There's been a bit of buzz in my little world lately about slow cookers. It seems many people are either new to the world of slow cooking or they're rediscovering the joys of having dinner done without feeling as though they've cooked it. I adore my slow cooker. I use it often and it saves me so much time. With four children, things get a bit wild at our place by the end of the day, especially when they're all tired and hungry. By making use of our slow cooker, I can focus on slowing down our routine and getting them settled for the end of the day without having to spend an hour in the kitchen. So I thought I'd compile a blog post about slow cookers with some handy tips and tricks to make your evenings more peaceful and just plain easier.
Slow cookers come in all different sizes. I personally think it's better to go all out and buy a larger one from the get go. I know of many people who have started out with a small one and upgraded to a larger one to make big batch cooking easier. They are relatively inexpensive as far as appliances go, so starting with a larger one may not be too expensive and it will save you money in the long run - especially if your family grows. But by all means, pick up a small one if that's your preference.
There are about 3 or 4 settings on a cooker. Low, High, Auto (and some have a 'Warm' function). But these settings can vary between models. Mine doesn't have a warming option, which I find fine as the heavy ceramic dish retains its heat for quite some time, so I just turn it off when it's done.
Generally, cooking on low will take about 8 hours, whereas cooking on high will take 4. The auto function usually goes for about 6 hours and starts it off on low then finishes cooking on high. The setting you choose will depend on how early you start cooking.
I have found that most meals will still be fall apart tender when they're cooked on a high setting, but if I'm cooking something like a roast (I'll explain how later) I choose to cook on low, so that big piece of meat really has time to get nice and tender. In fact, I prefer to cook on low most times, as it will reduce the risk of your meat drying out (depending on the cut you've used). But sometimes my day just won't run as planned, so it's good to know I can pop it on in the early afternoon and still have dinner cooked at a decent hour.
You can cook almost anything in a slow cooker. I think a good way to start (especially if you're new to the world of cooking) is to pick up those little recipe sachets you find in the supermarket near the spice section. Some of those are specifically designed for slow cookers, although I have found that if you go to the Maggi website you can look up specific recipe mixes (even ones designed for normal cooking) and it will give you the instructions on how to cook it a variety of ways - including in a slow cooker! McCormicks and Masterfoods are the other brands that I've used. They do slow cooker specific ones, which are really yummy.
In most slow cooker recipes (including the recipe sachets) it will tell you to brown the meat and onion before you put it in the slow cooker. I know lots of people do this, but after doing it both ways, I have to say I much prefer to just throw everything into the slow cooker pot raw and let the slow cooker do it's thing. I haven't noticed the slightest difference between browning and not browning the meat, and really, who wants another pan to clean? It almost defies the reason for using the slow cooker in the first place! Put it all in together - trust me, it will be great.
I'm not going to post recipes for the slow cooker in this post now. I may do some in the future, but there is a whole world out there of recipe books dedicated to slow cooking, recipe mixes in the supermarket and the internet has thousands of recipes at your fingertips. But, some of my favourite things to cook are -
- Stew. Beef stew, lamb stew, pork stew.....you name it, I'll slow cook it. There's nothing like melt in your mouth meat and veg swimming in thick gravy. Yum.
- All the meat mixtures for shepherd's pie, spaghetti bolognaise, chilli con carne, lasagne...etc.
- Roast beef.
All I do is put 2 cups of beef stock into the bottom of the slow cooker, put the roast on top and leave to cook on low for 8 hours. The meat will fall apart and be divinely tender, and you can use the residual stock and beef juices to make a delicious gravy.
ALWAYS put liquid of some kind in the bottom of your slow cooker when roasting. Using a dry slow cooker will risk your ceramic dish cracking...and you don't want that.
Also, when you're adapting a recipe you would normally cook on the stove or in the oven, make sure you cut your liquids back by about a quarter. Liquids don't evaporate in the slow cooker, and some extra liquid will be generated too, so make sure you put in a bit less. If you're following a recipe designed for a slow cooker, just follow the recipe normally.
You can also cook puddings and things in the slow cooker, but I have to say I never have. I'm usually too busy cooking other things, but I will have to try it one day. I'd love to hear if any of you have ever done one, and how it turned out!
I can promise you this. Slow cooking will make your life easier. Defrost your meat the night before, get dinner cooking in the morning and your whole house will smell delicious all day. You'll get home from work/picking up kids/after school activities and dinner will be done. At most you might need to put on some rice or mash or something to have with it....and that's not hard to do at all.
It will save you time and also money if you do some big batch cooking and freeze the leftovers for dinner another night. Slow cooking will change the way you think about cooking dinner. It won't feel like you've cooked at all.
Hopefully you've enjoyed my tips on slow cooking, I hope they've helped!
Happy Slow Cooking,