Low and slow wins at supper time
The secret to taking away meal-time stress from a busy life can be found in a slow cooker. Marilou Yampolsky/Camrose Canadian contributor
As a working mom, I have learned to appreciate the freedom of cooking in a slow cooker.
I loathe that 4 p.m. feeling when I realize I have nothing planned for supper. The meat is frozen, and whatever I start now is going to take forever to get finished. When I plan ahead for a slow cooker supper, I thank myself the next day when the stress is done, and a good, hot meal is on the table and on time. On slow cooker days, all the prep is done the morning of, or even the night before. Just pop it in the slow cooker and let supper cook while you’re away.
Slow cookers are an economical choice. It’s easy to toss in a variety of foods, and even cheap cuts of meat like beef brisket, chicken thighs and pork shoulder turn out amazing in a slow cooker. They’re best cooked slow for the fullest flavour, best texture and they’re easy on the grocery budget. The cooker itself is also inexpensive to buy and uses less power than your oven. If you consider making a stew in the oven would typically take just over an hour, using your slow cooker for eight hours, uses a third less power and ultimately costs less money.
Regardless of the cost savings, for many the biggest advantage to slow-cooking a meal is, ironically, the time convenience.
Slow cookers don’t need to be watched. In fact, they do best if they aren’t. Every time you remove the lid to peak or stir, heat and steam are released and it takes more time to catch up and get back to productive cooking after you’ve replaced the lid. Just leave it alone to do its job.
There are some secrets to success in a slow cooker. Slow cookers use moist heat to cook food over a long period of time. Liquids are critical for slow cooking, but not too much liquid. Because the lid has a good seal, slow cookers lock the moisture in and liquids don’t have the opportunity to evaporate. If you’re adjusting your favourite stovetop or oven recipe, you’ll likely use a third less liquid. A good rule of thumb is to just cover the meat and vegetables with liquid, and only fill your slow cooker about two thirds full.
I like to be choosy about what meals I make in the slow cooker, and the process of trial and error helps you to know what meals your family will love and which they’d prefer were cooked on the stovetop or oven.
Some prep is important ahead of time so plan for that. There’s definitely no hovering required, and if you’ve got enough liquid then there’s less threat of being distracted and burning your supper. If I’m cooking with onions I prefer to pre-cook them before they go into the slow cooker. They release more flavour and I prefer the final texture using a pre-cooked versus a raw onion.
With meats, I also like to brown them a bit if I have time to do a bit of prep. If not, you can just toss them in.
Pasta/rice should never be added at the start of cooking time as they will be way too soft by the time you’re ready to serve. Save these to add at the end for the final cook.
If your time is limited you can prep the food the night before, leave it in the ceramic or clay pot in the fridge and then turn it on before you leave for work.
One of the health benefits of slow cooking is using less fat. There’s no need to add oil and if you’re using fatty meats it’s a good idea to trim them first. When you fry meat a lot of that fat gets fried away but in the slow cooker the fat has no place to go so it collects in the dish and looks and tastes a bit unwelcoming for your dinner guests. Trim the fat and your dish will be flavourful and healthier for you.
Layering is also important in your slow cooker. If your slow cooker, like most, has the heating element at the base, you want your harder vegetables like carrots and potatoes at the bottom with your meat closer to the heat, and smaller, more delicate veggies like broccoli, cauliflower at the top away from the direct heat source. Putting items in the right order will effect how they cook. Fresh herbs, cheese, and those finishing touches like lemon for zest, or hot sauce for heat should be added at the end.
A trick I’ve found for thickening my sauce in the slow cooker is to pat the meat in flour before putting it in the slow cooker. If the sauce/gravy still isn’t thick enough for your liking, make a corn starch/water paste and stir it in towards the end of the cook time, replace the lid, and let it finish simmering for a good 10-20 minutes to thicken up before serving.
The dilemma with slow cooking is always how long. If it usually takes you 30 minutes to cook then give it one to two hours on high or four to six hours on low. An hour of normal cooking time equates to two to three hours on high or five to seven hours on low, and two hours cooking time becomes three to four hours on high or six to eight hours on low. I always prefer food cooked on low then food cooked on high. I can’t say what the difference is, but there is a difference. If you’ve got the time, take it.
I’m sure not every slow cooker is the same, but my research tells me that cooking on low cooks your food at 200 degrees F, and cooking on high cooks at 300 degrees F.
One of my favourite features of a slow cooker is less clean up (one pot, wow!) and ooooh the aroma when you walk in the door and know that there’s no supper panic, supper is in progress. Take this time to enjoy chatting with the kids about their school day, or to prep a side dish or salad to go with dinner.
Keep that slow cooker handy, don’t tuck it down in the basement. If it's up in your kitchen you’ll make use of it more often. Get creative, and share your favorite slow cooker recipes on Marilou's Pampered chef on Facebook.
For recipes, cooking workshops, freezer meal workshops and more go to www.pamperedchef.ca/pws/marilouy and please “like” Marilou’s pampered chef on Facebook