Slow cookers are great for making soups, stews, casseroles, curries and much more. But how do they actually work, and what should you look out for when buying a slow cooker? These are some of the questions we answer in this buying guide.
How does a slow cooker work?
A slow cooker usually has a hidden element in the base or around the sides which applies heat to an internal ceramic or glass dish. This element maintains a steady temperature which is well below boiling point, meaning a longer cooking time of anywhere between 2 and 12 hours is needed.
As a result, food is cooked gently and evenly. It’s a technique that gives meat fibres time to break down and soften up. So instead of forking out on expensive cuts like fillet or sirloin, you can buy cheaper joints and still get tasty, tender meat.
What are the advantages of using a slow cooker?
The biggest advantage of using a slow cooker is how little effort you have to put into a recipe. Often you can just add all your ingredients to the dish and leave them to cook while you get on with something else – like doing laundry or cleaning the car. There’s no need for stirring, and because food is cooked at such a low temperature, it’s very unlikely that anything will stick to the bottom of the dish.
What can I cook in a slow cooker?
You’d be surprised by the amount of dishes you can prepare using a slow cooker. As well as making stews, soups, casseroles and curries, you can also roast whole joints of meat and even make a variety of puddings. Some people also make rice dishes like biryani and jambalaya in their slow cookers.
What should I look out for?
Capacity – Needless to say, if you’re feeding a large family then you’ll need a large slow cooker. Generally speaking, a 6-litre cooker will be enough for up to eight people, while a 3.5-litre model is ideal for up to four or five. Anything less than 2 litres is suitable for just one or two.
Shape – Most slow cookers are either round or oval. The only reason you’d choose one over the other is if you plan on roasting meat in it – in which case you’ll be better off with an oval-shaped model.
Heat settings – Instead of having a variable thermostat control, slow cookers generally have just two or three heat settings: low, medium and high, or just low and high. On a low setting recipes can take up to 12 hours, but the results are often worth it. On a high setting your food can be ready to eat in as little as 3 hours.
Auto-cook function – In this mode, the slow cooker starts on a high setting before switching to a low setting after about an hour. Many believe that this results in better tasting meat.
Keep warm function – Having a keep-warm function is useful if you need to delay dinner for some reason.
Timer – With a timer it’s much easier to abide by a recipe. It also means you can be away from the kitchen for longer than the recipe states without worrying about your food overcooking or drying out. Once the time you set has expired, the slow cooker will usually switch to keep warm mode, ensuring your food is still hot when you come to eat it.
Cool touch handles – These make it easier to remove the inner pot from the appliance when it’s still hot, which is ideal if you want to serve from it at the table.
Top 3 slow cooking tips
For the best results when cooking cheaper cuts of red meat like beef skirt or lamb shoulder, use a low heat setting and a longer cooking time. High settings and shorter cooking times are best for poultry dishes.
No matter how great your food smells, don’t be tempted to keep lifting the lid. Every time you do it’ll release heat, increasing overall cooking time.
Avoid adding too much liquid to the pot. A slow cooker seals in moisture, so you don’t need quite as much as you would cooking in the oven or on the hob. As a rule of thumb, add just enough to cover the meat and veg.