NEW YORK – Many people fondly remember a slow cooker, better known by the brand name Crock-Pot, on the kitchen counter, red "on" button aglow, as part of their experience growing up in the '70s and '80s.
Now, just as these 20- and 30-somethings are beginning to prepare meals for their own families, the slow cooker is back -- and new and improved for the 21st century.
"We have seen an increase in sales recently," said Kirby Kriz, spokeswoman for slow cooker-maker Hamilton Beach. "There are many new low-fat recipe ideas and new Crock-Pot cookbooks out there, and we're seeing a resurgence in the product."
The slow cooker seems to be back for the same reason it became popular in the first place -- it's easy. Users just stir in ingredients such as meat, vegetables or beans, turn it on, and then eight to 10 hours later a warm meal is ready to eat.
Indeed, Washington, D.C., resident Norah Brandone, 24, said she got her first slow cooker last year because she was "looking for ways to make dinner easier."
"I was sick of coming home from work and having to cook," said Brandone, who mostly uses her slow cooker to make fresh spaghetti sauce.
One of the advances in the new generation of slow cookers is that many can be programmed so food is not over- or under-cooked, which was a problem with the older generation.
"You can set it to meet your needs," Kriz said. "The new warm setting maintains the quality of the food."
Kriz said she thinks slow cookers fell out of favor for a while because people shied away from high-fat meals like pot roast and stew, which the slow cookers were known for. But that's no reason to abstain now, she said.
"There are some new, healthier, alternative-type recipes on the market, including vegetarian dishes," she said.
Pennsylvania nutritionist Robin Vitetta-Miller, who has noticed the slow cooker renaissance, agreed, but said the comeback can also be attributed to the return of comfort food and the growing popularity of high-protein, low-carb meals.
"They're great because they fit every trend," she said. "The flavor improves over time, and food cooked under steam and pressure requires less fat to stay moist and retains more nutrients."
Vitetta-Miller said her favorite meals to slow-cook are roast chicken, chili and bean stew.
Another advancement is the removable crock. In the last century, the lining was built into the pot. Now, the bowl can go right to the table, fridge and dishwasher, Kriz said.
There are also new shapes and styles, including smaller sizes fit to serve as few as two and as many as 10 people. And the new oval shape is more convenient for chefs who want to cook a whole chicken or roast.
"The round pot was kind of crowded," Kriz said.
The slow cooker was introduced by Rival in 1970 as a means to cook beans, then repackaged in 1971 as the Crock-Pot Slow Cooker (remember the ad: "cooks all day while the cook's away?"). Rival recently introduced the Smart-Pot, or programmable Crock-Pot, as part of its 30th anniversary celebration.
Rival pots range from about $10 to $65; Hamilton Beach's from about $25 to $50.
Brandon Crowling, 31, said his mother used to make roasts and stew in their Crock-Pot when he was growing up. Now, Crowling's favorite slow-cooked meal to make is chili -- but what he really loves is the convenience.
"You just plug it in, dump in your ingredients and it's easy to clean," he said. "I love my Crock-Pot."