Why you need a slow cooker
An inexpensive simple appliance that turns cheaper cuts of meat meltingly good... What's not to love about slow cookers, asks Claire O'Mahony
There's something very attractive about the word 'slow' when applied to food. It suggests succulent fare made with love and care, with the final result a meal to be enjoyed in a leisurely fashion, and every mouthful savoured.
This is, of course, completely at odds with how most of us dine, as we hurriedly prepare and scoff down dinners, our cooking repertoire based around easy 20-minute dishes. But this is where slow cookers can come in, allowing you to eat tagines, stews, curries and other dishes that normally busy schedules wouldn't allow for, except perhaps at weekends.
There's a lot to love about slow cookers. They're a cost-effective kitchen appliance for a start. A basic model costs as little as €15 (no guarantees there on how long that might last, however) and it also allows home cooks to experiment with inexpensive cuts of meat, which are by their nature tough and need long hours of cooking to make them meltingly tender.
There's minimal prep work too and your slow cooker gives you the freedom to do other things as your dinner cooks, as it does all the work for you - no stirring and no fretting that your dinner might burn. Given that it also fills the house with delicious cooking smells, is very simple to use even for kitchen Luddites (most slow cookers have only two to three temperature settings) and that it contains kitchen mess to just one pot, there are many inviting reasons to consider investing in one.
If you're not familiar with slow cookers, they're not complicated. They work by using a small amount of heat and cook food from between 4-12 hours, requiring no attention. One of the first considerations when you're buying one should be capacity. A six-litre version can feed up to six people, while a 3.5-litre slow cooker is more suitable for smaller families.
Shape is also something to take into account. Slow cookers come in oval and round forms, the former being better for large cuts of meat like a whole chicken or rack of ribs, the latter best for stews and casseroles. Basic models will have a low, high and warm setting, and some will also have an auto setting that starts out with the heating on high and then switches to a lower temperature after an hour.
More expensive models come with timers that are programmable and with some slow cookers, you can sear meat in the cooker before the slow cooking commences, something chefs claim as being necessary for the overall flavour of the dish.
According to David Clarke, white goods manager at Currys Ireland, slow cookers are increasingly popular with customers. "Traditionally they've been associated with roasting large joints of meat and more and more we're seeing things like the rise of pulled pork in the market and it's great for cooking that. People are using it for more things than just roasts and slow cookers are certainly on the rise," he says.
He points to capacity and shape as being key elements in the purchasing decision process but let's not forget about the aesthetic factor either. "Slow cookers come in different colours and more and more we're finding the people are bringing colour into their kitchens," says Clarke.
Tony McGivern is store manager at Harvey Norman Waterford and he's a firm fan of slow cookers. "I love cooking myself and the reason I got into slow cookers was that I bought my mother-in-law a slow cooker about four years ago and I would say it's the present that keeps giving because I get the benefits of it every time I go to the house," he says. "It's perfect for people with busy lifestyles. Sitting down to prep a meal is the last thing on their mind when they get home. Whereas with slow cookers, you put the ingredients in - your meats, your veg and your stock, early in the morning - and put it on low and when you come home it's cooked."
Whether your slow cooking aspirations are simple or ambitious - and the internet is an endless source of inspiration - getting the basics right is key. If your slow cooker doesn't have a searing option, Tara Walker of the East Coast Cookery School in Termonfeckin, Co Louth advises browning the meat first.
"A lot of people bung the meat in with the other ingredients and it does kind of work but if you want to get that really rich flavour from a stew or a casserole, you still need to brown off the meat," she says.
She advocates using less expensive cuts that benefit from slow cooking times as opposed to fillets, which should be cooked hot and fast, and then left to rest to get the most from them. "Chicken thighs, which I get from the butcher, but which you can pick up in supermarkets too, also work well when they're skinned and boned," Walker says.
According to Harvey Norman's Tony McGivern, much of the increased popularity of slow cookers is due to word of mouth - people who buy them and use them tend to rhapsodise about them.
"I don't think it's a product you'd buy and put under the sink and never use again," he says. "It's great for getting people back into cooking and back into family life, which is more important these days."
For food lovers, it's definitely one to consider putting on the Santa list.
Slow cookers: Dos and don'ts
Consider your kitchen space
A cooker with a six-litre capacity will need some room.
Invest in a slow cooker cookbook
Especially if you're a slow cooker virgin, this will save you having to adapt recipes.
You can use your slow cooker for many things, even to make mulled wine. Pinterest is a good place to find creative slow cooker recipes.
Read the accompanying instructions and adhere to them.
Always make sure to wipe down the sides well after each use and - if they're not dishwasher friendly - wash the pot and lid in warm soapy water.
Trim off any fat
Whereas you can drain off oil and fat when you're cooking ordinarily, that's not possible with slow cookers so best get rid of any excess fat on meat in advance.
Reheat leftovers in a slow cooker
The temperature it reaches isn't sufficiently high enough for food safety reasons.
For efficient cooking, it should only be ½-¾ full or else it may start leaking from the top and the food won't cook properly.
Waste expensive cuts of meat
Cheaper cuts work best whereas something like a beef fillet will become dry and over-cooked.
Use too much liquid
If you're adapting a recipe for your slow cooker that contains an ingredient with a lot of water, such as tomatoes, reduce the amount of stock you're using. As a rule reduce the amount of liquid in a standard recipe by a third.
Add dairy too soon
When dairy products are cooked for too long they can curdle so add these only half an hour before the end of cooking time.