Mama Coops Beginners Guide to Using a Slow Cooker
Whether you’ve just bought your first slow cooker or have had one stuffed in a cupboard for a while, you’ll probably welcome this beginners guide to using your slow cooker.
Get to know your Slow Cooker
Slow cookers are a bit like children in that they’re all slightly different to each other. I’ve seen a number of recipes and conversion charts on the internet and these seem quite rigid and prescriptive as to how long a recipe will take as if it’s some magic number and all slow cookers are born equal. They’re not!
Use recipes and conversion tables only as a guide whilst you get to know your own slow cooker and don’t hesitate to adjust the timings or the temperature settings to suit your individual slow cooker.
When cooking your first slow cooker dish I’d do it on a day when you’re at home and can supervise it. So it looks like it’s cooking too quickly you can turn it down a notch or if it’s cooking too slowly you can ramp the temperature up to high, or have dinner slightly earlier or later if needs be.
High is great for if you don’t have much time, I use High if I want my food to cook in an afternoon.
Medium is great when you’ve put the dish in mid morning and need it in time for dinner
Low is great for all day
Keep Warm does exactly that. The whole idea of the keep warm function is to keep dinner warm so if people are eating dinner at different times (or need seconds) then they can have a warm dinner. Your instruction booklet will be able to tell you how long your slow cooker is ok to be kept on keep warm. It is not generally a cooking setting, unless your manual specificially states that it is!
Adapt your recipe for a casserole, a stew, spaghetti bolognese, or chilli.
If you have your own recipe for a beef or lamb casserole or stew, a bolognese sauce or chilli, then you can adapt it for the slow cooker. Do everything you normally would, only don’t add loads of extra liquid.
The liquid needs to come up to around the same level as the stew but not so much that it’s completely covered. If you see the picture of the stew below, you can see what I mean about the level the liquid needs to be at.
Slow cooker dishes don’t tend to evaporate liquid in the same way as if you did it in the oven or on the hob, so the amount of liquid you start off with will be a similar amount to what you end up with (or you might actually find it gets more watery by the end of cooking)
Things like Stews, Casseroles, Hot Pots, Bolognese Sauce and Chillis etc are great on low all day. If you’re using root vegetables or potatoes put these towards the bottom of the pot and ensure they’re cut into half or quarters if they’re fairly big. If you have less time, use a higher cooking setting.
Should I brown my meat first before putting it in the Slow Cooker?
This is very much up to you, how much time you have and what you prefer. If I had to give you a definitive answer I’d say yes, but many many people I’ve spoken to have said they never do and they prefer it that way so the best thing may be for you to try it one way one time and the other way the next time and see which you prefer and if you notice a difference. Browning it can help the flavours be sealed in and can help it retain a slightly firmer texture, especially on mince and is recommended by chefs.
Set yourself up for success – Things that work well in a Slow Cooker
A slow cooker was designed to be used for using the slightly cheaper, tougher, meats and for cooking things over a low heat and a long period of time. So some things naturally do well being cooked in a slow cooker. These include:
- Joints of Brisket
- Beef/ Lamb Casserole or Stew or Hotpot
- Legs of Lamb
- Lamb Shanks
- Chillis, Bolognese sauces
- Pulled Pork
- Gammon Joints
- Whole Chicken
- Braising Steak
Things that DON’T work as well in the slow cooker.
- Roast meat (The slow cooker doesn’t get hot enough to truly do a roast) that said, it is possible to cook the meat itself in the slow cooker but it won’t go golden and crispy unless you finish it off in the oven towards the end of the cooking time.
- Yorkshire puddings or pancakes. Both need higher temperature/faster cooking
- Stuff that takes a very short amount of time to cook like Sirloin, Rump, Fillet Steak, Chicken strips
- Topside/Silverside of Beef (needs to go in the oven)
- Stir Fry
- Pork Loin (can dry out easily)
- Diced chicken (can be done in slow cooker but doesn’t take all day)
- Roast potatoes or Chips (doesn’t get hot enough to fry)
- Pasta (works better if you cook it in a pan separately, unless you’re making mac and cheese)
Slow Cooker Safety
Always use meat that is fresh or that has been thoroughly defrosted before use. Do NOT cook any meat or poultry product from frozen. Things like frozen peppers and frozen sliced onions and frozen mushrooms can be used in the slow cooker without been defrosted first
Never Reheat food in a slow cooker. Use the microwave, the hob or the oven instead.
Always ensure that the slow cooker is out of the way of children and pets and away from things like curtains.
Unless your slow cooker instruction manual states otherwise, always have some liquid in the slow cooker pot whilst in use, even if it is just a small amount of water. This will hopefully stop your slow cooker pot from cracking (I have heard of them cracking when used dry, hence why I’m advising this)
If you need to prep ahead for the next day then chop any veg you may need to use for your dish and tub up and put in the fridge overnight. In the morning, take the tubs out of the fridge and transfer to the slow cooker. It is not a good idea to keep your food out overnight.
After cooking cool any leftovers thoroughly before putting in a bowl, covering and transferring to the fridge or freezer. Most things are fine for up to 2-3 days in the fridge or one month in the freezer.