Economical and easy, are slow cookers really all they're cracked up to be? Yes!, says food writer Caroline Hire. Here's how to make the most of one...
Slow 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...)
Which slow cooker to buy
You can pick up a slow cooker for as little as £15 (or as much as several hundred pounds) but price doesn't always equate to quality. Read our product review to discover the best models on the market.
1. Save time and effort
One of the main attractions for many people 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.
Watch our video for tips on how best to cut your veg and prepare your meat for the slow cooker:
2. Prepare for slow cooking the night before
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.
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 fat from meat before slow cooking
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, but this won't happen in a slow cooker so trim it off – otherwise you might find you have pools of oil in your stew. Removing the fat will give you a healthier result, and it'll still be tasty.
5. Go easy on the liquid when using a slow cooker
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. It should just cover the meat and vegetables. Don't overfill your slow cooker, or it may start leaking out the top, and the food won't cook so well. Half to two-thirds full is ideal – certainly no more than three-quarters.
6. How to thicken slow cooker recipes
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 and mix it to a paste with a little cold water. Stir into your simmering slow cooker contents, then replace the lid.
7. Use the slow cooker low setting
Ginny has been working with slow-cookers for over a decade, and her advice is to use the 'Low' setting as much as you can, finding that 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 your slow cooker recipe alone
Slow cookers are designed to do their own thing, so you don't need to keep checking the contents. Every time 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.
9. 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 a slow cooker recipe?
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.
Slow cooker recipes:
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.