Budget cooking – the slow cooker

A slow cooker is a great way to produce delicious food as well as save money.

With belts tightening all over the place, one way to cut food prices while still eating well which I’d seriously recommend is a slow cooker.

A lot of people bought slow cookers back in the 1970s. They were usually brown ceramic, very heavy and difficult to clean, and many were only used a few times before they were put away in the garage. If you still have one of these, get it out – they’re by far the best type and knock the modern competition into a cocked hat, IMHO. 

If, however, you have to settle for one of the modern ones, get one that will cook on as low a wattage as possible. The whole point of a slow cooker is that it should cook slowly – somewhere around 50w to 100w is ideal. Many of the more modern versions cook at 250w and if you get this, you’re really just buying yourself an extra conventional oven. What you want is a cooker that does a good stew in something like 8 to 12 hours rather than 3 to 4, so you can leave it on while you’re at work, or overnight. 

Why slow cook?

1. Because it’s delicious. Slow-cooked food retains all of its flavour and texture compared with oven cooking or stovetop cooking.

2. Because it’s very cheap, costing only the same as burning an incandescent lightbulb.

3. Because it’s virtually idiot-proof. Pretty much anything you put in there comes out tasting good. 

4. Because it’s no-maintenance. You can leave it alone while you’re out or asleep, and food can’t catch, burn, or overcook (all that happens if you go over the maximum time with a roast, for instance, is that the meat falls apart – it won’t end up blackened to a crisp). 

5. Because it enables you make full use of tough cuts of meat such as brisket or old-fashioned meats such as mutton. Meat near the bone is actually far more flavoursome than white meat such as chicken breast, but we have lost the art of cooking it.

6. Because it enables you to easily reduce your meat consumption without noticing it. 

General tips

Slow cooking results in highly flavoured food, where all the flavours intermingle, so it is one very useful way to reduce the amount of meat you use – you can really stretch recipes without compromising quality. My DH is a natural carnivore, for instance, but I am able to serve something like half or a quarter of the meat we used to consume by substituting with vegetables such as potatoes, chickpeas, kidney beans and root veg. These pick up the flavour of the meat and become truly delicious. 

Because slow cooking retains the texture of the food very well it is also now the main way I cook soft vegetables such as courgettes, tomatoes, aubergines, squash and marrow. It is an excellent way to cook dishes such as stews, curries and chillis, and also works for soups, creme caramel and even producing stock. If you are interesting in making preserves, the first steps towards jam or chutney can be done overnight in a slow cooker without supervision, leaving you only with the bottling stage. And finally, you can even roast a chicken in one, while you’re out at work with no danger of overcooking or causing a fire. 

I use my slow cooker about every other day and usually make enough for two meals. I have two types. One is a 20-year old Tower Compact Slo-Cooker, where the ceramic pot is integral to the machine and can’t be taken out for washing. This makes it fiddly to clean, but the food it produces is absolutely superb because the lid is very heavy and no flavour evaporates. The other is a Morphy Richards metal one with a separate base and a glass lid. This allows you to use the top section on the stovetop, then transfer it to the base for slow-cooking. Although the flavour is not quite as good, it is much easier to use, so in practice I use it more often. 

How to cook

I usually slow cook overnight. For some reason, 15 minutes preparing a meal before bedtime seems to take less time than 15 minutes at any other time, so I generally prepare the food at the end of the evening. I cook overnight, switch the machine off in the morning and then the food’s ready whenever we’re hungry (I understand that some machines are programmable, so you can set them to auto switch off, which is probably a useful feature). 

Slow cooking does require a bit of practice, but there are some basic things to remember:

* No flavour evaporates, so go easy on the herbs and spices. 

* No water evaporates, so you don’t need as much liquid as usual. 

* Dice vegetables into small pieces so that they cook all the way through.This takes a bit of getting used to and different veg behave in different ways. Turnip and potato need smaller dice than carrot or parsnip, for instance. If you’re used to roasting veg, use this as a guideline.

* Meat cooks more quickly than veg, so you can use larger pieces, or place it on top of a base layer of veg (it cooks in the steam).

* Don’t keep taking the top off to check progress. The whole point of slow cooking is to create a water seal around the lid, so don’t keep breaking it. 

Getting started

If you buy a new slow cooker, it will come with a recipe book, but you can also find them at places like Amazon. To get you started, though, here is a recipe that I made a couple of nights ago. 

Chilli con (not much) carne

Serves 4

INGREDIENTS

2 onions, thinly sliced

2 carrots, sliced

1 swede, diced

good thick slice of white cabbage, shredded thickly

200g of beef mince

4 tablespoons of cooked red kidney beans

olive oil

1tsp salt

1tsp pimienton (smoked red pepper powder)

sprinkle of cayenne pepper (according to taste)

red wine and water

METHOD

Brown and drain the mince.

Fry the onion in oil until it takes colour, adding the salt to bring out the juices.

Add the other ingredients (except spices) and stir until well mixed.

Add water or wine to about halfway up the dish.

Add the spices and give another stir.

Slowcook 8 to 12 hours on low. 

Serve warm, with crusty bread and a sprinkling of cheese

 

 

 

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