Slow Cooking Basics
Slow Cookers have been around for a long time and for good reason. The fact of the matter is they are so simple and easy to use and can produce great results while you go about your busy life.
Slow cooking braises foods and uses moist heat to cook at a low temperature. It can produce similar results to cooking in a Dutch oven. The big difference is that with this method of cooking you can simply fill the slow cooker with the ingredients and let your food cook unattended for most of the cooking process.
In terms of design and function, a slow cooker is a round or oval electric pot, with a stoneware or stainless steel insert that cooks food at a very low temperature over a long period of time. Slow cookers are always covered with a lid, which not only traps the heat and steam, but allows moisture to condense and fall back into your food. Some slow cookers have lids that clamp down on the pot, which are helpful for travel and to prevent any heat loss as the food cooks. Some slow cookers have heating elements at the bottom of the unit only. This heats up the insert and spreads to the sides of the crock or insert to cook the food inside. Some units have a base element as well as elements around the sides to heat more evenly and quickly.
Why Use a Slow Cooker:
Safe and Easy to Use
Slow cooking is a very safe and easy way of cooking. With only about 15 to 20 minutes of preparation, you can put your ingredients in the slow cooker, set your cooker to low or high, set the cooking time, and then walk away, leaving you extra time to enjoy the day or to get other tasks completed on your list of things to do.
Most slow cookers have a ‘warm’ setting that automatically switches on once the cooking is complete. The food will stay warm until you are ready to serve. This feature is especially helpful if you are not home.
Slow cooking can produce great results using inexpensive cuts of meat that need low heat and a slow cooking time. The moist heat breaks down the meat making it more tender and flavorful.
With this method of cooking, you can produce a great range of healthy comfort foods such as homemade soups, pot roasts and stews and they rarely call for added oils or fat to cook them. With the small amount of time needed to prepare meals in a slow cooker, chances are you will be less tempted by processed or prepared take-out foods. You can limit your ingredients to those that suit your preferences and your diet.
Easy Clean Up
Another great feature of the slow cooker is that many slow cooker recipes are, in fact, one pot meals which can include any or all of the food categories that are in your diet – meats, vegetables, grains, legumes, and some starches as well. You will usually end up with one crock pot or insert to clean after the meal. Any other clean up can be done during your preparation stage. Less clean up means more time to spend with family and friends.
Slow cookers are great to use in situations where an oven is not available such as camping, picnics or when traveling. They are also a popular appliance for pot luck events.
An added bonus in summer months is that slow cookers will not heat up your whole kitchen.
Time and Temperature Settings
Most slow cookers come with two cooking levels. The LOW setting typically cooks at 190°F to 200°F while the HIGH setting cooks at 250°F to 300°F.
When cooking on the LOW setting, cooking times are usually about twice as long as when cooking on the HIGH setting. Most LOW-setting cooking times range from 6 to 8 hours while HIGH-setting cooking times range from 3 to 4 hours.
Most recipes can be prepared using either the LOW or HIGH settings. Some recipes will state which one works better for that specific dish. The LOW setting is best for stews, soups, roasts or pork shoulder, whereas the HIGH settings are better for sauces, dips or desserts. In my recipes, I provide times for both HIGH and LOW settings but my recommended setting always comes first.
What to look for when purchasing a slow cooker
Some units are designed for better energy efficiency. Look for the “Energy Star Label” to know if that particular unit will use less energy during the long cooking process. The larger the unit, the more energy it will use.
Chose a slow cooker with a removable insert. Having an insert is best for cleaning and also distributes the heat while cooking. I tend to prefer a heavy stoneware crock as it retains the heat better than a metal insert.
Tight Fitting Lid
Make sure the unit has a tight fitting lid. Some slow cookers have lids that clamp down on the pot to prevent any heat loss as the food cooks, helping to retain the moisture in the food. This type of lid is also helpful for travel when taking your dish to potluck dinners or parties.
A slow cooker with an internal thermometer is a useful tool because the unit will switch to the warming setting once the food has reached the desired doneness and temperature.
Best Cuts of Meat and Poultry Best for Slow Cooking
Chicken Thighs – Chicken Thighs are more flavorful than breasts and they are less likely to dry out during slow cooking.
Pork Butt – This cut of pork holds up well when cooked in a slow cooker and is great for shredding for pulled pork.
Chuck Roast and Rump Roast – These traditionally tough cuts of meat have great results when cooked in a slow cooker. The low temperature cooking helps to tenderize the meat while retaining its great flavor.
Beef and Pork Ribs – Ribs are an excellent choice for the slow cooker whose low temperature and longer cooking times produce very tender and fall-apart ribs.
Brisket – This cut of meat also benefits from the lower temperature and longer cooking time resulting in tender and tasty meat that can be sliced or shredded.
Lamb Shanks– slow cooking this cut of lamb can result in a very tender and rich dish
Using your Slow Cooker for Leftovers
Have some chicken and veggies in the fridge. The slow cooker is great to make a soup or casserole with anything you may have on hand. Add some stock and seasoning and you could create an amazing meal with what you have in your fridge or pantry.