The internet abounds with slow cooker recipes. Here’s my guide to simplifying the recipes you want and making slow cooking fit round your lifestyle.
Slow cookers make cooking much easier, right? When we first got a slow cooker as a wedding present it was a while before I was finding it useful, because many of the slow cooker recipes out there seem to involve just as much work as conventional cooking, but at a different time of day. Alternatively, they don’t cook for long enough for you to leave them all day. Here are my answers to some slow cooker myths to help you to make the most out of your slow cooker and really use it to make life easier.
1.Food needs browning/pre-cooking before it can go in the slow cooker
If you think, for example, about bacon, or potatoes, it’s obvious that different cooking methods result in a different flavour. Boiled or stewed meat tastes quite different from grilled or fried meat. I think it’s very likely that browning meat before adding it to the slow cooker changes the flavour, but it doesn’t make enough of a difference to me to be worth doing. When I’m looking for easy slow cooker recipes flavour is important, but I will take a very small flavour hit (or change) to save a lot of work.
The book that came with our slow cooker when we got it explains that you can skip browning the meat if you add hot, rather than cold, liquid and put it on for an extra hour. I’ve often used this technique – when I put the slow cooker on before work it’s on for more than 8 hours anyway.
So, if I was going to cook this lamb curry recipe I’d probably heat the tinned tomatoes on the hob or in the microwave with the spices and curry paste, then add everything to the slow cooker together. So much easier! You can find a simple lamb and lentil curry I’ve made here. Most recipes I’ve made will happily cook in 8 hours on low with hot liquid, and raw ingredients going in – even with dried pulses.
2. Tinned pulses are much easier than dried ones
When I was looking for ideas for my slow cooked chickpea curry all I found were recipes like this – with tinned chickpeas. I couldn’t believe it! If you can remember to soak them the night before the slow cooker is the perfect way to cook dried pulses. I’ve found beans benefit from at least 6 hours on medium or 8 hours on low. With lentils you can get away with less, they cook in 6-8 hours in low, and they need no soaking. Bearing in mind many people use a slow cooker so they can leave it on all day, you may as well save your pennies and use dried beans.
It can take a bit of practice to get the amount of water right (our catchphrase is ‘it might be soup’ when trying something new), but there are plenty of easy slow cooker recipes out there where the work has been done for you, including plenty here on busylizziecooks.com. The only caveat is that kidney beans need precooking before using in the slow cooker due to the risk of toxins.
3. All you can cook in the slow cooker is casseroles and stews
When I was growing up the only things that came out of the slow cooker were casseroles. There are so many more uses for it, though.
I’ve cooked a whole joint of meat in the slow cooker on a number of occasions – my marmalade glazed ham for one, or pork leg in apple sauce. I also once made a Chinese style pork belly in the slow cooker.
The slow cooker also makes a delicious jacket potato if you wrap them in foil – a perfect quick meal with your favourite topping, or to accompany another dish. I’ve even heard you can pop them on top of a casserole. I make a lot of crock pot curries, such as the aforementioned chickpea curry, and aubergine and lentil curry. Some people even bake in the slow cooker.
I use a lot of pulses because they’re cheap and easy, good padding and thicken the dish up nicely, but a good bolognese or chilli with meat is great in the slow cooker.
4. You can’t cook pasta in the slow cooker, it goes too mushy
Pearl barley might be an obvious slow cooker candidate, but pasta is not. However, many easy slow cooker recipes you may try are not one-pot. If you make a chilli to be ready when you get home from work you may be putting rice on when you get home.
For an easier alternative, cook the pasta sauce in the slow cooker all day with some extra water, then just stir in the pasta for the last half hour. I used this technique for my Venison Giouvetsi with Orzo. No boiling a kettle when you get in – just a warming pasta dish the whole family can enjoy. There are also recipes for slow cooker risotto. They can’t be left all day – but it’s still a lot easier than standing by the hob stirring.
5. The slow cooker needs to be left on all day for the food to be cooked.
Are your mornings too much of a rush to get the meal prepared, or do you simply not get up in time in the mornings? Many slow cooker recipes say to allow for 8 hours’ cooking time. I’ve found that for most foods 8 hours on low, 6 hours on medium or 4 hours on high is about right.
There are exceptions to this rule – some foods will cook more quickly – but it’s a good guide. If a recipe suggests a shorter cooking time it’s probably right – for example, my marmalade glazed ham will be perfectly tasty after 8 hours, but will resemble pulled pork, rather than a joint.
If you’re leaving the slow cooker on for longer than the recipe suggests, or using foods like aubergine that can suffer with really long cooking, don’t brown them or heat the liquid. Make up any stock in advance and allow it to cool. You can even set a timer if you aren’t using any perishables, but most foods are pretty forgiving.
Now the world is your oyster! Go and get a slow cooker, if you don’t have one already, and use these tips to try, adapt and create some scrummy easy slow cooker recipes.