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?

PLEASE NOTE!

Have now had quite a few of you ask if I was biased/bought for the purposes of this piece. Those who’ve asked are quite new here, so it’s a fair question. Here’s our answer –

We have never accepted any ingredient or article for free or any kind of reduced price in exchange for a favorable review, and we never will.

We have far more than enough followers and readers to warrant the ability to run ads on this blog, and to receive deals such as I just described – Again, we’ve never done any of that, and never will.

This is a completely independent blog, and everything you see here is bought by us at full retail price from the same places you can get yours. We’re about helping folks discover new things, becoming more food independent, and making from scratch everything that you can, period.

Camp Breakfast a la Dutch Oven

 
It might not surprise y’all to know that Monica and I pull out all the stops when it comes to camp cooking. Rather than see camping as a need to pare down and go simple, we take it as a chance to eat well in some of the prettiest places you’ll ever visit. If you’re car camping, or talking hunting or fishing camp, you not only can bring what you want, you should. You’ll want some form of flat top of course; a big old cast iron skillet is perfect. And make sure you include your Dutch oven, it’s a must for great camp cooking.

A Dutch oven is a must for great camp cooking.

 Without a doubt, the most important meal of the day out there is breakfast; that’s where your fuel comes from for the fun to come later in the day. With the Dutch oven, baked eggs, quiche, frittatas, biscuits, cinnamon rolls, Dutch babies, and dang near anything else you like for breakfast is absolutely doable. Just do a bit of pre-prep at home, measuring and combining ingredients so that it’s a quick and easy job at the camp end of things. Here are a few tips to help you have a great outing.

There’s nothing finer than campfire cooking. 

 Make some genuine camp coffee. Pull the guts out of a percolator, or just use a pan if you like. Do it up right, on the fire or in the coals if you’ve ’em; a Coleman or camp stove will work just fine if you’re camping in a no fire area. Here’s the scoop.

10 tablespoons coffee
10 cups cold water
5 empty eggshells
Tiny pinch of salt

Use a nice, dark roast, medium ground, (a bit rougher than you’d use for a drip at home.) Crush your eggs shells and throw everything into the perc or pot and cover it. Bring to a full boil, then move the pot to lower flame or coals and simmer, covered, for about 6 minutes. Remove pot from heat and Let stand, covered, until the grounds settle, about 2 minutes. Carefully pour off coffee, leaving the grounds and shells in the pot. Even Fannie Farmer herself used this method; try it, you’ll like it!

Knowing and regulating the cooking temperature for a Dutch oven is the real trick. First things first, decide whether you’re going to use charcoal or wood. Charcoal will give you the most consistent heat and control, so that’s what I prefer.

Use high quality hardwood briquettes and avoid the self lighting crap; it burns much hotter and doesn’t last as long as the good stuff. Good charcoal will provide at least an hour of cooking: For recipes that take longer than that, pull expended briquettes and replace them with fresh ones. Keep in mind that the Dutch oven is already hot, so you only need to replace a few briquettes at a time.

Here’s the general rule of thumb for heat regulation with a Lodge or GSI Dutch oven. Note that briquettes are applied to both the bottom and top. To achieve 325° F, take the size of the oven, then use that number of briquettes less three for the bottom and that number plus three for the top. So, with a 12″ oven, you place 9 briquettes on the bottom (12-3) and 15 briquettes on the top (12+3). Adding one set of briquettes (one on top and one on bottom) will raise the temperature of the Dutch Oven approximately 25 degrees, (Conversely, removing one set of briquettes will lower the temperature by 25 degrees). Here’s a handy little chart that’ll help a bunch.

That said, you do want to vary the ratio of briquette placement on the top and bottom of your oven, depending on what you’re cooking. Here are some guidelines.

* For simmering food, place 1/3 of the total briquettes on the lid and 2/3 under the oven.

* For baking bread, rolls, biscuits, cakes, pies, and rising cobblers, place 2/3 of the total briquettes on the lid and 1/3 underneath the oven.

* For roasting meats, poultry, casseroles, quiche, vegetables, and non-rising cobblers, use an even 50% on the lid and underneath the oven.

Heat placement around the Dutch oven is crucial to yield the best cooking results. Briquettes placed under the oven should be arranged in a circular pattern right under it and come to no less than 1/2″ from the outside edge of the oven. Briquettes placed on the lid should be spread out in an even checkerboard pattern. Avoid bunching briquettes; that’ll cause hot spots.

The Golden Rule of Dutch oven cooking is this; Go Easy With The Heat! You can always do things to get the oven hotter, but if you burn the food, it’s game over.

If you’re cooking over a camp fire, you can still use charcoal. Get the briquettes started in the coals of your fire and then cook with those. Again, it’s just a whole bunch easier to accurately regulate cooking with charcoal than it is with coals, unless you’re a real pro.

Keep in mind that environmental factors, (Air temperature, humidity, altitude, wind), all influence how much heat is generated by burning briquettes. Cool air temperatures, high altitudes, shade, and high humidity will decrease the amount of heat generated by briquettes. Hot air temperatures, low altitude, direct sunlight, and wind will increase the amount of heat generated by briquettes. In real windy conditions, briquettes will burn faster due to increased air flow, and they won’t last as long.

Last but not least for your oven, know how to clean and maintain it, and of you don’t, then trust the folks who make them to steer you right

Here are a couple of our favorite recipes for you to try on your next outing.

Spanish Frittata
6 large Eggs
2 Cups Milk
1/2 Cup Sour Cream
1 Cup shredded Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese
1 Jalapeño Chile
1 Tomato
2 Yukon Gold Potatoes
5-6 sprigs Cilantro
1 clove Garlic
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon ground Pepper

At home, mix eggs, milk, sour cream, cheese, salt, and pepper, and blend well. Store refrigerated.

At camp, stem, seed, and core tomato and jalapeño, then fine dice.
Mince Cilantro and garlic.
Dice potatoes.

Combine all ingredients. Add to a preheated Dutch oven. Follow the ratio for roasting, (50% – 50%), and cook for 45 minutes, then check dish. When eggs have risen about double height and the frittata is firm in the center, it’s good to go. Serve with salsa, more sour cream and toast.

Dutch oven roasting with a 50%-50% coal mix

Here’s a great French Toast Casserole, perfect for the first morning in camp. The initial prep can be done at home, then set up for breakfast the night before in camp.

1 Loaf Sourdough Bread
8 large Eggs
2 Cups 1/2 & 1/2
1 Cup Milk
2 Tablespoons Honey
1 teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/4 teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon Ground Nutmeg
Pinch of Sea Salt
Maple Syrup

In a mixing bowl at home, combine eggs, half-and-half, milk, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Whisk by hand until thoroughly blended. Store blend in a Tupperware container with an airtight lid.

In camp the night before breakfast, slice the Sourdough about 1″ thick. Arrange the slices, overlapped, in a large Tupperware container or bowl with a snap lid.

Pour the egg mixture over the bread slices, making sure all are evenly covered. Lift the slices and make sure the batter gets all around the bread. Keep in a cooler until morning.

On breakfast morning, carefully transfer the bread to a well buttered Dutch oven. Pour all the remaining batter in as well.

Follow the briquette ratio for baking, (1/3 on bottom, 2/3 on top), and bake for 45 minutes, until the casserole has puffed up and turned light golden brown. Serve with warm maple syrup and butter.