The first slow cookers appeared on the market in the early '70s and their popularity has never stopped growing. The original slow cooker was called a crock pot, because of the ceramic 'casserole' inside the cooker, and the name 'crock pot' is now often used generically. Today, the numbers of slow-cooker enthusiasts are growing, as they learn from their friends how useful a slow cooker can be.
From students to business people, slow-cooker users can't praise enough the joy of being able to get a meal together with the minimal amount of preparation and then to come home after a busy day to a hot meal that's ready to eat. These days, too, as people aim to save on fuel for cooking – for economic as well as environmental reasons – the slow cooker has earned its place in the modern kitchen. Because on average it saves about 80 per cent of the energy of normal cooking, you couldn't ask for a better way to produce a nourishing and healthy hot meal that's eco-friendly.
The attraction goes further than this. Cheaper cuts of meat that need longer cooking are transformed into meltingly tender and flavourful meals. Food keeps moist, and the flavours and nutrients are trapped in, because the gentle heat creates less evaporation, and as the steam condenses on the lid it drips back into the casserole taking the flavours with it. The flavours of soups, casseroles and stocks blend and meld beautifully, meats cook to be rich and tender with little shrinkage, and because food is not turned during cooking, it doesn't break up, so softer ingredients such as fish and fruit cook perfectly and remain whole.
With the steam sealed in, you will also notice that there is less in the kitchen than when you cook with a conventional cooker.
Because slow cookers have at least two settings, you can choose to cook on Low – so your dish cooks all day while you are out at work – or on High – taking half the time. The perfect option for our busy lifestyles.
Another advantage is being able to keep your meal warm once cooked. Today's busy families often need to eat at different times. The Low setting means that food will keep warm for several hours without spoiling so that everyone can enjoy a freshly cooked meal even if they eat it later than the rest of the family.
All in all, the slow-cooker experience is one that is appealing to more and more people.
The Benefits of a Slow Cooker
Those who are already fans will know the many benefits of using a slow cooker but if you are new to slow cooking, there may be more advantages than you thought.
Easy clean-up and no other pans needed.
Versatile for many kinds of foods, from appetisers to desserts.
Meets multiple cooking needs, such as poaching, stewing, braising, roasting and baking.
Saves cooking time and energy.
Safe to leave plugged in all day so you can leave your meal cooking while you are out at work.
A choice of settings so you can choose how long your cooking time will be for maximum convenience.
The warm setting keeps food ready for family members' varying dinner times.
It's portable, so it can be taken with you for use in campers or if you want to cook away from home.
All these advantages – and more that you can think of – make this a great piece of equipment to help improve your busy lifestyle.
Choosing Your Slow Cooker
You can now find a huge selection of slow cookers – from the basic and functional to stylish designs for serving at the table – but the most important factor is to make sure the cooker has the BEAB safety symbol. The pot, or crock, should be removable and may be of ceramic or heat-resistant glass. The lid should fit tightly and will be either glass or ceramic. There is no advantage to having a glass lid, however, as the condensation will obscure your view of the cooking food anyway. The main heat settings are High and Low, which are the ones used in this book, although some slow cookers also have a Medium setting.
The cooker size you choose will depend on the size of your family, whether you often entertain and what kinds of dishes you want to prepare. The 3.25–3.5 litre /5¾–6 pint size slow cooker is the most frequently used and is considered to be an average family size; however, if you have a larger family, or you like to entertain, the 5.5 litre/9½ pint size would be more suitable. In this size you will also be able to cook roasts and make a larger selection of the cakes, which need to be cooked in a cake tin for best results. Another advantage of having a larger cooker is that you can cook in bulk for freezing. A cooker with a wide crock will be useful for cooking whole peppers, fruit and fish.
Bear in mind that the cooker must be at least a third full to operate properly. A tightly packed pot will not work correctly; similarly, one item, such as a pork chop, in the crock will overcook unless it is filled to at least a third with liquid. If cooking for one, you would be better to choose a smaller slow cooker, or you can double up the liquid to be on the safe side.
If you entertain a lot, a 1 litre/1¾ pint slow cooker is a perfect addition for making and serving dips, snack mixes, meatballs and so on.
Using Your Slow Cooker
Always refer to your manufacturer's instructions as slow cookers do vary slightly between models and manufacturers. However, you should find these general principles helpful when using your slow cooker. You can also look at the FAQ pages for more useful tips.
Assume a 3.25–3.5 litre/5¾–6 pint slow cooker is being used unless a specific size is stated in the recipe.
Preheat your slow cooker, if necessary, with the lid on while you prepare the ingredients.
In general, the order in which ingredients go into the slow cooker makes little difference. If a certain order is required, it will be stated in the recipe.
Most manufacturers do not recommend cooking frozen foods. For food safety, thaw meat, fish and vegetables completely before adding to the slow cooker. Add thawed frozen vegetables during the last 15–20 minutes of cooking time so that they will not overcook.
When cooking soups and casseroles, the slow cooker should be at least half full. If less than half full, the cooking time will be less, so check that the food is cooked sooner than stated in the recipe.
Never fill a slow cooker to the top. Leave at least a 5 cm/2 in space between the top of the crock pot and the lid to allow space for simmering.
If you are cooking a large joint or bird, cut it in half before cooking. It will then cook quicker.
Stirring while cooking is not necessary in a slow cooker unless specified in the recipe. In fact, each time the lid is removed to stir there is a loss of heat, thus increasing the cooking time.
If cooking cakes or breads, do not lift the lid during the first 1½–2 hours of cooking time.
Leave the slow cooker undisturbed during the cooking period and keep the lid on, otherwise the water seal around the rim will be broken and it will take a considerable time to regain the lost heat.
Cooked food will remain hot in the slow cooker for 30 minutes after the cooker is switched off. If you want to keep food hot for longer, set the slow cooker to Low, but note that this isn't suitable for egg-based or rice dishes. (Rice should not be kept warm as it encourages the growth of harmful bacteria.)
Most foods can be cooked on High or Low, depending on your preferred cooking time, but fish, rice and egg-based dishes must be cooked on Low.
If you are going to be out all day, it is best to cook on Low. That way the food will not spoil if you are delayed returning home. (This is particularly important if you don't have a programmable slow cooker.
If you make foil handles, you can easily remove whole roasts and chicken from the slow cooker. Cut two long strips of heavy-duty foil that will fit into the slow cooker, going across the bottom and extending to the top of the sides of the crock. Fold the strips in half two or three times to increase their strength. Fit the strips into the slow cooker and then add the roast or chicken.
Here are answers to the questions most commonly posed by new slow-cooker users.
Do you need to stir the ingredients while cooking?
No. Valuable heat is lost every time the lid is lifted, requiring an increase in cooking time.
Can slow cookers be left unattended?
Yes. One of the main benefits of a slow cooker is that you can put in your ingredients, leave home and come back to a delicious meal. Slow cookers operate on a low wattage.
Can Use your slow cooker to prepare roasts, whole chickens and other meats so that they can be sliced, rather than cooked until they are very tender and falling apart?
To cook meat perfectly for slicing and serving, use a meat thermometer and cook to the temperature recommended for the type of meat. See the chapters for poultry, beef, pork and lamb for recipes of this type.
Sometimes your recipe has finished cooking but the sauce is too watery. How can you thicken the juices?
If you want to thicken the juices, turn the slow cooker to High and cook, covered, for 10 minutes. Stir in 1 tbsp cornflour or 2 tbsp flour with 50 ml/2 fl oz cold water for every 250 ml/8 fl oz of liquid. Stir for 2‚Äì3 minutes until thickened. Or the dish can be uncovered and cooked on High for 20 - 30 minutes to the desired consistency.
What if you don‚Äôt have all day to cook food ‚Äì can you still use your slow cooker?
Higher cooking temperatures can be used to cook foods more quickly. The following conversion chart compares cooking times for High and Low settings:
Manufacturers recommendations on times can vary and should be checked in the instruction manual.
Tips for Using Specific Foods
Foods do not always cook in the slow cooker in the same way that they would if cooked conventionally. The obvious example is that vegetables generally take longer to cook than meat. These tips will help you learn about any differences from conventional cooking.
Beans and pulses
Dried beans will cook in soups and stews with ample liquid in 7–8 hours on Low. They do not need to be pre-soaked, with the exception of red kidney beans. These need to be pre-soaked overnight and then fast boiled for 10 minutes before they are added to the slow cooker because they contain toxins that need to be boiled off. Acid ingredients, such as tomatoes and vinegar, prevent beans from becoming tender, so add these near to the end of cooking time when the beans are already tender. Dried lentils and split peas do not require soaking and can be added to the recipe at the beginning of cooking time.
The emphasis in this book is recipes that are simple and convenient, so we have occasionally suggested adding a ready-made sauce or a can of soup to enrich the cooking liquid, or other convenience foods for speed. You can use tomato sauce from a jar, or if you prefer to make your own you will find a recipe for a slow-cooker Tomato Sauce in this book. It's a well-flavoured sauce that is suitable for making in bulk and freezing.
Full-fat dairy products are more stable and don't curdle as easily as lower-fat milk products. In this book, milk products are added near the end of cooking time and combined with cornflour to increase stability. Therefore, these recipes are suitable for low-fat products if you prefer. Evaporated milk and canned cream soups can be added to the slow cooker at the beginning of cooking time.
Thaw and add to the slow cooker during the last 15–20 minutes of cooking time to retain the best texture.
Herbs and spices
Add fresh herbs at the end for optimum colour and flavour. Add ground spices and dried herbs at the beginning.
Liquid (stock, water or wine) aids heat transfer and facilitates even cooking. When doubling recipes for casseroles, if you increase the liquid by one and a half times this is usually sufficient.
Less tender cuts of meat, such as pork shoulder, braising or stewing steak are perfect for long, slow cooking. Minced meats need to be browned and crumbled with a fork before adding to the slow cooker, otherwise they will cook into a clump. Other cuts do not need to be browned. The difference in appearance and flavour is minimal and not browning saves time and dirty pans.
Dried pasta should be cooked al dente and added to the slow cooker during the last 15–20 minutes of cooking time (on High). Small soup pasta, such as stellette or orzo, can be added, uncooked, during the last 20–30 minutes of cooking (on High). Fresh pastas can be added, uncooked, during the last 15–20 minutes of cooking (on High).
Easy-cook long-grain rice is the best for cooking in the slow cooker, although medium-grain risotto rice also works. Be sure that the recipe has plenty of liquid and add the uncooked rice during the last 1½–2 hours of cooking time (on High). Other types of rice – such as jasmine, basmati or brown – should be cooked and added near to the end of cooking time.
Add shellfish and pieces of fish during the last 30 minutes of cooking time (on Low), depending upon the quantity and thickness of the fish.
Cornflour and flour can be used for thickening soups, casseroles and gravies. Not every slow cooker achieves boiling in a reasonable amount of time, so cornflour is used to thicken the recipes in this book. It thickens more quickly than flour at lower than boiling temperature and it leaves no aftertaste.
If you want to thicken the cooking juices once your meal is almost ready, turn the slow cooker to High and cook, covered, for 10 minutes. Stir in 1 tbsp cornflour or 2 tbsp flour with 50 ml/2 fl oz cold water for every 250 ml/8 fl oz of liquid. Stir for 2–3 minutes until thickened. Or the dish can be uncovered and cooked on High for 20–30 minutes to the desired consistency.
High-moisture vegetables, such as butternut squash or courgettes, cook more quickly than root vegetables, so cut into larger pieces or add during the last hour of cooking time (on Low).
Tips for Making Desserts and Breads in the Slow Cooker
Your slow cooker is not only good for casseroles. A variety of delicious desserts and breads can be made in the slow cooker: perfect creamy cheesecakes, cakes, breads, biscuits, bread puddings, custards and poached fruit are some examples.
Making most breads and desserts requires a 5.5 litre/9½ pint slow cooker to accommodate the various sizes of pans and dishes used, although some can be cooked directly in the crock . You may need to experiment with recipe times a little, as various slow cookers cook a little differently. The shape and dimensions of the crock do influence cooking times. Recipes will indicate a range of possible cooking times.
Cakes and other baked goods may be a little sticky on top, but they can be frosted, glazed or sprinkled with icing sugar or cocoa.
Test that cakes and breads are cooked by using a cocktail stick. Do this as quickly as possible so that the lid of the slow cooker can be replaced to prevent the loss of heat. If the lid is removed often, the cooking time will be increased.
Baked goods are best eaten the day they are made. They can be 'refreshed' the next day with minimal microwave heating before serving.
Most cake recipes can be cooked directly in a greased and floured crock in a 2.75 litre/4¾ pint slow cooker. The cooking time will beless than if cooked in a pan, the edges may be a little dry, and if the slow cooker heats unevenly, one side of the cake may be browner. You'll need to experiment a little!
Many desserts are baked in a 18 cm/7 in springform cake tin. Before using, fill the tin with water to make sure it doesn't leak, or wrap the outside of the tin in foil.
Place baking pans, casseroles and soufflé dishes on a small rack for best heat circulation and more even cooking. A tuna can, with both ends cut off, can be used as a rack.
Some cakes and cheesecakes are cooked with three layers of kitchen paper put under the lid, which absorbs unneeded moisture and assures the best quality.
There are no general rules for adapting conventional cakes, cheesecakes or breads to slow-cooker cooking. Each item cooks differently, so it's best to use recipes that have been developed for the slow cooker.
We all like to eat tasty food – and that doesn't have to mean that it's not good for you, too! Try to make sure you get your five fruit and veg a day, keep sweet things as treats now and then, and get a good balance of complex carbohydrates and protein.
We do need some fat in our diet but, in general, we eat too much – in proportion to everything else – and we tend to eat too much saturated fat. In keeping with today's trend of healthy eating, many of the recipes are low in fat. Others contain yoghurt, buttermilk, soured cream, or hard or soft cheeses, and you may prefer to use a lower-fat version of these.
Rather than using a low-fat hard cheese, such as Cheddar that may not have much flavour, you may find the recipe would work as well using a smaller amount of a mature Cheddar. This would give you the flavour without the fat. For most other cheeses you can now find healthy-choice versions, which would work well in these recipes.
Other ways to reduce the fat in your food is to choose lean cuts of meat and always to trim meat and poultry of all fat before cooking, unless it is being roasted, when the fat will drain away. Minced meats can be very fatty, so choose lean mince. You will see the difference in the colour, which will be red rather than pale pink. Although a little more expensive, the flavour will be better and you'll have more meat for your money.
Minced meats are first fried in a pan in the recipes; if you use a slotted spoon to transfer the meat to the slow cooker you will leave the fat behind in the frying pan and can discard it.
Because convenience foods and snacks are routinely high in salt, our taste buds have become accustomed to it, but salt is very unhealthy and it is best to reduce it in our home-cooked food. Salt is added at the end of cooking time in these recipes; try to gradually lower the amount you add to dishes and perhaps try a low-salt alternative instead.
Slow Cooker Cooking Cooking for vegetarians
When making vegetable dishes for vegetarians, remember to use alternative ingredients such as vegetarian Worcestershire sauce – or use a mushroom sauce – and vegetarian cheeses. Many cheeses are now marked 'suitable for vegetarians' on the packets. Always check before buying, because a traditional Cheddar or Parmesan cheese, for example, contains animal rennet and is therefore not suitable.
Also, if cooking for strict vegetarians you would need to use a vegetarian wine, if called for in the recipe, as most wines are fined (or cleared) with animal products.
Recipes that contain Worcestershire sauce, cheese or wine assume you will buy a vegetarian version if you are cooking for people who do not eat meat.
The following is some helpful information on some of the ingredients we've used.
Butter: This is generally suggested in preference to margarine or spreads for its lack of trans-fats and improved flavour.
Cooking sprays: Vegetable and olive oil cooking sprays are used to reduce the amounts of oil or fat needed in the recipes. These are a healthy and convenient way to use oils and mean that you can enjoy home-made croûtons and garlic bread, for example, without them being heavy with fat. As an alternative you could brush oil on very thinly.
Cream cheese: The block type of soft cheese is usually specified in the recipes in this book. The tub type is much softer in texture and does not always work the same in recipes. If you are substituting low-fat soft cheese in your favourite recipes for dips, use the block type and add any liquid ingredients gradually, as the soft cheese thins much more quickly than full-fat or reduced-fat soft cheese. Low-fat soft cheese can be used to make cake glaze but not icing, as it thins with the addition of icing sugar and cannot be thickened.
Herbs: In most recipes, dried herbs are called for. As a general rule, fresh herbs may be substituted for dried by using two to three times as much as indicated for the dried version.
Margarine or spread: If you prefer to use margarine instead of butter, use an all-vegetable product that is trans-fat free. Use block rather than diet or 'soft' margarine, as they do not perform well in baking.
White vegetable fat: The manufacturing process of white vegetable fat usually creates trans-fats, so shop carefully for one of the new trans-fat-free brands.
Never leave uncooked food in a slow cooker that isn't turned on.
Steamed dishes, recipes that include a raising agent and recipes with large pieces of meat should always be cooked on High.
Never put the crock pot in the fridge. Prepared ingredients can be stored in the fridge in a sealed container.
Mix the ingredients together when you first put them into the slow cooker and stir again before serving.
Do not remove the lid during cooking unless you are adding ingredients. Add them quickly and replace the lid quickly and firmly afterwards.
If you wish to freeze any slow-cooked food, remove it from the slow cooker and leave it to cool quickly, then refrigerate and freeze.
Do not place the slow cooker in a direct draught. If using it in a room with a low temperature, allow longer cooking times, especially when cooking on Low.
If your recipe is not ready by the stated cooking time, increase the heat to High and cook for another hour.
Remember that the High heat on a slow cooker is still lower than the lowest heat on a conventional oven.
More Notes on Slow Cooker Cooking
Do not mix metric and imperial measures. Follow one set only.
The ingredients are listed in the order in which they are used in the recipe.
All spoon measurements are level: 1 tsp = 5 ml, 1 tbsp = 15 ml.
Eggs are medium unless otherwise stated. If you use a different size, adjust the amount of liquid added to obtain the right consistency.
All vegetables are medium unless otherwise stated.
Always wash, peel, core and seed, if necessary, fresh foods before use. Ensure that all produce is as fresh as possible and in good condition.
Always wash meat, poultry and fish before cooking.
Seasoning and the use of strongly flavoured ingredients, such as onions and garlic, are very much a matter of personal taste. Taste the food and adjust the seasoning to suit your own taste.
If you prefer your chilli dishes to be milder, omit the chilli powder, or adjust to your preference. Always deseed chillies if you are not keen on fiery chilli heat. After preparing fresh chillies, scrub your hands well with soap and water to remove any remains of capsaicin, the substance that creates the heat in chillies. Just a small amount can badly irritate your eyes, if you rub them with your fingers. If you prefer, wear rubber gloves when preparing chillies.
Use dried or fresh herbs as indicated. If you substitute dried for fresh, use half the quantity stated ‚Äì or vice versa. There is no substitute for fresh parsley and coriander.
A fresh bouquet garni is traditionally made up of sprigs of thyme, parsley and a bay leaf tied together with string or wrapped in muslin. Sachets of bouquet garni are readily available in supermarkets or you can use dried mixed herbs instead.
Can sizes are approximate and will depend on the particular brand.
Use your own discretion in substituting ingredients and personalising the recipes. Make notes of particular successes as you go along.
Use whichever kitchen gadgets you like to speed up preparation and cooking times: mixers for whisking; food processors for grating, slicing, mixing or kneading; blenders for liquidising.
Making stocks in the slow cooker couldn't be easier. You can simply prepare the ingredients, then leave them gently cooking on Low all day. No steamy kitchen, no checking that it's boiling too hard! Then you have beautifully flavoured stocks to use in your cooking. Make sure you freeze your stocks in suitable quantities – in 300 ml/½ pint containers is usually a good size.