Slow Cookers – A Guide to Buying and Cooking

Slow Cooker lrI like to use a slow cooker sometimes. It can be convenient to prepare your ingredients, chuck them into a slow cooker and go out for the day. Even if you’re not going out, it can be convenient not to have to keep checking and stirring and adding liquid etc.

One proviso though. The results you get from a slow cooker are different than conventional cooking on the hob or in the oven, so you’ll need a bit of trial and error to work out what works and what doesn’t. It’s worth the effort though, because some recipes work better in a slow cooker.

Don’t cut corners! There are plenty of recipes on the internet that tell you to simply chuck all of your ingredients raw into the slow cooker, turn it on and come back several hours later to a delicious meal. Some of those recipes may work but most won’t. If you normally first brown your meat, soften your onions, stir-fry your garlic, reduce your wine and bring everything to a simmer before braising it on the hob or in the oven, then do just that when using your slow cooker too. The slow cooker is there to replace the braising bit, not the prep.

Essential – an oval shape, a removable cooking pot with a non-stick finish, a warning light, as a minimum a choice of 2 heat settings of low and high, and a see through lid are all essential. All other features are not essential and simply come down to your own personal preferences.

Capacity – 4.5 litres seems about right for most people for every day cooking, although mine is 6.5 litres. I prefer the larger cooker because I can batch cook and freeze left overs. In order to cook safely the cooker must be half full. But for smaller amounts of food you can put the food in a small oven-safe pot or heat-resistant liner bag and then put that inside the slow cooker. So it’s possible to cook small amounts in a big cooker but not big amounts in a small cooker.

Shape – Oval is best as it will accommodate oblong cuts of meat and whole chickens.

Cleaning – It should have a removable pot; most do. This not only makes cleaning easier but also serving of food too. Non-stick is best and it may be a bonus if it is dishwasher proof, although it is probably too big to go into the dishwasher very often.

Carry handles – It is handy if the inner pot has sturdy carry handles as the full pot can be heavy and hot.

Warning light – It must have a warning light so you can tell when it is on.

Timer with a digital display – A timer function with a digital display is helpful but not essential. After all, you can always buy a separate electronic timer which you can also use for other things, not just slow cooking. And given the low cooking temperatures you’ll be using, most recipes don’t suffer if you stretch the cooking time. If your slow cooker does have a timer, make sure you can set it for short as well as long periods.

Keep warm function – This is handy in case you decide to eat a bit later than planned. But as mentioned, you’re usually cooking on low anyway, so you can stretch the cooking times.

Delayed start function – This is reported to be useful if you want to set everything up early, some time before cooking is due to start. However, I’m not convinced. Can you imagine having chicken sitting around at room temperature waiting to start cooking? I prefer not to poison my guests.

Digital clock – A digital clock that counts down is handy as you can then see how much cooking time is left. But given that cooking time is usually measured in hours, it’s not difficult to remember when it’s due to finish.

Automatic stir function – strangely enough, some recipes (not mine) call for stirring part way through. But I have to say that that somewhat defeats the point of a slow cooker which is that you can chuck everything in and forget about it! Anyway, just so you know, some slow cookers do have an automatic stir function. I haven’t seen this function in action but it must have moving parts that I suspect lead to cleaning issues.

See through lid – A see through lid is essential so that you can check on the food without taking the lid off. Taking the lid off can increase cooking time by 20 minutes or so, so don’t do it unless you have to.

General Tips
1. Add raw veggies first, then the meat. Vegetables take longer to cook than meat in a slow cooker.
2. The cooker heats up slowly so don’t take the lid off for the first 1 ½ hours.
3. If you get a hot spot in the slow cooker (often adjacent to the controls) add a collar of foil just to that spot (a few layers of heavy duty foil held in place by the food).
4. Different slow cookers cook at different temperatures. You’ll have to learn yours and be prepared to adjust recipes cooking times as needs be.
5. You can get slow cooker liner bags – plastic bags safe to cook in. You can put your food in the bag, seal it with string and then place the bag in the slow cooker and cook according to the recipe. This technique can be useful for keeping chicken (especially breasts) moist and for cooking small amounts. Using a liner bags also reportedly keeps the pot clean but I have to say that my pot is always easy to clean, so lining it seems like an unnecessary expense.
6. Use red skinned potatoes as they tend to hold their shape better over long, slow cooking times.
7. Every time you take the lid off (to stir or add ingredients) you lose steam. So, add 15 to 20 minutes extra cooking time for each time you lift the lid.
8. For best results, fill the cooking pot by at least a half and up to ¾ full. To cook smaller portions in a large cooker, put the food in a smaller oven proof dish and place that dish in the slow cooker. Alternatively, place the food in a liner bag and loosely tie it with string.
9. As a rule of thumb, 2 hours cooking on low is equivalent to 1 hour cooking on high. So, if time is short, turn the heat to high to halve the cooking time. Avoid doing this for less tender cuts of meat as they require the longer cooking time to become tender.
10. If adjusting a traditional recipe for a slow cooker, make sure there is some liquid in the mixture as slow cooking depends on steam. Conversely, less liquid will be lost using a slow cooker than with conventional cooking so reduce the amount of liquid in a traditional recipe by up to half if adapting it for a slow cooker.
11. If at the end of cooking there is too much liquid, either drain it into a saucepan and boil to reduce and return it to the slow cooker, or thicken it with a flour/butter paste or slackened cornflower or arrowroot or other thickening agent..
12. Don’t use a slow cooker to reheat leftovers.
13. If you are not using a slow cooker liner, always oil or butter the base and sides of the cooking pot to reduce sticking and ease cleaning.
14. If your slow cooker lid isn’t a perfect fit – as many aren’t – either increase the amount of liquid in the recipe or put a sheet of foil over the top of the cooking pot before securing the lid. This will allow less steam to escape. The downside of lining with foil is that you can no longer see through the lid!

Pasta Bake

Mezze Penne Rigate lr

Serves 4

I love baked pasta. The outside bits go chewy and charred, there is usually a crispy cheese crust and the baking intensifies the flavours.

This recipe is also handy because it is a make-ahead one pot dish. It’s important that you make it the day ahead and let it rest in the fridge for 24 hours as this gives time for the flavours to mingle.

As for the pasta, I like to use mezze penne rigate, which roughly translates to half-length, ridged penne. But regular penne or any similar sized tube-shaped pasta will do.

3 to 4 medium courgettes, chopped into bite sized pieces
4 tablespoons olive oil
300g pasta
2 medium onions, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1kg passata
10 sun-dried tomatoes, sliced
1 tsp dried oregano
½ tsp dried basil
A generous pinch of dried chilli flakes
1 ½ tablespoons red wine vinegar
Salt
Plenty of freshly ground black pepper
180g mascarpone cheese
3 to 4 tablespoons coarsely grated strong cheddar cheese

Place the courgettes in a large roasting tin (large enough to hold them all in one layer) and mix with 2 tablespoons of the oil. Season with salt and black pepper. Roast in the oven for 30 minutes or so until tender and slightly browned. (The cooking time will vary according to your oven and the size of the courgette pieces.)

Bring a large pan of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta according the instructions on the packet. Be careful not to let it go too soft as it will get a second cooking when it is baked.

Meanwhile, sauté the onions in the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil until softened and starting to colour at the edges, approx. 10 minutes. Add the garlic and stir fry for 1 minute. Add all of the other ingredients, except for the cheeses.

Bring the mixture to a gentle simmer and cook part-covered for 20 to 30 minutes. The sauce should be rich and slightly thickened. If it goes too thick, add a splash of the pasta cooking liquid.

Add the courgettes and mascarpone cheese and stir well to make sure everything is evenly mixed. Stir in the drained pasta then pour the mixture into a large, flat oven proof dish. I use a large glass lasagne dish, as I like the pasta to be fairly shallow – that way you get more crispy outside bits when you bake it! Once it has cooled, cover in cling film and store in the fridge until you are ready to bake it.

To finish the dish, remove the cling film and sprinkle the surface of the pasta with a generous covering of grated cheddar cheese. Bake in the oven for about 40 minutes. It should be browned and crisp on the outside and bubbling hot on the inside.

Sweet Chilli Sauce

Cayenne chillies lr

Makes 320ml

While most supermarkets sell a wide range of sweet chilli sauces, it’s good to make your own from time to time. This isn’t too hot so if you want to crank up the heat, chuck in some more cayenne.

200g granulated sugar
110ml cider vinegar
110ml water
30ml (2 tablespoons) lime juice
1 ½ tsp garlic powder
1 ½ tsp ground ginger
1 tsp cayenne
½ tsp paprika
½ tsp salt

Place all of the ingredients in a pan. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Boil uncovered to reduce to a light syrup.

The final volume should be about 320ml, so add hot water as necessary to make up the amount.