How to use your slow cooker
By Yvette Fletcher
Find out how best to cook different meats, and how your new slow cooker can help you save money and effort at mealtimes.
Once you've got your new slow cooker out of the box, you'll be excited to put it to use. As well as being a convenient way to cook tasty and wholesome stews, a slow cooker is an opportunity to try cooking cheaper cuts of meat you may have previously shied away from.
Our guide explains which settings work best for different types of meat, which cuts are worth considering, ingredients for vegetarians, and recipes you may not have thought of.
If you're still on the hunt for a cooker to help you realise your culinary dreams, head straight to our slow cooker reviews.
Choosing the best slow cooker setting
Slow cookers come with different temperature settings - basic models will have only high and low settings, while premium models may have a medium and/ or auto setting. Each setting tends to suit different foods:
This is recommended for cooking pale meat such as chicken. It cooks the meat faster (in three to six hours) and at a slightly higher temperature.
Use the medium setting for cooking cuts of red meats. This setting is useful for cooking more quickly without losing all the benefits of slow cooking, but the results won’t be as impressive as cooking on low for longer.
This is recommended for cooking cheap cuts of red meat, as it breaks down the connective tissues and gets better results than cooking on the medium or high setting. Cooking on this setting usually takes around 10 hours.
This setting starts cooking on high, and after an hour switches to cooking at a low heat.
A keep-warm or hold setting can be handy, especially if your dinner is delayed - it prevents food from drying out while stopping it from getting cold.
Which cheap cuts of meat should I try slow cooking with?
With a slow cooker you can afford to experiment with the meats you cook. Beef shin, clod of mutton (mutton shoulder) and ox cheek are just the beginning of a list of cheaper meat cuts that benefit from slow cooking.
A general rule of thumb is that the more work a muscle does, the more it benefits from slow cooking. For example, the clod or shoulder of any animal can normally be quite tough, but will soften during the process.
There are several cheaper cuts of meat that are good for slow cooking and available from butchers:
- Pork - pig’s cheeks, pig’s knuckle, neck of pork, pig’s trotters
- Lamb - lamb shanks, scrag end (neck), shoulder
- Mutton - all cuts
- Beef - ox cheeks, ox tail, beef shin, beef skirt
Cuts such as clod, blade and chuck are often lumped together in supermarkets and labelled as ‘braising’ steak.
Can I roast meat in my slow cooker?
Yes – and it's more energy efficient to do so. Roasting in a slow cooker uses an average of 246 watts, a tiny amount of power, heating a small space. Compare this with the average oven, which uses around 700 watts.
It's a good idea to opt for an oval-shaped slow cooker if you'd like to roast chicken or large joints of meat - find out more in our guide on how to buy the best slow cooker.
I’m vegetarian – what can I use the slow cooker for?
Vegetarians could find a slow cooker very useful for cooking dried bean, lentil and pea dishes. To prepare the pulses, they’ll need to be soaked overnight to soften, and boiled for 10 minutes to get rid of the toxins.
What else can I do with my slow cooker?
You can make an easy and tasty pudding in your slow cooker. Put the pudding ingredients into individual bowls, which you then place in the main pot. Then pour boiling water in between the bowls, half way up their sides, to gently poach the puds. Any mess created by puddings boiling over will be contained if you have an easy-clean ceramic pot.
Slow cookers are also great for jam – they speed up the jam-making process by softening fruit without drying it out. Slice fruit and slow cook on a low heat overnight to make a great jam base.
Is slow cooking labour intensive?
Three to 12 hours may sound like a long time if you just want a quick, easy dinner. And you will need to do some preparation the night before your meal, or first thing in the morning. But, once you've prepared your ingredients, all you need to do is pop them into your slow cooker, turn it on, and then you won't need to touch it until everything's cooked. Then you can come home to a piping hot, healthy meal.