser,” notes that there are plenty of slow-cooker recipes out there that can help families on a budget maintain their healthy diets.
“We have a recipe for Beer-Stewed Beef Mexicana, from ‘The Biggest Loser Family Cookbook,’” she said. “It's made with London broil, a less expensive cut that's great for people on a budget, and there isn't a lot of fat or a ton of sodium in the dish.”
Bidwell suggests that consumers wait to add vegetables.
“When you come home, you can toss in any frozen or fresh vegetable, and turn the cooker up to high for the last 30 minutes to cook them,” she said. “This retains the nutrients that you're looking for.”
Recent reports have warned about a phenomenon public health experts are calling “recession pounds.” The premise is that as people reduce food spending, they tend to purchase more processed foods that are high in fat, sodium and sugar. Alexander, who also has a new cookbook coming out this spring, is reminding her weight-conscious followers to resist skimping on quality food purchases.
“You can't compromise your health just because something is on sale,” she said. “You can do amazing things with the cheaper cuts of chicken and beef that are pretty healthy.”