Guest blog by Sam Hadadi,
How to Use a Slow Cooker
On a cold, wintry day, there’s nothing more comforting than a bubbling, hearty meal, with the delicious aroma wafting through the house. For this reason, perhaps it’s no surprise that sales of slow cookers are booming – meaning delicious, nutritious meals are just seconds of prep away.
Once the secret of 1970s housewives, slow cooking is now back in vogue and is the (foodie) word on everyone’s lips. From health food bloggers to busy mums, penny pinchers and those who simply want an easy life, we’re all falling for the charm of slow cooking – in a big way.
A must for fast-paced lives (you can feed a whole family for a week by just slow cooking one, simple meal), here’s why Lucy Bee HQ is nuts for slow cooking.
What Is Slow Cooking?
It seems like a no-brainer since slow-cooking does pretty much what it says on the tin – it cooks food slowly at ultra-low temperatures, resulting in creamy casseroles or tantalisingly tender meats. That’s pretty much it!
All too often, people associate slow cooking with making delicious meals in a fancy machine or oven. Yet you can slow cook without having to spend a fortune or take over your entire kitchen with ginormous new gadgets.
In fact, even though it became popular in the 70s when the brand-spanking new Crock Pot (a trademarked name, but many – especially those across the pond – know slow cookers as “crock pots”) launched, slow cooking has been around for centuries.
Many slow cookers steal one or two ideas from the Dutch oven (also known as a braadpan), which was popular in the colonial times over in America. Amazingly, these thick-walled cooking pots, usually made from cast iron, were so popular that many people would even draw up wills to state who would inherit their beloved ovens.
Over the years, plenty of countries have had their own versions, too. There’s the Australian bedourie oven, the Japanese tetsunabe, the South African Potjie and also the cocottes in Frances. Even the classic English casserole dish (“casserole” means pot in French) is our version of the slow cooker!
Of course, when you think about it, it’s easy to see why these special dishes have always been so popular – all you have to do is put your feet up and let the pot do all the hard work. What’s not to love…?
What Equipment Do I Need?
Although special slow cookers can make your life a whole lot easier, don’t fret – you don’t need to invest in a slow cooker to slow cook!
If you don’t have a fancy slow cooker, all you need is an oven (or a decent hob) and a good quality ovenproof pot with a lid. Have a play with your timings and temperatures and you’re good to go! We recommend a heavy, cast-iron pot, then cooking all-day at 100C for recipes that need a low setting, or 120C if you’re using a recipe that needs cooking on higher settings.
Alternatively, try popping your pot onto the hob and cook away! Simply chuck your ingredients into your pot and set to a medium heat.
What Can I Cook?
Of course, everyone associates slow cookers with hearty stews, soups and chunky wintery dishes. And many will remember boring, bland meals cooked up by their mums for after-school. But what else can you whip up by slow cooking? And is it actually worth the effort?
Well…yes! From rich, meaty stews to creamy casseroles, pulled pork and – yes – even breads and buns, you can easily slow cook your way to a week’s worth of meals. You can whip up slow cooker (or crock pot) brownies, deliciously creamy porridge to last through the week, finger-lickin’ BBQ ribs, Sunday roasts, cakes and even loaded potato skins.
Heck, you can even whip up a hot chocolate in your slow cooker! What can’t it do…?
If you want to transform any recipe into a slow cooked one, then it’s easy – you just have to know how. Here’s our handy guide to timings:
If a dish usually takes:
- 15 – 30 mins, cook it for 1 – 2 hours on high or 4 – 6 hours on low
- 30 mins to 1 hour, cook it for 2 – 3 hours on high or 5 – 7 hours on low
- 1 – 2 hours, cook it for 3 – 4 hours on high or 6 – 8 hours on low
- 2 – 4 hours, cook it for 4 – 6 hours on High or 8 – 12 hours on Low
Also worth remembering is that root vegetables can take longer than meat and other veggies to cook, so pop these at the bottom of the pot, closer to the heat.
What Cuts of Meat Should I Use?
To us, the best thing about slow cooking is that you can use all those cheaper, unloved cuts of meat – and totally transform them! Go easy on expensive, lean cuts (slow cooking will make them go tough) and, instead, go wild with the bits that no one else wants.
We’re talking about cuts with plenty of tissue and fat that would be a lot like chewing leather if you cooked it quickly. For this reason, slow cookers are your best friend if you’re on a budget and by the time you’ve made your delicious meal, no one would ever guess you’d been counting the pennies.
However, if you really want to love your meat tender, then it’s important to know which cuts of meat work best when slow cooking. It’s always an idea to ask a friendly butcher for their tips and advice. But, if you’re in a hurry or want to hit the supermarket, here are our favourite meats to cook until they melt and our tips on how to get the best results…
Oxtail – Yes, really! Banish those thoughts of hideous, tinned oxtail soups and instead embrace this flavoursome cut. This tough off-cut can be very cheap to buy but, since it comes on the bone (and is packed with fat and marrow), it’s full of flavour.
Chuck and Blade – When recipes call for braising steak, these are the cuts they’ll often mean – and, let us tell you, they make the most heavenly stews!
Brisket – Since it comes from the belly, brisket can be fatty. However, this is what makes it so tasty and why it works brilliantly in slow cooking. It will also give wonderful slices when you carve into it.
Short Ribs – When slowly braised in sauces or liquid with plenty of herbs, spices and veggies, short ribs become melt-in-your-mouth tender and pack a real punch when it comes to flavour.
Pork Shoulder – Ideal for pulled pork, this cut can take a whole lot of flavour and is wonderful when shredded after cooking. If you can cook for a little longer, go for a bone-in shoulder as this has more flavour and can go more succulent.
Pork Tenderloin – Pork tenderloin (cut from along the spine) is one of the cheapest cuts of meat around – and it’s often seriously overlooked! Cook it for too long on a high heat and it’ll go dry…pop it in your slow cooker and it’ll work a dream.
Lamb shoulder – We love slow-cooked lamb shoulder and dish up with roasted veg, sprinkled with feta. Lamb shoulder goes beautifully tender when slow-cooked and falls apart in the mouth.
Chicken Thighs – Chicken cuts on the bone (think drumsticks, too) are perfect for slow-cooking since they will go moist, succulent and finger-lickin’ delicious.
Whole Chicken – We love to mix up our Sunday roasts by cooking whole chickens in the slow cooker, which will help the meat to fall off the bone. Simply toss your vegetables into your cooker, prep your chicken, then pop in the pot. Once cooked, you can always place under the grill to crisp the skin up.
How to Cook Meats Slowly
Once you’ve selected your cut, it’s easy to really make the most of your meat when it comes to slow cooking. First of all, you’ll need to brown it (in batches, if you have a lot), in a pan, keeping the juices for cooking.
When seasoning, do so lightly (more flavour can always be added at the end) to avoid too much saltiness and sprinkle over a little flour too to help the sauce thicken. We’d also recommend cooking your meat at the correct temperature for a short while at the start of cooking (this makes it achingly tender) and to make sure your pot has a tight-fitting lid to ensure the sauce doesn’t reduce too much.
We also love making slow-cooked dishes, such as chillis, a day or so in advance to really boost the flavour.
If you’re vegetarian or vegan, don’t worry – there’s a slow cooking method or recipe to suit you, too! Here are some of our favourite vegetarian or vegan additions to the slow cooker – just be sure to soak any grains and pulses first and you’re ready to go!
- Sweet potato
- Butternut squash
Top Tips for Slow Cooking
So, once you’re armed with your meats, your veggies and (of course) the slow cooker or pot itself, how do you go about making it as tasty as possible?
Many people often complain that slow-cooked food can taste bland but it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, we think that (when cooked right), slow cooked food is the best there is! To keep your tummy happy, here are our top tips for slow cooking food:
Time is Everything
It might seem obvious, but slow cooked food tastes the best when cooked…well, slowly. When you’re pressed for time, it’s tempting to crank up the temperature to high and cook for just four hours. However, if you can get super organised (and, yep, that can mean hopping out of bed earlier in the morning – sorry!), then pop your food in at the lowest temperature and cook for eight or so hours. We promise it’ll be worth the effor
However good it smells, however much you want to dive in and have a taste, don’t be tempted to take the lid off! While it won’t affect the taste, each time you remove the lid will add on more cooking time.
While we love our slow-cooked stews and curries, why stop there? Go wild and experiment! You could have a go at making porridge, brownies, cakes – the food world’s your oyster.
Go Easy on the Liquid
Since slow cooking will involve popping on a lid, any liquid won’t evaporate as much. This means that when you’re adapting a standard recipe, you’ll need to reduce the liquid by about a third – just enough to make sure you’ve covered the meat and veg. For this reason, it’s also wise to go easy on the wine when slow cooking! (Although a glass in your hand is always advised…)
How to Thicken
As well as not reducing much, any liquid in slow cooking is also difficult to thicken. For this reason, try rolling meat in a sprinkling of seasoned flour before cooking, or stir through some cornflour at the end.
Don’t Add Dairy Too Soon
We know, we know – the true beauty of slow cooking is when you can bung everything in in one go and just forget about it! Call it the slow cooking food fairy. However, add dairy in too soon (think yoghurt, cheese, cream, sour cream) and it will curdle. The best way to do it is to add at the end.
Consider Herbs and Flavourings
Many people have problems with the flavour of their food when slow cooking but it’s nothing that a little Lucy Bee know-how can’t fix! The problem is, different herbs and spices need different care when it comes to slow cooking. Things such as pepper or ginger can become bitter when cooked all day, so the key is to add them a few hours before the end.
Similarly, garlic and fresh herbs can lose their flavour when cooked for too long so, again, add them a few hours before you’re done. If it’s dried herbs and spices you’re using, go nuts – slow cooking will help them to release their flavours.
Benefits of Slow Cooking
So, when you have to wait for so long for dinner – and we’re never good at waiting for food at Lucy Bee HQ! – what’s in it for you? And is it really worth prepping and getting up early in the morning?
Well, yes! It absolutely is. Here’s why slow cooking is so blooming wonderful:
Using fresh, healthy ingredients, slow cooking can leave you with a delicious and nutritious meal to come home to. You see, slow cooking limits the amount of processed foods you’re eating, leaving you with simple, honest goodness. You can even make huge vats of super healthy, beauty-boosting bone broth by slow cooking. What’s not to love…?
Since you can use the cheapest cuts of meat and chuck in whatever veggies you have at the end of the week, slow cooking is your best friend come the end of the month! We love to make huge batches of food at the start of the week, meaning we can feed the whole family for days.
After an endless day in the office, it’s great to come home to a house smelling of bubbling, delicious food – no slaving away over an oven involved. When you only need to bung everything into one pot, you’ll save on washing up too. And, really, who wants to be elbow-deep in dishes after a long day?
- Tasty too!
Something that I’ve found about slow cooks is these dishes taste just as good (if not better) when you reheat them the next day as the flavours are really intensified.
Need some ideas to get you going? We’re so in love with slow cooking that we even dedicated an entire chapter to it in our recipe book, ‘Nature’s Perfect Ingredient’. Take your pick from mouth-watering Tarragon Roast Chicken, Healthy Chicken Curry, Tarka Dhal and Autumn Vegetable Tagine, or try our Beef Casserole.
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