Slowly Does It... (2015)
Top 5 stuffings
Some people like moist stuffing, cooked inside the bird, while others prefer the crisper result when the stuffing is cooked in a separate dish – why not do half and half and please everyone? All these stuffings – with the exception of the wild rice stuffing – can be made a day ahead or frozen for up to one month. Thaw overnight in the fridge. Cook in a preheated oven, or alongside the roast.
Best-ever Sage & Onion Stuffing
To serve eight, you will need: 1 tbsp olive oil, 1 large very finely chopped onion, 2 tbsp finely chopped fresh sage, 7 heaped tbsp fresh white breadcrumbs, 900g (2lb) pork sausagemeat, 1 medium egg yolk, salt and freshly ground black pepper.
1. Heat the oil in a pan and gently fry the onion until soft and golden. Stir in the sage and leave to cool.
2. Keep 1 tbsp breadcrumbs to one side, then mix the remainder into the sausagemeat with the onion and egg yolk. Season with salt and ground black pepper, then leave to cool. Cover and chill overnight, or freeze.
3. Turn the stuffing out into an ovenproof dish, sprinkle with the reserved breadcrumbs and cook in an oven preheated to 180°C (160°C fan oven) mark 4 for 35–40 minutes until cooked through and golden.
Sausage, Cranberry & Apple Stuffing
To serve eight, you will need: 50g (2oz) butter, 1 finely chopped onion, 1 crushed garlic clove, 4 pork sausages (total weight about 275g/10oz), skinned and broken up, 75g (3oz) dried cranberries, 2 tbsp freshly chopped parsley, 1 red eating apple, salt and freshly ground black pepper.
1. Heat the butter in a pan, add the onion and cook over a medium heat for 5 minutes or until soft. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Tip into a bowl and leave to cool. Add the sausages, cranberries and parsley, then cover and chill overnight, or freeze.
2. Core and chop the apple and add it to the stuffing. Season with salt and ground black pepper and stir well.
3. Turn the stuffing out into an ovenproof dish and cook in an oven preheated to 200°C (180°C fan oven) mark 6 for 30 minutes or until cooked through.
Fennel and Pinenut Stuffing
To serve eight, you will need: 75g (3oz) butter, plus extra for greasing, 1 bunch of spring onions, sliced, 450g (1lb) roughly chopped fennel, 4 tbsp freshly chopped tarragon, 50g (2oz) toasted pinenuts, 150g (5oz) goat’s cheese, 150g (5oz) fresh breadcrumbs, 2 medium eggs, beaten, grated zest and juice of 1 lemon, salt and freshly ground black pepper.
1. Heat the butter in a pan, add the spring onions and cook for 3 minutes. Add the fennel and cook for 5 minutes, then leave to cool.
2. Add the tarragon, pinenuts, cheese, breadcrumbs, eggs, lemon zest and juice. Season with salt and ground black pepper and mix well. Cover and chill in the fridge overnight, or freeze.
3. Turn the stuffing out into a buttered ovenproof dish and cook in an oven preheated to 200°C (180°C fan oven) mark 6 for 30–40 minutes until golden.
Wild Rice & Cranberry Stuffing
To serve six to eight, you will need: 125g (4oz) wild rice, 225g (8oz) streaky bacon rashers, cut into short strips, 2 medium red onions (total weight about 225g/8oz), finely chopped, 75g (3oz) dried cranberries, 1 medium egg, beaten, salt and freshly ground black pepper and butter to grease.
1. Put the rice into a pan and cover with 900ml (1½ pints) cold water. Add ¼ tsp salt and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, partly covered, for 45 minutes or until the rice is cooked. Drain and leave to cool.
2. Heat a large frying pan, add the bacon and dry-fry, turning from time to time, until lightly browned. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and transfer to a bowl. (If you have the goose liver, cook it in the same pan for 2–3 minutes, leave to cool, then chop it finely and add it to the bacon.) Add the onions to the frying pan and cook over a low heat until soft and translucent. Add the cranberries and cook for 1–2 minutes, then add the mixture to the bacon and leave to cool completely.
3. Add the cooked rice and the egg to the bacon mixture. Season with salt and ground black pepper, then stir thoroughly to combine. Cover and chill overnight.
4. Wrap the stuffing in a buttered piece of foil and cook in an oven preheated to 200°C (180°C fan oven) mark 6 for 30–40 minutes.
Herbed Bread Stuffing
To serve eight, you will need: 75g (3oz) butter, plus extra to dot, 1 finely chopped onion, 500g (1lb 2oz) fresh white breadcrumbs, 1 tbsp dried mixed herbs, 500ml (17fl oz) vegetable stock, 8 tbsp finely chopped fresh mixed herbs, such as parsley, thyme, sage and mint, plus extra to garnish, 2 finely chopped, celery sticks, 2 Braeburn apples, skin on, cored and finely diced, 1 tbsp ready toasted and chopped hazelnuts and 4 smoked, streaky bacon rashers (optional), salt and freshly ground black pepper.
1. Heat the butter in a large frying pan, add the onion and cook gently for 10 minutes or until softened. Stir in the breadcrumbs and mix to combine. Next, add the dried herbs and pour in the stock.
2. Mix in the fresh herbs, celery, apples and hazelnuts and check the seasoning (don’t stir too much or the mixture might go gluey). Put 500g (1lb 2oz) of the stuffing for the turkey to one side.
3. Spoon the remaining stuffing into an ovenproof serving dish (add some extra stock if you like your stuffing looser) and dot with some butter. Lay the bacon strips on top, if you like.
4. Cook in an oven preheated to 190°C (170°C fan oven) mark 5 for 30 minutes until the bacon is crisp and the stuffing is piping hot. Garnish with extra chopped herbs.
Prepare the stuffing to the end of step 2 up to 5 hours ahead. Put the 500g (1lb 2oz) for the turkey to one side. With the remaining stuffing, either complete the recipe to the end of step 3, then cover and chill, or form into balls, wrap in streaky bacon and put on a baking tray. Cover and chill. Complete step 4 to serve.
Good stock can make the difference between a good soup and a great one. It also gives depth of flavour to many dishes. There are four main types of stock: vegetable, meat, chicken and fish.
• To get a clearer liquid when making fish, meat or poultry stock, strain the cooked stock through four layers of muslin in a sieve.
• Stock will keep for three days in the refrigerator. If you want to keep it for a further three days, transfer it to a pan and reboil gently for five minutes. Cool, put in a clean bowl and chill for a further three days.
• When making meat or poultry stock, make sure there is a good ratio of meat to bones. The more meat you use, the more flavour the stock will have.
For 1.2 litres (2 pints), you will need: 225g (8oz) each onions, celery, leeks and carrots, chopped, 1 bouquet garni (2 bay leaves, a few thyme sprigs, 1 small bunch of parsley), 10 black peppercorns, ½ tsp salt.
1. Put all the ingredients into a large pan and add 1.7 litres (3 pints) cold water. Bring slowly to the boil and skim the surface.
2. Partially cover the pan and simmer for 30 minutes. Adjust the seasoning if necessary. Strain the stock through a fine sieve into a bowl and leave to cool.
For 900ml (1½ pints), you will need: 450g (1lb) each beef bones and stewing beef, 1 onion, 2 celery sticks and 1 large carrot, sliced, 1 bouquet garni (2 bay leaves, a few thyme sprigs, 1 small bunch of parsley), 1 tsp black peppercorns, ½ tsp salt.
1. Preheat the oven to 220°C (200°C fan oven) mark 7. Put the beef and bones into a roasting tin and roast for 30–40 minutes, turning now and again, until they are well browned.
2. Put the bones into a large pan with the remaining ingredients and add 2 litres (3½ pints) cold water. Bring slowly to the boil and skim the surface.
3. Partially cover the pan and simmer for 4–5 hours. Adjust the seasoning if necessary. Strain through a muslin-lined sieve into a bowl and cool quickly. Degrease (see opposite) before using.
For 1.2 litres (2 pints), you will need: 1.6kg (3½lb) chicken bones, 225g (8oz) each onions and celery, sliced, 150g (5oz) chopped leeks, 1 bouquet garni (2 bay leaves, a few thyme sprigs, 1 small bunch of parsley), 1 tsp black peppercorns, ½ tsp salt.
1. Put all the ingredients into a large pan and add 3 litres (5¼ pints) cold water. Bring slowly to the boil and skim the surface.
2. Partially cover the pan and simmer gently for 2 hours. Adjust the seasoning if necessary.
3. Strain the stock through a muslin-lined sieve into a bowl and cool quickly. Degrease (see right) before using.
For 900ml (1½ pints), you will need: 900g (2lb) fish bones and trimmings, washed, 2 carrots, 1 onion and 2 celery sticks, sliced, 1 bouquet garni (2 bay leaves, a few thyme sprigs, 1 small bunch of parsley), 6 white peppercorns, ½ tsp salt.
1. Put all the ingredients into a large pan and add 900ml (1½ pints) cold water. Bring slowly to the boil and skim the surface.
2. Partially cover the pan and simmer gently for 30 minutes. Adjust the seasoning if necessary.
3. Strain through a muslin-lined sieve into a bowl and cool quickly. Fish stock tends not to have much fat in it and so does not usually need to be degreased. However, if it does seem to be fatty, you will need to remove this by degreasing it (see right).
Meat and poultry stock needs to be degreased. (Vegetable stock does not.) You can mop the fat from the surface using kitchen paper, but the following methods are easier and more effective. There are three main methods that you can use: ladling, pouring and chilling.
1. Ladling While the stock is warm, place a ladle on the surface. Press down and allow the fat floating on the surface to trickle over the edge until the ladle is full. Discard the fat, then repeat until all the fat has been removed.
2. Pouring For this you need a degreasing jug or a double-pouring gravy boat, which has the spout at the base of the vessel. When you fill the jug or gravy boat with a fatty liquid, the fat rises. When you pour, the stock comes out while the fat stays behind in the jug.
3. Chilling This technique works best with stock made from meat, as the fat solidifies when cold. Put the stock in the refrigerator until the fat becomes solid, then remove the pieces of fat using a slotted spoon.
Preparing & cooking meat
Beef, lamb, pork, ham and game such as rabbit and venison make wonderfully hearty one-pot meals, and are easy to prepare and cook when you know how. For perfectly cooked meat, choose the appropriate method for the cut. Tender cuts need quick cooking, such as grilling, whereas tougher cuts benefit from slower cooking, such as pot-roasting.
Trim away excess fat, leaving no more than 5mm (¼in) on steaks, chops and roasting cuts – a little fat will contribute juiciness and flavour. When preparing meat for cutting into chunks, try to separate the individual muscles, which can be identified by the sinews running between each muscle.
Meat is good for marinating, either wet or dry, because its large surface area allows maximum exposure to the marinade. Marinate small pieces of meat for at least 8 hours, and thick joints for 24 hours.
These almost always contain some form of acid, which has a modest tenderising effect (especially in thin cuts such as steak). Before cooking, dry marinated meat thoroughly to remove liquid from the surface, and cook the marinade (skimming off the oil if necessary) as a sauce or deglazing liquid.
These are useful for roasts and pot roasts. They don’t penetrate far into the meat, but give an excellent flavour on and just under the crust. Make them with crushed garlic, dried herbs or spices, and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Rub into the meat and marinate for at least 30 minutes or up to 8 hours.
GOOD ADDITIONS TO WET MARINADES
• Onions and shallots, chopped or sliced
• Asian spices, such as Chinese five-spice powder and star anise
• Sherry or sherry vinegar
Perfect for tender cuts of meat.
1. Trim the fat, then cut the meat into strips or dice no thicker than 5mm (¼in).
2. Heat a wok or large pan until hot and add oil to coat the inside. Add the meat and cook, stirring. Set aside. Cook the other ingredients you are using (such as vegetables and flavourings). Return the meat to the wok for 1–2 minutes to heat through.
Braising and pot-roasting
Tougher cuts of meat (see right) require slow cooking. Braises and pot roasts are similar, but braises need more liquid.
To serve 6, you will need: 3 tbsp olive oil, 1.1kg (2½lb) meat, cut into large chunks, or 6 lamb shanks, 1 large onion, 3 carrots, 3 celery sticks, all thickly sliced, 2 garlic cloves, crushed, 2 x 400g cans chopped tomatoes, 150ml (¼ pint) white wine, salt and ground black pepper, 2 bay leaves.
1. Preheat the oven to 170°C (150°C fan oven) mark 3. Heat the oil in a large flameproof casserole and lightly brown the meat all over, in two or three batches. Remove from the pan; set aside. Add the onion, carrots, celery and garlic and cook until beginning to colour, then add the meat, tomatoes and wine.
2. Stir well, season and add the bay leaves. Bring to the boil, cover, and transfer to the oven for 2 hours or until tender. Skim off fat if necessary.
PERFECT BRAISING AND POT-ROASTING
• Good cuts of beef include shin, chuck, blade, brisket and flank; good cuts of lamb include leg, shoulder, neck, breast and shank; good cuts of pork include shoulder, hand, spring, belly and loin.
• Cuts you would normally roast can also be casseroled. These simply need less time in the oven.
• Always use a low heat, and check regularly to make sure that there is enough liquid to keep the meat from catching on the casserole.
• Braises often improve by being cooked in advance and then gently reheated before serving. If you’ve braised a whole piece of meat, you can slice it before reheating.
Preparing & cooking poultry
From the simplest, healthiest stir-frying, steaming and poaching to the more robust pot-roasting and casseroling, there are numerous ways to make the most of the delicate taste of poultry.
You can buy pieces of chicken in a supermarket or from a butcher, but it is more economical to joint a whole bird yourself. Use the wing tips and bones to make stock.
1. Using a sharp meat knife with a curved blade, cut out the wishbone and remove the wings in a single piece. Remove the wing tips.
2. With the tail pointing towards you and breast side up, pull one leg away and cut through the skin between leg and breast. Pull the leg down until you crack the joint between the thigh bone and ribcage. Cut through that joint, then cut through the remaining leg meat. Repeat on the other side.
3. To remove the breast without any bone, make a cut along the length of the breastbone. Gently teasing the flesh away from the ribs with the knife, work the blade down between the flesh and ribs of one breast and cut it off neatly. (Always cut in, towards the bone.) Repeat on the other side.
4. To remove the breast with the bone in, make a cut along the full length of the breastbone. Using poultry shears, cut through the breastbone, then cut through the ribcage following the outline of the breast meat. Repeat on the other side. Trim off any flaps of skin or fat.
To serve 4–6, you will need: 1 chicken, jointed (see opposite), 3 tbsp oil, 1 onion, chopped, 2 garlic cloves, crushed, 2 celery sticks, chopped, 2 carrots, chopped, 1 tbsp plain flour, 2 tbsp chopped tarragon or thyme, chicken stock and/or wine, salt and pepper.
1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (160°C fan oven) mark 4. Cut the chicken legs and breasts in half.
2. Heat the oil in a flameproof casserole and brown the chicken all over. Remove and pour off the excess oil. Add the onion and garlic and brown for a few minutes. Add the vegetables, then stir in the flour and cook for 1 minute. Add the herbs and season. Add the chicken and pour in stock and/or wine to come three-quarters of the way up the poultry. Cook for 1–1½ hours.
To serve 4–6, you will need: 2 tbsp vegetable oil, 1 onion, cut into wedges, 2 rashers rindless streaky bacon, chopped, 1.4–1.6kg (3–3½lb) chicken, 2 small turnips, cut into wedges, 6 carrots, halved, 1 garlic clove, crushed, bouquet garni, 600ml (1 pint) chicken stock, 100ml (3½fl oz) dry white wine, small handful of parsley, chopped, salt and pepper.
1. Preheat the oven to 200°C (180°C fan oven) mark 6. Heat the oil in a flameproof casserole. Fry the onion and bacon for 5 minutes. Set aside. Add the chicken, brown all over for 10 minutes, then set aside. Fry the turnips, carrots and garlic for 2 minutes, then add the bacon, onion and chicken.
2. Add the bouquet garni, stock, wine and season. Bring to the boil and transfer to the oven. Cook, basting now and then, for 1 hour 20 minutes or until the juices run clear. Lift out the chicken, then stir parsley into the liquid and carve the chicken.
This gentle method of cooking will produce a light broth.
1. Brown the bird in oil if you like (this is not necessary but will give a deeper flavour), then transfer to a pan that will hold it easily: a large frying pan or sauté pan is good for pieces, a flameproof casserole for a whole bird.
2. Add 1 roughly chopped onion, 2 crushed garlic cloves, 2 chopped carrots, 2 chopped celery sticks, 6 whole black peppercorns and 1 tsp dried mixed herbs. Pour in just enough stock to cover, then simmer, uncovered, for 30–40 minutes (for pieces) or about 1 hour (for a whole bird).
3. Gently lift the bird out of the liquid. If you are planning to use the liquid as the basis for a sauce, reduce it by at least half.
PERFECT POT-ROASTED POULTRY
• Pot-roasting is the perfect way to cook almost any poultry or game bird apart from duck or goose, which are too fatty and do not give good results, and turkey, which is too large to fit in the average casserole dish.
• Make sure that you use a large enough casserole and that the bird isn’t too close to the sides of the dish.
• Check the liquid level in the casserole from time to time. If it’s too dry, add a little more. Water is fine; stock or wine is even better.
• Timings for pot-roasted poultry: about 45 minutes (for small birds such as poussin) or 1–1½ hours (for chicken or guinea fowl).
The following frequently used vegetables can be quickly prepared to add flavour to savoury dishes. Onions and shallots have a pungent taste that becomes milder when they are cooked, and they are often used as a basic flavouring. Tomatoes and peppers add depth and richness to a variety of dishes. Garlic and chillies are stronger flavouring ingredients.
1. Cut off the tip and base of the onion. Peel away all the layers of papery skin and any discoloured layers underneath.
2. Put the onion, root end down, on the chopping board, then, using a sharp knife, cut the onion in half from tip to base.
3. Slicing Put one half on the board, with the cut surface facing down, and slice across the onion.
4. Chopping Slice the halved onions from the root end to the top at regular intervals. Next, make two or three horizontal slices through the onion, then slice vertically across the width.
1. Cut the pepper in half vertically and snap out the white pithy core and seeds. Trim away the rest of the white membrane with a knife.
2. Alternatively, slice off the top of the pepper, then cut away and discard the seeds and white pith.
1. Put the clove on a chopping board and place the flat side of a large knife on top of it. Press down firmly on the flat of the blade to crush the clove and break the papery skin.
2. Cut off the base of the clove and slip the garlic out of its skin.
3. Slicing Using a rocking motion with the knife tip on the board, slice the garlic as thinly as you need.
4. Shredding and chopping Holding the slices together, shred them across the slices. Chop the shreds if you need chopped garlic.
5. Crushing After step 2, either use a garlic press or crush with a knife: roughly chop the peeled cloves and put them on the board with a pinch of salt. Press down hard with the edge of a large knife tip (with the blade facing away from you), then drag the blade along the garlic while still pressing hard. Continue to do this, dragging the knife tip over the garlic to make a purée.
Seeding unpeeled tomatoes
1. Halve the tomato through the core. Use a small sharp knife or a spoon to remove the seeds and juice. Shake off the excess liquid.
2. Chop the tomato as required for the recipe and place in a colander for a minute or two to drain off any excess liquid.
1. Cut off the cap and slit open lengthways. Using a spoon, scrape out the seeds and the pith.
2. For diced chilli, cut into thin shreds lengthways, then cut crossways.
Wash hands thoroughly after handling chillies – the volatile oils will sting if accidentally rubbed into your eyes.
Nutritious, mouthwatering and essential to a healthy diet – vegetables are ideal for adding to one-pot dishes.
Stir-frying is perfect for non-starchy vegetables, as the quick cooking preserves their colour, freshness and texture.
To serve 4, you will need: 450g (1lb) vegetables, 1–2 tbsp vegetable oil, 2 garlic cloves, crushed, 2 tbsp soy sauce, 2 tsp sesame oil.
1. Put the vegetables into even-sized pieces. Heat the oil in a large wok or frying pan until smoking-hot. Add the garlic and cook for a few seconds, then remove and set aside.
2. Add the vegetables to the wok, and toss and stir them. Keep them moving constantly as they cook, which will take 4–5 minutes.
3. When the vegetables are just tender, but still with a slight bite, turn off the heat. Put the garlic back into the wok and stir well. Add the soy sauce and sesame oil, toss and serve.
• Cut everything into small pieces of uniform size so that they cook quickly and evenly.
• If you’re cooking onions or garlic with the vegetables, don’t keep them over a high heat for too long or they will burn.
• Add liquids towards the end of cooking, so they don’t evaporate.
1. Cut the vegetables into large, bite-sized pieces, no more than about 5cm (2in) square. Put them into a heatproof casserole (for oven cooking) or a heavy-based pan (for hob cooking). Add salt and pepper and flavourings if you like (see Perfect stews right), and mix well.
2. Preheat the oven to 180°C (160°C fan oven) mark 4 if you are cooking in the oven.
3. Pour in stock to come about three-quarters of the way up the vegetables. Cover the dish with a lid or foil and cook for 30–40 minutes until the vegetables are tender but not disintegrating.
4. Turn the vegetables once during cooking, and baste with the juices a few times.
• Any vegetable can be stewed; be careful not to overcook it.
• Ideal flavourings for stewed vegetables include garlic, shallots, curry powder (or Indian spices), and chilli sauce or chopped chilli.
• Potatoes will thicken the dish a little as they release some of their starch.
1. Prepare the vegetables (see Perfect braising below). Pack tightly in an ovenproof dish. Preheat the oven to 180°C (160°C fan oven) mark 4. Dot generously with butter and season with salt.
2. Pour in stock to come halfway up the vegetables. Cover and bake for 30–40 minutes until the vegetables are soft. Baste them with the buttery stock a few times during cooking.
• Carrots, fennel, leeks, celeriac, celery and cabbage are good braised.
• Leave vegetables whole or cut into chunks. Shred cabbage, then fry lightly before braising.
• Cook the vegetables in a single layer.
Preparing & cooking fruit
Most fruits taste marvellous raw, although a few always need to be cooked. Nearly all fruits make superb desserts when they are baked, poached or stewed.
Classic Poached Pears
To serve 4, you will need: 300g (11oz) sugar, 4 ripe pears, juice of 1 lemon.
1. Put the sugar in a large measuring jug and fill with cold water to make 1 litre (1¾ pints). Transfer to a pan and heat gently, stirring now and then, until the sugar has dissolved.
2. Peel and halve the pears, and toss gently with lemon juice.
3. Pour the sugar syrup into a wide-based pan and bring to a simmer. Put in the pears, cut sides down. They should be completely covered with syrup: add a little more syrup if necessary.
4. Simmer the fruit very gently for 30–40 minutes until the pears are soft when pierced with a knife. Serve hot, warm or cold.
To serve 4, you will need: 450g (1lb) prepared fruit (chunks of apples and rhubarb, whole gooseberries, halved plums), sugar to taste, 1 tbsp lemon juice.
1. Put the fruit in a non-stick stainless-steel pan with the sugar. Add the lemon juice and 2 tbsp water. Bring to the boil over a medium heat, then turn down the heat and simmer gently, partly covered, until the fruit is soft, stirring often.
The key to success when baking fruit is in keeping the cooking time short, so that the delicate flesh of the fruit doesn’t break down completely. Preheat the oven to 200°C (180°C fan oven) mark 6.
1. Prepare the fruit and put in a single layer in a greased baking dish or individual dishes. Put a splash of water in the bottom of the dish(es). (For extra flavour, you can use fruit juice or wine instead of water, if you prefer.) Sprinkle with sugar (and other flavourings such as spices, citrus zest or vanilla, if you like). Dot with butter.
2. Bake the fruit until just tender when pierced with a knife or skewer: this should take 15–25 minutes depending on the fruit and the size of the pieces. Leave to rest for a few minutes before serving.
GOOD FRUITS FOR BAKING
Apples (dessert or cooking)
Cored and halved or quartered
Whole, or halved and stoned
Peeled and halved, or in their skins
Nectarines and peaches
Halved and stoned
Cored and halved or quartered
Cored and cut into large chunks
Whole, or halved and stoned
Zesting citrus fruits
Citrus zest is an important flavouring and is simple to prepare.
1. Wash and thoroughly dry the fruit. Using a vegetable peeler or small sharp knife, cut away the zest (the coloured outer layer of skin), taking care to leave behind the bitter white pith. Continue until you have removed as much as you need.
2. Stack the slices of zest on a board and shred or dice as required using a sharp knife.
• To use a zester, press the blade into the citrus skin and run it along the surface to take off long shreds.
• To use a grater, rub the fruit over the grater, using a medium pressure to remove the zest without taking off the white pith as well.
Using a slow cooker
A slow cooker is perfect for the cook with a busy lifestyle. We relish the stews and casseroles our grandmothers would have dished up for a midweek supper without a second thought, but now they’re a treat for the weekend when we have more time to prepare them. However, a slow cooker solves that problem: switch it on as you leave in the morning and you’ll return home at the end of the day to a delicious, home-cooked meal.
What is a slow cooker and how does it work?
A slow cooker is a standalone electrical appliance, designed to be plugged in and left gently cooking unsupervised for hours, without burning or drying up the food. It consists of a lidded round or oval earthenware or ceramic pot that sits in a metal housing containing the heating element, which heats the contents to a steady temperature of around 100°C. Little steam can escape and it condenses in the lid, forming a seal that keeps the temperature constant and the food moist. It also means that a suet pudding can be left to cook for hours without needing to top up the water.
Depending on the model, there are two or three cooking settings (Low, Medium and High) and a Keep Warm function. These settings give you the option to cook a dish on High for just a few hours or on Low all day or overnight. Multi-functional models can also be used as rice cookers and steamers. Older-style slow cookers have a fixed pot to contain the food, but, nowadays, most contain a removable, dishwasher-friendly pot that can be taken straight to the table for serving.
Want to save on washing up? Choose a removable pot that can be used to start off the dish on the hob then transferred to the slow cooker unit. Alternatively, use slow cooker liners (available from specialist websites) if you have a fixed pot cooker.
Choosing a slow cooker
Anyone can use a slow cooker: some models are ideal for large families or the cook who likes to stock up the freezer, while smaller versions are suitable for couples or for students living in a bedsit. Otherwise, choose yours according to what you most like to cook: are you only planning to use it for casseroles, will you want to cook a whole chicken or are you hoping to make plenty of steamed puddings? Make sure you check the size before you buy.
What you can cook in a slow cooker
Practically anything! Don’t just stick to soups, stews and casseroles. You can steam suet puddings (a brilliant hob-space saver at Christmas time), braise joints of meat and whole chickens and even bake cakes and make pâtés. Set it to cook overnight and you can enjoy a bowl of warming porridge for breakfast too. Cooking food in a slow cooker has many benefits: flavours have time to develop and even the toughest of cuts of meat become incredibly tender. It’s important to raise the temperature quickly to destroy harmful bacteria so, either bring the food to boiling point on the hob first or preheat the slow cooker – always follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
What you can’t cook in a slow cooker
Not much! But obviously very large joints of meat and poultry such as turkey aren’t suitable, while roasts and stir-fries are out of the question. Some foods, such as pasta, rice, fish, puddings and cakes, are only suitable for shorter slow cooking times so always check the recipe. Milk and cream will separate if cooked for a long time – add them to finish off and enrich a dish in the last few minutes or so of cooking time. Always fully immerse potatoes to stop them blackening while cooking.
Saving money with a slow cooker
Not only are slow cookers practical, they’re economical, too, because:
• Tougher cuts of meat, such as oxtail, shin of beef or lamb shanks tend to be cheaper and benefit from long, slow cooking at low temperatures. Perfect for the slow cooker.
• It uses far less energy than a conventional oven because you are only heating up a small piece of equipment that runs on a minute amount of power in comparison.
• They’re ideal for flexible meal times, saving you cash and conserving energy. It’s especially useful for large active families who eat at different times – prepare one dish then keep it warm in the pot for up to two hours.
SLOW COOKER SAFETY TIPS
• Always stand the appliance on a heat-resistant surface.
• Do not use a slow cooker to reheat cold or frozen food – the temperature rises too slowly to kill harmful bacteria. Heat first on the hob then transfer to the slow cooker pot.
• Always use oven gloves to remove the pot from the slow cooker.
• Never immerse the outer housing in water; stand on a draining board to clean and remove the flex if possible.
• Never fill the outer housing with food; always use the inner pot.
• Don’t let young children touch the slow cooker – the housing and the lid can become hot or spit boiling water.
• Be careful when cooking with dried beans – for example, kidney beans need to be boiled vigorously for 10 minutes to remove harmful toxins. Do this in a pan on the hob before draining and continuing with the recipe in the slow cooker.