I have a sporadic relationship with my slow cooker. I can completely forget about it for months on end and then something will remind me of it (usually a co-worker’s great looking lunch), I’ll dust it off and be back in love.
Using my slow cooker reminds me of its many benefits. First off, they’re fairly inexpensive to buy and cheap to use (they use less electricity than an oven). They’re great for developing flavours in recipes and tenderizing less expensive cuts of meat. Many recipes take little effort and when you get home you’re greeted with the smell of supper ready and waiting for you.
There is a bit of planning involved, though. You’ll need to choose a recipe in advance, buy the groceries, and then take a few precious minutes to prep and add the ingredients. This can be done in the morning, or even the night before, allowing the food to cook overnight so it’s ready in the morning. Then you can package it into smaller portions for lunch or dinner. But once the slow cooker is on, you just leave it alone. No stirring required and you aren’t even allowed to open the lid to peek until it is done.
Top 10 Tips for Using a Slow Cooker
- The low setting takes about twice as long as the high setting (e.g. 4 hours on high versus 8 hours on low). This is the setting many recipes use. It’s great if you’re going out for the day or want the slow cooker to cook overnight.
- Fill the slow cooker 1/2 to 2/3 full. As vegetables cook slower than meat, add them first so they’re closer to the heat and then put the meat (if using) on top of them.
- Use recipes that have some liquid (follow the recipe for the amount needed). If you’re adapting a recipe for the slow cooker, you may need to decrease the liquid, as liquid doesn’t evaporate like it does on the stove.
- Use thawed (or fresh, canned or dry) ingredients. Frozen ingredients may not get to a safe temperature quick enough.
- Trim any fat off of meat before adding. If using ground meat, cook it first, then drain the fat off before adding it to the slow cooker.
- Browning chunks of meat in a pan before adding them to the slow cooker is optional but helps to develop the flavour of the dish.
- Lightly coat meat in flour before adding it to the slow cooker if you want a thicker sauce at the end.
- Try chicken thighs instead of chicken breasts as they stand up better to long cooking times.
- Prepare dried beans and lentils before adding them to the slow cooker by soaking them in water for at least 5 hours, rinsing and then boiling them in fresh water for at least 30 minutes on the stove (undercooked beans contain a natural toxin called phytohaemagglutinin that can make you sick).
- Add any dairy in the last 15-30 minutes of cooking and add fresh herbs right before serving.
Bonus tip: Read the manual for your slow cooker for specific safety tips and information on using your appliance.
I recommend starting with recipes that are intended for the slow cooker and then adapting recipes as you get more familiar with using it. There are tons of slow cooker recipes out there to play with. Here is a recipe for a hearty bean soup that I recently made. Serve it with some crusty whole grain bread for an easy and satisfying meal on a cold fall day.
Bean and Barley Soup Recipe
Makes 4 (2 cup/500 mL) servings
- 15 g (1/2 ounce) of dried mushrooms – I used 4 shiitake caps
- 250 mL dried (prepared as below) bean mix or 1 - 540 mL (19 oz) can of beans, drained and rinsed - I used dried white beans
- 125 mL (1/2 cup) pot barley
- 3 cloves of garlic, minced
- ½ white or yellow onion, diced
- 2 carrots, diced
- 2 celery stalks, diced
- 398 mL (14 oz) can of diced no-added-salt tomatoes with juice
- 1 bay leaf
- 15 mL (1 tbsp) fresh thyme leaves (or 5 mL/1 tsp dried)
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tsp salt (or less to taste)
- 750 mL (3 cups) baby spinach leaves
- 60 mL (1/4 cup) parsley, chopped
- Balsamic vinegar, aged if you have it (optional, for serving)
- 60 mL (4 tbsp) freshly grated parmesan cheese (optional, for serving)
To prepare dried beans: Soak them in a large bowl for at least 5 hours and then boil them in fresh water for at least 30 minutes to prepare them for the slow cooker. Drain.
- Put 500 mL (2 cups) of boiling water in a bowl with the mushrooms and let them soak while you cut-up your vegetables.
- Put the prepared or canned beans and barley in the slow cooker.
- Mince the garlic and dice (or roughly chop) the onion, carrots and celery and add them to the slow cooker.
- Add the tomatoes (with juice), bay leaf, thyme and pepper.
- Take the mushrooms out of the water and roughly chop them. Add the soaking liquid to the slow cooker (strain the liquid through a paper towel if you notice any grit at the bottom of the bowl).
- Add another 1 L (4 cups) of water to the slow cooker and turn it on low. Cook on low with the lid on until the soup is thick and the ingredients are tender (about 8 hours).
- Remove the bay leaf. Stir in the salt and spinach. Let the spinach wilt for a few minutes. Stir in the parsley.
- Serve each bowl drizzled with a bit of balsamic vinegar and sprinkled with parmesan cheese.
This recipe was adapted from the Food Network’s Slow-Cooker Bean and Barley Soup.
Eat Right Ontario: Slow Cooker Savvy
USDA: Slow Cookers and Food Safety
University of Minnesota: Slow Cooker Food Safety
Healthy Canadians: Simple Slow-Cooked Lasagna
Eat Right Ontario: Chicken and Corn Chowder