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Techniques - The Slow Cooker

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The Slow Cooker

With so many slow cookers on the market it is important that you choose one to suit your needs. There are certain variables, both in terms of design and price, but slow cookers generally operate on similar principles.

A slow cooker consists of a sturdy, heatproof outer casing and an inner cooking pot into which the food is placed. The outer casing is made of either stainless steel or aluminum and is where the heating element and controls are housed. The inner cooking pot is usually removable. The lid on a slow cooker fits snugly so that heat cannot escape. The condensation that occurs during the slow, low-heat cooking process gathers around the lip of the pot and creates a water seal. The condensation is then released back into the pot and it is this that keeps the food moist. The combination of a long cooking time and the steam that is created within the pot destroys any bacteria, making it a safe cooking method. It is important to resist the temptation to open the lid to look—this will release heat and break the water seal and you will need to add a further 20 minutes to the cooking time.

Choosing the right shape and size

Slow cookers come in a range of sizes, but small machines start from 1.5 quarts (1.5 liters), which is suitable for 1–2 people; a medium-sized 3.5 quart (3.5-liter) cooker is great for 4 people; for 6 people or more, choose a 5 quart (5-liter) model or larger. However, bigger isn’t necessarily better unless you are catering for large numbers or wish to batch cook—you need to half fill a slow cooker for optimum performance, and accommodate it on your kitchen worktop, so choose wisely. Slow cookers can be either round or oval in shape; the choice is down to personal preference. Casseroles, chilis, and curries are all perfect for round cookers but an oval one is preferable if you wish to cook whole joints of meat or chickens and fit in pudding basins or ramekins. The removable inner cooking pots are usually ceramic, but they are also available in cast-aluminum. Ceramic pots are easiest to wash and clean, retain the heat well, and can be served straight to the table. Cast-aluminum pots are lighter and allow you to brown food in them first before cooking. Always choose a slow cooker with recognized safety mark.

Adapting recipes for the slow cooker

You can easily adapt conventional recipes for the slow cooker. Firstly, find a recipe in this guide that is similar in style and has similar ingredients, such as the meat cuts, beans, or vegetables. From this you can ascertain the length of cooking time needed. If you are at all worried, leave it to cook for longer—a slow cooker won’t boil dry. Secondly, adjust the ingredient quantities to ensure they will all fit in the pot. Finally, as a general guide, halve the liquid in your recipe. This is because the liquid doesn’t evaporate in the slow cooker as it does with other methods. You can always top it up if needed, or if you do find yourself with too much, remove the lid and cook on High until the excess liquid has evaporated away. When adapting recipes, bear the following in mind:

The recipe must contain some liquid if going into the slow cooker.

Make sure all frozen ingredients are thawed and meats are thoroughly defrosted before cooking.

If a recipe calls for milk, cream, or sour cream, only add this for the last 30 minutes of cooking. For best results, stir in cream just before serving.

You may need to reduce spices and herbs as their flavor becomes concentrated in the slow cooker.

Using the slow cooker

Slow cookers are more efficient than traditional ovens and can help to reduce your fuel bill as they use minimum electricity—often only as much as a low watt light bulb. The vast majority of slow cookers have only 2 or 3 heat settings, making them very easy to use. For best results, the slow cooker should be at least half full but no more than two-thirds full when cooking.

Lid—glass lids allow you to check the food without breaking the water seal.

Inner cooking pot—usually removable to make cleaning easier.

Outer casing—contains the electrical parts. Wipe it with a damp cloth to clean it.

Heat controls—often a simple dial. Some allow you to program the cooking time.

Heat settings

The various slow cooker models have different functions for heat settings, but as a rule they all have Low and High. Some also have Auto, Warm, or even Medium settings. Preheating the slow cooker before use raises the temperature of the pot before adding the food. The necessity of doing this differs for each slow cooker so it is advisable to read the manufacturer’s instructions for your model.


This is the lowest temperature you can cook at and is ideal for leaving food throughout the day or overnight. It is the best setting for cheaper cuts of meat. Cooking times for Low vary between 6–12 hours. The food will cook at around 200°F (100°C).


This setting is around 300°F (150°C), and in general the food cooks between 3–6 hours. As a rule of thumb, the High setting takes half as long as the Low one, so 1 hour on High setting equals 2 hours on Low.


This setting starts cooking the food on High for 1 hour then reduces it to the Low temperature for the remainder of the cooking time.

Keep warm:

This holds the food at a lower temperature than Low to keep it at an ideal heat for serving. Many cookers switch to this setting automatically once the food is cooked. However, do not leave the food standing in the cooker keeping warm for longer than 1–2 hours.

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