For those of you who don’t know how to use a slow cooker then this autumn really is the time to get up to speed. Here at WCF HQ we have never really seen the point of such a thing; surely that’s what saucepans and low heat settings are for? Think again…
Nowadays, a slow cooker is an inexpensive and integral part of the busy household. Cheap to buy, and cheap to run, they make fairly light work of getting a hot meal on the table at the end of the working day. So not only have we at WCF begun to embrace the idea of the slow cooker, but have become just a teeny weeny bit obsessed. In fact, in a complete about face, we can safely say that a slow cooker makes getting food on the table THE EASIEST THING IN THE WORLD. You chuck it all in the pot the night before and turn on it on when you leave the house. When you come home dinner is ready. Really. It is like magic. Or having a servant. Even better; a magical servant. You really can see why they were so popular when they were first invented. But rather than suddenly slinging together a slow cooked meal each night, it is best to proceed with a little caution and a lot of finesse.
Choose the right meal for the job
Most slow cooker meals will benefit from a bit more intervention than just slinging it all in the pot. And there are some that will be just fine without. If you want something really easy, then pick something that can go straight in the pot; don’t pick a dish that needs care and attention but think you will get away with it because you won’t. Flavour works differently in a slow cooker and you get none of the benefits of browning or reducing.
Use slow cooker recipes to begin with
Not everything translates well to a slow cooker, and producing a substandard version of a dish purely because it seems easy is missing the point. Sure, you use the slow cooker because it saves time but you should also be using it because it is the best way of cooking a certain dish. Meat stews with cheaper cuts of meat will be better than ever in a slow cooker and pulled pork will become a masterpiece as it keeps all of its moisture. Once you get used to how the slow cooker creates flavours and textures, then you can move on with confidence. Our recipe for slow cooker chicken curry goes straight in the pot, but you could also brown all of the ingredients for a different result. It is excellent either way but needs far less liquid than you would imagine.
Use about one third of the usual cooking liquid
The amount of liquid used will vary, but suffice to say it will be far less than you imagine. In our recipe for slow cooker butter chicken mentioned above, it would be intuitive to just cover the chicken with water; it after all is not much. In actual fact, we used about half of that and got plenty of lovely spicy creamy gravy.
Add some of the ingredients towards the end
Ingredients like cream, or fresh herbs, need to be added before serving if required to finish a dish. Stir them in and replace the lid for long enough to come back up to temperature. A flourish of melted cheese over meatballs for example could be done in this way. Other ingredients may need to be dropped in an hour towards the end; for example, vegetables that would spoil if cooked for several hours.
Place root vegetables at the bottom
Root vegetables will take longer than all other ingredients so are placed nearer the heat source at the bottom. They also act as a kind of trivet for the meat to sit upon.
Low fat healthy cooking
Although you can add oil to a dish if you wish (our butter chicken is an obvious example), it does not contribute to any browning so doesn't need to be there. This is perfect for a fresher, lower fat, style of cooking. Hearty soups and stews are also an excellent way to cram more veggies into a meal, and pulses such as lentils or butter beans come into their own in the slow cooker.
The odd stir at the beginning to amalgamate the ingredients is fine, but once cooking is under way then leave it alone. Every time you lift the lid you lose heat and valuable cooking time.
Don’t use the slow cooker pot straight from the fridge
If you prepare your ingredients the night before, put them in a different container and add them in the morning. The cold cooking pot will crack as soon as the heat rises when turned on. You could store in the cooking pot as long as you remember to bring it up to room temperature, but on a rushed frozen morning this could just be asking for trouble.
Follow the manufacturer’s instructions
Read the leaflet that comes with your slow cooker in order to understand your particular model as they will have subtle differences between them.
High is slow; low is slower
You have two options with a slow cooker. Cook on high for 3 to 4 hours, or on low for 6 to 8 hours. If you are leaving the house for the day then you will want the 8 hour option but if you are going out for the afternoon and want to come home to the smell of beef casserole then 4 hours on high will be fine. There are some rules to this though in the pursuit of proper cooking and this means thinking about the dish. Whilst a chicken curry will be grand after 4 hours on high, and could probably take the 8 on low, a piece of pork shoulder for pulled pork will be all the better for a good 8 hr stint; some dishes could even benefit from longer on low.
Thickening a sauce
Whilst many cuisines have been cooking without browning or thickening for centuries, we Brits are rather attached to sauces that cling to mashed potato. Anything else is actually soup. So what can be done? Thickening towards the end is the best way to go; that way the slow cooker gets to do what it does best and doesn’t leave an industrial strength crust on the cooking pot. Black pudding makes an excellent thickener and works really well when added in chunks to a meaty stew. Let it break down into the sauce and it will thicken. Cornflour is another option but not one that we are particularly fond of as it can be gelatinous. A beurre manie of a little flour mixed to a paste with melted butter and then stirred in is an excellent way of thickening sauces and a handful of ground almonds works wonders with a curry. A spoonful of tapioca flour thickens dishes well too.
Save time and money in the kitchen
We hope that this article has encouraged you to cook with a slow cooker this autumn and winter. Not only will it make the most of inexpensive cuts of meat but will save on your electric bill too. Time and money? That has to be a winner.