The Römertopf - Almost too pretty to cook in.

Slow Cookers

The slow food movement took hold in Italy, back in 1989, and it’s been chugging along ever since. The initial focus was, “food that’s good for us, good for our environment and good for the people who grow, pick and prepare it. In other words, food that is good, clean and fair,” all inarguably good stuff. The movement has branched out somewhat in the intervening twenty seven years, and as such, it was inevitable that cookware would also become a part of the deal, and indeed it has – In recent years, what we cook in and how we cook it has garnered every bit as much attention as the food itself.

In the late ’90’s, cookware began one of its greatest evolutions to date. Home cooks found themselves able to buy stuff far superior to the schlock that had ruled the roost previously. One of the very early deal makers in this regard was All Clad‘s Emerilware, a full 11 piece set of which M and It bought in 2002 for less than what a single top of the line All Clad stock pot was going for. Why so cheap? Well, made in China rather than the U.S., frankly, and some minor metallurgical tweaks. That said, they’re still multi-layer steel, aluminum and copper bottoms bonded to stainless bodies – Fourteen years later, they show obvious signs of heavy use, but they’re in perfect working order with years left on them.

Then, as the slow food movement penetrated other parts of the world, this trend toward high-end cookware took an interesting turn as well – a one hundred and eighty degree U turn, to be exact. Suddenly, cast iron was back in vogue, both raw, from venerable makers like Lodge, (who’ve been casting cookware since 1896), and in the considerably pricier enameled iteration, and the most famous version thereof, made by French manufacturer Le Creuset – They’ve been around since 1925, and are still going strong. The fact is, you can’t go wrong with cast iron – The only crime you can commit in this regard is to not have any in your kitchen. For my mind, a cast iron skillet and a Dutch oven are not optional, and that’s sage advice, if I do say so myself.

Straw Box - The original slow cooker.
Straw Box – The original slow cooker.

Then the venerable crock pot got a make over, and the electric slow cooker caught fire as well. While the name brand crock pot is a child of the 1970s, the roots of the cooking method go back way further yet, to what was, and is still called a straw box. As you can see from the picture, this is nothing more than some form of box big enough to fit a slow cooker like a Dutch oven, with room enough to allow a nice, thick layer of straw to be piled all around the cooker. Foods heated in the Dutch oven are stuffed into the straw box and left alone for the day – The latent heat of the food in the well insulated box finishes the cooking in a nice, slow manner – Its great for cassoulets and such.

The Römertopf - Almost too pretty to cook in.
The Römertopf – Almost too pretty to cook in.

And lately, the clay cooker has made a resurgence as well, with venerable makers like Römertopf from Germany offering a wide range of fired clay cookware that’s not only fun to use, but quite lovely, (When I climbed aboard the clay cooker train for the writing of this piece, M noted that “it’s too pretty to cook in,” and it darn near is!) Cooking in clay might just signify the farthest back that we can practically go in pursuit of the good old days – It’s been done for thousands of years, and by cultures from literally all around the globe.

Thus we come to the Big Question at hand – How much, if any of this stuff do you actually need?

Let me answer that with a story. A friend of mine used to own a music store. I was there one day buying an amplifier, and he mentioned that he had some really nice Fender Stratocasters that I, “needed to take a look at.”
As we admired the guitars, I noted, “Well, they’re pretty, but I already got two Strats and a Tele – I don’t really need another one.” He looked at me as if I was the dumbest human he’d ever layer eyes on, sneered slightly and retorted, “What the hell does ‘need’ have to do with another Strat?!” And there you have it, in a nutshell.

How many knives do you really need? Two or three really will do. How many pots and pans? Well, that’s more complicated, and it depends on how much cooking you do and want to do – Realistically, I think anything less than a couple of sauce pans, a couple of sauté pans, and at least one big stock pot just won’t cut the mustard. How many and what kind of slow cooker you need is also complicated. If you have a good, cast iron Dutch oven, truth be told you probably don’t need anything else, but you may want more, and rightly so.

That single Dutch oven is versatile as all get out. From stove top, to oven, to camp fire, it can and will do it all, and a good quality oven will be something that you pass on to your kids and their kids after them – There’s much to be said for those qualities, and that’s why I’ll stand by the assertion above – If you only have one, I’d choose a Lodge cast iron Dutch oven and be most content, indeed.

What then, about enameled cast iron versus plain? My answer will be blasphemous to some, but I’ll stick by it – I’ve owned more than one piece of Le Creuset, and two Lodge Dutch ovens. I don’t own any Le Creuset currently, because all of the pieces we have went through the process of enamel chipping from the bottom, and were eventually retired – With regret, I’ll add, because Le Creuset is beautiful stuff. Now, let me interject that, were you to buy Le Creuset stuff new, you’ll find that it comes with a limited lifetime warranty, and while there are caveats and requirements, I know more than a few folks who have either gotten a brand new replacement for free, or a significant discount on same – In other words, Le Creuset not only makes a kick ass pot, they’re still a most honorable company.

Enameled cast iron with a case of the chips...
Enameled cast iron with a case of the chips…

That said, the enamel is pretty, and will cut down on some preventive maintenance on your part, but you’ll pay for those premiums – Le Creuset is fabulously expensive, just like those top end All Clad stock pots – A lodge Dutch oven like ours will set you back around $40, and their enameled version will run you about $60 – That same size of Le Creuset costs $300 – Get the picture? Me, I’m OK with the maintenance – It’s why I have my knives made with high carbon blades instead of stainless – It’s about feel, and performance, and frankly, I’m OK with maintaining my stuff – That’s how I know how it’s doing in general. Oh, and for the record, I still own my Lodge Dutch oven, and the second one was gifted to my Sis, who was without and therefore in need.

And electric slow cookers, what about ’em? Well, the need factor is kinda like those Strats… Slow cookers are handy as all get out, and they’ve come a long way. Programmability, multiple cooking temps and profiles, and much higher quality cooking vessels and insulating materials have made these toys, errr – tools, a very attractive option. If you’re of a mind to make a soup or stew, cassoulet or roast, and want it to go all day low and slow, you’ll spend less energy doing so, and likely be much safer in using a slow cooker, as opposed to leaving an unattended oven or range in all day. Our Frigidaire Professional series 7 quart cooker cost about $60, and I highly recommend it.

The Frigidaire Professional Slow Cooker
The Frigidaire Professional Slow Cooker

And what about those clay cookers? While most of the world has been cooking in clay for millennia, many people in this country got their introduction back in the ’70s, when a British firm called Habitat introduced The Chicken Brick to America. On sale in Britain since 1964, the brick is a vaguely chicken shaped, unglazed terra-cotta cooker made in England by Weston Mills Pottery. The brick worked, and worked well, but it was kinda gimmicky, so a lot of folks got one as a wedding or Christmas gift, and then never actually used the silly thing. All that aside, the recent resurgence in interest regarding cooking in clay has spurred a revival – While Habitat discontinued sales of the Chicken Brick back in 2008, they’ve recently come to their senses and are again offering this iconic cooker.

The Chicken Brick is made of unglazed terra cotta
The Chicken Brick is made of unglazed terra cotta

While the brick as made of unglazed terra-cotta, the stuff offered by Römertopf and a few other German makers is glazed clay. In either iteration, there are some things you must and must not do when cooking in these vessels, and that frankly is what caused a whole bunch of folks to never even try to use that wedding gift. Clay cookers cook in large part by steam heat, and that means you need to soak the whole cooker in water for 15 to 20 minutes before you load food into it.

Clay cookers must be soaked for 15 to 20 minutes prior to cooking.
Clay cookers must be soaked for 15 to 20 minutes prior to cooking.

Next, it’s best not to load cold foods into a clay cooker, so you’ll also have to get your bird or roast or whatever out of the fridge for long enough to allow it to get fairly close to room temperature. And clay cookers don’t do well in preheated ovens – That can lead to cracks, and cracks are bad – So you need to load that bird into that cooker and into a cold oven. This means that you actually will cook at a higher temperature than you normally roast at – With our Römertopf, we cook chicken at 450° F for about an hour, whereas regular roasting gets done at 350° F or thereabouts. Next caveat – You can’t take a clay cookers out of a hot oven and set it directly on a cold countertop – Doing so risks cracks, and again, they’re bad… Finally, you can’t clean a clay cookers with soap, and for the same reasons, (its porous, yeah?), you don’t really want to cook fish in one unless you’re not going to cook anything but fish in thereafter, because it’s got a memory like an elephant.

The Römertopf cooker - Made from glazed clay
The Römertopf cooker – Made from glazed clay

Right about now, a fair chunk of you are thinking, “OK, Eben – What you’ve just done is convinced me that this clay cookers thing is a major pain in the ass, so why in hell would I put myself through all that just to cook a damn chicken?!

The answer is that the chicken you cook in that pain in the ass clay cooker will be the juiciest, tenderest, moistest chicken you’ve ever cooked. M said so, the very first time I used the Römertopf, and she was right. A clay cooker becomes a small, very efficient, very moist cooking environment, and without any other adjuncts whatsoever, it passes that moisture on to what you’re cooking. Römertopf makes cookers from quite small to large enough for a full sized turkey – we bought a medium size, which has a stated size of slightly over 3 quarts, and cost fifty bucks – Not cheap, but as you can see, this is a well made and truly beautiful thing – Almost too pretty to cook in, as M noted. What it fits is pretty much the fattest local chicken you can find, but not much else – I quickly found that our cooker truly wouldn’t hold anything else, which initially made me nervous, because I come from the mire poix in the bottom of a Dutch oven with some chicken stock school of roasting. What I found out is exactly what all the makers of clay cookers tell you – You don’t need anything in that cooker to make an incredible, notable chicken – The cooker will do the magic – And indeed, it does. I stuffed that bird with apple, fennel, onion, and some fresh herbs. Cooked it at 450° F for an hour, then popped the top off for about 10 minutes to let the bird brown. Pulled it out, put it in a towel on the counter top, gave it a 10 minute rest, and dug in.

Clay cooked chicken - 'nuff said.
Clay cooked chicken – ’nuff said.

It was, as noted, an incredible chicken, but let’s face it – I bought this cooker to write this post, and as good as that chicken was, it could have been a fluke, so I did the scientific thing – I bought another chicken a week later, did all the proper prep, but this time, I did nothing other than to throw that bird into the Römertopf with a tiny bit of olive oil rubbed on the skin, followed by our signature seasoned salt blend and fresh ground pepper – Didn’t stuff it, didn’t tie it, nothin’ – Just cooked the bugger, and…

Look at all the moisture that cooker produces!
Look at all the moisture that cooker produces!

It was the best damn chicken I ever made, hands down, bar none, no bullshit.

So, now – What do you need?

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2 thoughts on “Slow Cookers”

  1. I use that Lodge Dutch oven all the time, still can’t figure out where my TWO old ones went (vanished during the remodel). Also use my medium Lodge cast iron skillet daily, other sizes less often. And I must say I learned to really cook in Italy and wow, the cookware in private homes was remarkable; mostly copper clad, all heavy and beautiful. And all food there was slow food compared to how we ate here back then. Gave me a huge respect for process and patience

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