A slow cooker, sometimes called a Crockpot, is a great appliance that not only produces tasty meals, it also saves money and time in the kitchen. First becoming popular in the 1970s, slow cookers are enjoying a resurgence at the moment with people looking for cheap, quick and easy ways to make healthy meals. Follow our tips and tricks to make the most out of your slow cooker.
Why should I get a slow cooker?While handy, slow cookers are an extra cost. So why should you buy one?
Quick & easy: Slow cookers make cooking healthy meals simple. You simply put the ingredients into the cooker and set it to cook, it then slowly cooks the meal - either on a low heat (which can take up to 8 hours) or high (which is generally 3-4 hours.) The joy of using a slow cooker is the ease, you can prepare the meal in the morning (or whenever you have a spare minute) and slowly cook it throughout the day without worrying about overcooking your food and serve whenever you wish, which gives you more time away from the kitchen to spend with your family.
Cheap: Handily, the types of food that work best in a slow cooker are the cheaper ones. Cheap cuts of meat like casserole meat or shanks are the best kind to use as well as cheap lentils and pulses. Also the slow cooker uses less electricity than your average cooker - which is not only good for your energy bills but is also environmentally friendly!
Healthy: Slow cookers typically create healthier meals. This is because they rarely require oils or fats in the cooking process. The food is left to simmer in it own juices, which preserves a lot of the vitamins and minerals otherwise lost during standard cooking. Slow cooker recipes are also normally packed full of vegetables and pulses, which is a great way of getting the family eating more healthily without drastically changing their diet.
Flavour: With minimal effort, slow cookers produce a much fuller flavour than traditional cooking. As the food is left to stew for hours the meat becomes more tender and sauces richer as their full flavour is released. And because the food is sealed in, none of the flavour is lost through evaporation.
How to use a slow cookerEach slow cooker comes with it own manual, which you should always read before using. Once you are familiar with your machine, using it is fairly straightforward.
Preparation: Slow cookers require very little preparation. You simply chop your meat and vegetables (smaller chunks work best) and pre-heat the cooker. Some recipes require you to braise the meat beforehand to give the meat a nicer colour, although this is not an essential part of the cooking process.
Loading: Root vegetables take longer to cook so they need to be placed at the bottom of the cooker (items at the bottom cook faster). The meat should then be placed on top, followed by the liquid (most slow cooker recipes require some form to liquid to ensure the food doesn't dry out. Stocks, sauces, broths, wine and simple boiling water are the most commonly used liquids.) You should make sure the slow cooker is at least a third of the way full to avoid overcooking. Dairy products, seafood and quick-cook vegetables are usually only added for the last hour as they tend to break down and separate.
Cooking: Once all the ingredients are in the cooker, you simply set the temperature (low for a longer cooking period, high for shorter) and the timer (you can buy cookers with a built-in timer.) Timings aren't as strict with slow cookers as you can reduce the heat and leave the food to simmer until you are ready to eat. This is handy if you are feeding the kids before your partner as you can leave your portion simmering until the kids are asleep.
Cleaning: One of the best things about one-pot cooking is that there is less washing up! Choose a slow cooker that has a removable pot and once you are done, remove it and fill with hot soapy water. Leave to soak and dry the pot completely before putting away. Never put cold water straight into a slow cooker as it may crack.
Perfect Slow Cooking: Tips and tricksElizabeth Brown, author of Perfect Slow Cooking (rrp £6.99; Random House Books), shares these essential tips for slow cookers
- Make sure you always set the temperature correctly. If you are in a rush, you may wish to cook things at a higher temperature. If this is the case, you should be aware that the cooking time on ‘high' is just over half of that on ‘low.'
- Make sure the slow cooker is positioned on a sturdy surface. You may wish to place it on a tea towel, which will absorb any liquid which spits or spills out. (It's also best to make sure the cooker is not touching the walls or any other appliances due to the heat it produces.)
- Choose dried herbs over fresh, whenever possible. Fresh herbs will go brown and limp in the long, moist cooking process. Whole dried herbs and spices will release their flavour over time.
- If you have any leftovers, remove them from the pot, transfer them to a clean container, let them cool slightly and then refrigerate and freeze. Don't allow food to cool in the slow cooker itself, as it retains its heat for a long time and bacteria can build up during the cooling process.
- Don't be tempted to lift the lid to check on your cooking. The heat loss will extend your cooking time significantly. Every time you lift the lid, you can expect to add 20 to 30 minutes to your cooking time.
Slow cooker recipesElizabeth Brown, author of Perfect Slow Cooking says: ‘Anything that is simmered, braised stewed or slow roasted will work well in a slow cooker, but think beyond obvious candidates: risottos and desserts for example, are easy to make in a slow cooker.'
While your slow cooker will come with a booklet of recipes you can use, you needn't be limited in what you can make. You can easily adapt your favourite recipes for your slow cooker by remembering a few simple details.
The recipes that work best in a slow cooker require some kind of liquid, otherwise the food can dry out quite quickly. It's not just casseroles and stews, risottos, pasta dishes, roasts and desserts can be cooked in a slow cooker, just remember to reduce the amount of liquid (unless it's rice or soup) to 1/2 as it won't evaporate in the same way. This is especially important if adding alcohol, as the alcohol content will not burn away in the same was as it does in traditional cooking.
General cooking times Your slow cooker will have guidelines on timings in the manual but The Perfect Slow Cooker sets out this basic rule:
Conventional oven time = slow cooker time
15-30mins = 1-2hrs high/4-6hrs low
35-40mins = 3-4hrs high/6-8hrs low
50mins-3hrs = 4-6hrs high/8-18hrs low
Take a look at our delicious collection of our slow cooking recipes for some ideas