It may sound like something of a paradox, but a slow cooker can be great if you need to prepare a meal in a hurry. Not in the sense that you can knock up a meal in minutes, but in that you can prepare a great meal with very little effort – you simply place the ingredients in the slow cooker and leave it to do the cooking for you.
What Is A Slow Cooker?
Easy to use, their best feature is their simplicity
A slow cooker – sometimes also known as a Crock-Pot, which is actually a popular brand of slow cooker – is a small, electric, counter-top cooker that maintains a low temperature to cook dishes like stews and soups over a number of hours.
Usually oval in shape, a slow cooker consists of a glazed ceramic or porcelain container that functions as both a cooking pot and a heat reservoir to keep food warm once it is cooked. The pot is slowly heated up and a low temperature maintained via an electric heating element that surrounds the pot and as condensation collects between the lid and the pot this acts as a low-pressure seal.
Sizes usually range between one and five litres and because of how the heating elements are placed at the bottom and halfway up the pot, there is usually a minimum fill level to avoid uncontrolled heating. There are usually only two temperature settings, low and high.
Choosing A Slow Cooker
Not all slow cookers are equal – but they all make great meals
Slow cookers first became a feature in kitchens during the 1970s and gradually grew in popularity in much the same way as the halogen oven (http://www.myhalogenoven.co.uk/) in recent years.
And although brands and prices vary, there’s usually very little difference in performance, the price usually reflects the size and look of the pot and you may well be paying for the brand name if you go for one of the better known manufacturers.
When deciding on which model to go for, you’ll first have to work out which size you’ll need – there’s no point going for a one litre model if you’ve a big family to cook for. It’s also probably best to go for one that has a heating timer that will switch to a warming mode after a certain period of time – because you simply leave a slow cooker to do its job, it can be easy to lose track of time and overcook your meal.
Why Use A Slow Cooker?
They’re for making more than just the odd casserole
There are many reasons to use a slow cooker; the main one probably being their ease of use and convenience. There’s usually no need to parboil food, you simply place the ingredients in the pot and, as most recipes are one-pot meals, you won’t need any other kitchen appliances to make the perfect meal.
Slow cookers can also be a very good way to cook if you’re on a tight budget, not only are they energy efficient – using just a little more energy than a traditional light bulb – and because cooking food over a longer period of time tenderises it, this means that you can prepare meals using cheaper cuts of meat that you would normally find too tough and chewy when cooked in other ways.
And even if you’re not normally too adept in the kitchen, you still can make a great meal with a slow cooker as they make it almost impossible to overcook food. Even if you leave it in too long – you should’ve gone for the model with the timer – no harm will be done.
Slow cookers are a great way to make filling, healthy meals as there is no oil involved in the cooking process and most recipes involved fresh vegetables and lean meat.
Cooking with a slow cooker also saves on washing up too, as you’re only cooking with the one pot, you’ll only have that and your dishes to clean at the end of the meal.
Using A Slow Cooker
Even the most clumsy of kitchen-hands can’t go wrong
There are a wide variety of slow cooker recipes out there and they’re all simple to follow. The one thing that they’ll all have in common is that they all contain a lot of liquid; this not only provides a gravy or broth for the meal, it also stops the meat drying out.
You can use water, stock, wine or even beer – although it’s probably best not to use alcohol as the only liquid in your meal – and to add flavour you can add dried or fresh herbs and spices. Any range of meat or vegetables can be used, though root vegetables probably lend themselves best to the slow cooking process, and you can even add rice or pasta to bulk up a budget meal.
And you can use your slow cooker to prepare a whole range of meals, from breakfast to dinner. A slow cooker is a great way to prepare a bowl of porridge oats, simply add milk and a sweetener, such as sugar, cinnamon or fruit, to the oats and leave to cook for about eight hours overnight. You’ll then wake up to a perfectly cooked, healthy and delicious breakfast.
With a little imagination you can even prepare hot drinks, such as mulled wine or a hot toddy, which are perfect for cold winter nights or when it cools down on those lazy summer evenings.
Some Useful Slow Cooker Tips
How to make sure you get the best from your slow cooker
Avoid lifting the lid on the slow cooker once you have started cooking as this can result in a loss in temperature, which will lead to an even longer cooking time, as well as a loss of moisture which can affect the quality of the meal.
For best results fill your slow cooker between one third and half full and start cooking on a high temperature to get the cooker heated up and then reduce the heat for the rest of the cooking time.
Ingredients with a longer cooking time, such as fresh root vegetable, should be placed at the bottom of the slow cooker while those that don’t take as long to cook, for instance, seafood and frozen vegetables, should be placed at the top and only added for the half hour.
And although most recipes are one pot meals, you may want to brown or sear any meat in a pan before placing it in the slow cooker.
For an even cooking of all the ingredients try to cut them all into similar sized pieces.
Once you’ve finished with the cooker, always allow the pot to cool before washing or wash out with warm water – never pour cold water into a hot cooker pot as it could crack.