Whether you’re a workaholic, afternoon gym junkie, juggling a family or just don’t feel like cooking when you get home, it’s worthwhile investing in a slow cooker. The benefits of slow cooking far exceed the convenience of being able to whip up a meal the night before, pop it on as you leave for work, and have a delicious hot meal ready by the time you get home. Cheaper cuts of meat work better in a slow cooker and create rich, thick stews and gravies, and the one-pot-wonder of slow cooking reduces the amount of dishes you’ll need to clean at the end of the day — and it’s all a lot easier than you might think.
How to choose your cooker
Slow cookers come in all shapes and sizes, so whether you’re feeding one or 10 you will find a cooker to suit. They tend to range in size from 3.5 litres (just enough for a family of four, or perfect for two with leftovers for lunch) to 7 litres (for those feeding groups of 8 or more), and are either round, oval or rectangular. If you’re looking to cook large cuts of meat like ribs or roasts, or plan on trying a slow cooked loaf of bread, go for the longer oval or rectangle shaped cookers, but a round cooker will do just fine for your stews and hotpots.
For the ultimate in versatility, most modern slow cookers double up as other cooking appliances such as a deep fryer, pressure cooker, frying pan, bread maker and even a yoghurt maker. Other worthwhile features to look for include a delay start option feature, which is great for planning your meal to be ready when you walk through the door, and dishwasher safe parts to save time on cleaning.
Several models include a pan that can be used directly on a cooktop, allowing meat to be browned or seared before slow cooking, all in the one pot. And if you’re worried about safety, don’t be, as low-temperature slow cookers are specifically designed to be used unattended over long periods. Choosing one with non-slip feet, cord storage and heat resistant handles will give you piece of mind for the added stability and safety they offer.
Cooking with a slow cooker
So you’ve found your perfect slow cooker, what do you do now?
For any new slow cooker, it’s recommended you make your first meal while you’re still at home to ensure that it’s working properly. If you’re replacing an older slow cooker, keep in mind that the newer models tend to run hotter, so the meals you’re used to making might need less time or more liquid — it’s good to do a test run while you’re there to adjust for any changes.
As with any meal prepared at home, the benefit is that you have complete control over the nutrient profile, deciding what ingredients go into the pot. Adding more vegetables than called for in a recipe will increase the nutrient and fibre content of the meal. Save preparation time by chopping your veggies into large pieces, or leave vegetables like potatoes and green beans whole — softer vegetables like pumpkin, sweet potato and carrots will disintegrate if they’re cut up too small. It’s also best to sauté onion, garlic and spices before putting them in the slow cooker to get the best flavour from them.
Recipes work best using tougher and cheaper cuts of meat such as short ribs, pork shoulders, lamb shanks and chicken thighs, as they remain juicier than leaner cuts and white meat. The longer cooking time and wet cooking method means that meat becomes juicy and tender without the addition of fats or tenderisers. Make sure you take the time to sear and seal your red meat prior to putting the cuts into a slow cooker. As a plus, the tendons and marrow on boney cuts of meat simply melt when cooked in a slow cooker, giving the sauce extra nutrients and a great taste.
When loading up your slow cooker, put the vegetables on the bottom and the meat on the top, as the veggies will need the direct heat from the base to cook at the same pace as the meat. Slow cookers work best when they’re at 3/4 full to capacity — if this is more than you need, put some in the fridge for leftover lunch. Before putting frozen ingredients in the slow cooker, make sure they’re fully thawed or refrigerated.
When serving, you can choose to put a bit of a spark in your dish with a sprinkle of fresh herbs or a squeeze of lemon or lime juice. And lastly, if you’re adding wine, make it a splash, as alcohol doesn’t evaporate in a sealed cooker as it does in an open pot.
If you want the latest and greatest in high-tech slow cookers, look towards the Breville Fast Slow Pro. A combination of pressure cooker and slow cooker, this machine does everything – you can steam, reduce, sauté or sear just by pressing a button. Its 6 litre ceramic bowl is removable and dishwasher safe, and programmable from 2 to 10 hours with a “keep warm” feature so your food doesn’t go cold.
Great for pressure cooking as well as slow cooking, the Kambrook Pressure Express is your ideal appliance for one-pot-wonders. With an in-built sauté function, putting together a delicious meal is as easy as putting your ingredients in the 6 litre bowl and pressing go. The bowl is dishwasher safe, and there is a removable metal guard on the pressure valve to help keep it all clean.
Voted Product of the Year in 2014, this multi-cooker does it all. As well as having a 5.5 litre slow cook capacity, it is also one of the only home products that cooks sous vide – where food is sealed in an airtight bag and slow cooked in water, sealing in juices and flavour. As a slow cooker, it features an automatic keep warm setting, is dishwasher safe and can be set to be ready a whole 24 hours ahead of time.