10 top tips for using a slow cooker

  • By
    Caroline Hire - Food editor - bbcgoodfood.com

Economical and easy, are slow cookers really all they're cracked up to be? Yes!, says Caroline and here's how to make the most of one...

Slow cookerSlow cookers are cheap to buy, economical to use and they're great for making the most of budget ingredients. They offer a healthier, low-fat method of cooking and require the minimum amount of effort. Really, what's not to love? 

We spoke to Ginny Thomas, a training manager for Crock-Pot, to find out how to get the best results. We've also adapted some of our favourite recipes from the site to get you started. (Bet you didn't know you could do a treacle sponge in one...)

1. Save time & effort 

One of the main attractions for many is the ease of a slow-cooker so when you're looking for recipes, avoid those that suggest a lot of pre-preparation. For many dishes, particularly soups and stews, you really can just throw all the ingredients in. It can be nice to cook the onions beforehand as the flavour is different to when you put them in raw but experiment both ways as you may find you prefer one. It can also be good to brown meat to give it some colour but again this is not essential.

2. Get ahead

If you're short on time in the morning, prepare everything you need for your slow-cooked meal the night before, put it into the slow-cooker dish, cover and store in the fridge overnight. Ideally the dish should be as close to room temperature as possible, so get it out of the fridge when you wake up and leave it for 20 minutes before turning the cooker on. If you need to heat your dish beforehand, then put the ingredients in a different container and transfer them in the morning.

Spicy lamb shank3. Save money

Slow cookers are great for cooking cheaper cuts like beef brisket, pork shoulder, lamb shoulder and chicken thighs. You can also use less meat as slow-cooking really extracts a meaty flavour that permeates the whole dish. Bulk up with vegetables instead.

4. Trim the fat 

You don't need to add oil to a slow cooker, the contents won't catch as long as there's enough moisture in there. You don't need a lot of fat on your meat either. Normally when you fry meat, a lot of the fat drains away, this won't happen in a slow cooker so trim it off, otherwise you might find you have pools of oil in your stew. This will give you a healthier result and it'll still be tasty.

5. Go easy on the liquid

Because your slow cooker will have a tightly sealed lid, the liquid won't evaporate so if you're adapting a standard recipe, it's best to reduce the liquid by roughly a third. Liquid should just cover the meat and vegetables. Don't overfill your slow cooker or it may start leaking out the top and food won't cook as well. Half to two thirds full is ideal and certainly no more than three quarters.

6. Thickening

Just as the the liquid doesn't reduce it also doesn't thicken. You can roll meat in a small amount of seasoned flour before adding it to the slow cooker or use a little cornflour at the end. If you want to do the latter, take a teaspoon or two of cornflour, mix it to a paste with a little cold water. Stir into your simmering slow cooker contents, then replace the lid. 

7. Slow is good

Ginny has been working with slow-cookers for over a decade, her advice is to use the 'Low' setting as much as you can, finding most dishes really benefit from a slow, gentle heat to really bring out the flavours. This also means you won't need to worry if you're heading out for the day, it'll take care of itself. "I think of it as my cook fairy making my dinner while I'm out," says Ginny.

8. Leave it alone

Slow cookers are designed to do their own thing so you don't need to keep checking the contents. Everytime you take the lid off it will release some of the heat, so if you keep doing this you'll have to increase the cooking time.

Slow cooker9. When to add food

Ideally you want to choose recipes where most, if not all, of the ingredients can be added at the beginning, leaving you free to do other things. However in most cases, pasta, rice and fresh herbs will need to be added towards the end. 

 

 

10. How long should I cook it for?

If a dish usually takes: 

  • 15 - 30 mins, cook it for 1 - 2 hours on High or 4 - 6 hours on Low
  • 30 mins - 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

Root vegetables can take longer than meat and other vegetables so put these near the heat source, at the bottom of the pot.

Treacle sponge
10 things you didn't know you could cook in a slow cooker: 


1. Schooldays treacle sponge 
2. Spiced poached pears in chocolate sauce 
3. Self-saucing Jaffa pudding 
4. Tangy onion chutney 
5. Rich paprika seafood bowl 
6. Turkish lamb pilau 
7. Sweetcorn & smoked haddock chowder 
8. Better-than-baked beans 
9. Baked mushrooms with ricotta & pesto 
10. Chicken & red wine casserole with herby dumplings 

More slow cooker recipes.

And if you haven't already got a slow cooker and are wondering which one to buy, take a look at our pick of what's on the market.

 

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shelliwilson's picture

Just started experimenting with mine as I just used to make casseroles etc but when I know I'm going to be really busy In a morning (most days!) I put some porridge oats in with some dried fruit and cinnamon and enough milk before I go to bed and put on low. The next morning it's just perfect because it's cooked beautifully and I know it's going to give me enough energy to last through the morning.

james77777's picture

What you say about slow cookers is true, but I have my own way of doing things. I cook pot roast and corn beef for 12 hours on low and you can cut the meat with a plate. I remove the meat. The water and slow cooker I place in the refrigerator or in the garage with the lid on in the winter. I skim off the fat the next day. Then I have a flavorful broth. Much better than I can buy. Why throw it out? Texture is important to cooking, so I cook my pasta, and vegetables, etc. separately in the microwave to get the the texture I like. I add the vegetables to a bowl and pour on the water from the slow cooker and heat in the microwave and have the better soup than I can buy. The only thing tossed is the fat. By experimenting, I end up with duds for some meals like dry chicken. That goes in the soup and the family eats and enjoys it. Anybody else have ideas?

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