Economical, healthy and low effort – what’s not to like about slow cooking? Estella Shardlow joined Chef Maureen Cubbon at Bon Vivant for a masterclass in the art of cooking low and slow.
What do you get when you put short ribs, red wine, garlic and bay leaves into a pot and leave to gently simmer for three hours?
The answer, of course, is a mouthwateringly intense aroma and fork-tender meat. When Chef Maureen lifts the lid on her slow-cooked stew, a collective swoon goes around the class of amateur cooks gathered in Bon Vivant’s kitchen. The “mmm” noises repeat when bowls are passed round and everyone samples the umami-rich, meaty flavor.
Indeed, more of us are discovering the perks of slow cooking. Amazon reports that sales of slow cookers have risen 55% from 2011 to 2016, and two of its bestselling cookbooks last year were specifically for these machines. Reportedly over 100 million Americans now own a slow cooker. The Slow Cooker Kitchen’s Facebook page has more than 1.9 million likes.
Beyond offering a low-maintenance way to make meals, it is the olfactory appeal of slow cookers that has many hooked: Returning home after work to find the basic ingredients we threw in at breakfast time have almost miraculously transformed into a succulent casserole that’s filled the kitchen with tempting smells.
It is also a thrifty way of cooking, since the process enhances the flavor and texture of cheaper cuts such as beef brisket, pork shoulder and chicken thighs. Bolognese, curry, chili and casserole are classic slow cooker-friendly recipes, but there are scores of other options involving vegetables or any firm, thick fish. Salmon chowder, stuffed peppers or Vietnamese Pho can all benefit from the slow cooker treatment. As for desserts, bread or sponge puddings, oatmeal and poached fruits can all be made in a slow cooker.
Maureen favors the top-of-the-range Breville model, with the glass top lets you see inside the pot and a removable compartment for stove-top braising, but you can pick up machines for under $50.
First up is a coconut and vegetable curry recipe. Well, “recipe” may be too strong a word, as she simply pops all the ingredients straight into the slow cooker. “All I did was take some sweet potato, cauliflower, broccoli, tinned tomatoes, grated ginger and turmeric for aromatics, chickpeas and onion. I literally threw it all in with no pre-cooking… Just put everything into it at once, leave it, don’t think about it, and then when you come home it’s all ready to go.”
With a cooking time of around four hours (or even longer if you use a high-quality cooker on a very low setting), thankfully there is “one she made earlier” for us to sample. The curry is creamy and delicately spiced, the vegetables and pulses tender without having turned mushy; it’s amazing to think that something so tasty could come from so little effort.
You don’t necessarily have to own a slow cooker, though, as the same principles apply when using a Dutch oven (a large cast iron pot with a lid; Le Creuset does the best). “I like both methods, it entirely depends what I’m cooking,” Maureen explains. “If it’s something like lamb or a rib – something with a bone in it – I favor the Dutch oven; a slow cooker if I want to make pulled pork or Cayman style beef.”
Whether you’re going Dutch or high-tech, all the meat-based recipes tend to follow the same simple three-step template: Searing, flavoring and cooking.
For today’s red wine-braised short ribs, Maureen cranks the hob up to eight and lets the meat become slightly charred – “nice and dark is where we want to get it to” – placing the Dutch oven directly on the cooktop. She uses an oil with a high smoking point, normally canola, vegetable or grapeseed, to lock in flavor during this step.
“Just put everything into it at once, leave it, don’t think about it, and then when you come home it’s all ready to go.”
Next, she whizzes up carrot, celery and onion in a food processor and sautés the mixture on a lower heat, removing the ribs for this part. Then a generous splash of red wine is poured on for the all-important deglazing, which releases the flavorful brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Finally, your choice of stock and aromatics, such as dried herbs or spices, can be added before putting the dish into an oven at 350 F.
“This can literally go from your stove to your oven to the middle of your table,” Maureen says, giving the bubbling contents of the Dutch oven a final stir before spooning onto bowls of rice. “It really is a one pot wonder.”
Chef Maureen’s Slow Cooker Tips
Choose the right cut
Short ribs, pork shoulders and lamb shanks (think fatty and tougher meats) become meltingly tender with the moist, low heat of a slow cooker. Leaner cuts like pork tenderloin tend to dry out. Likewise, dark meat chicken – thighs, drumsticks, etc. – will remain juicier than white meat breasts.
Keep the lid closed
Each peek you take during the cooking process will add an additional 15 to 20 minutes of cooking time. And curb the urge to stir; it’s usually not necessary and tends to slow down the cooking.
Browning boosts flavor
You can certainly just pile food into the slow cooker, turn it on and get tasty results. But when you take a couple of minutes to brown your meat and sauté your vegetables before adding them to the crock, you’re rewarded with an additional layer of deep, caramelized flavor (this is doubly true with ground meat). Want a thicker sauce? Dredge the meat in flour before browning.
For the best results, fill a slow cooker between one-half and two-thirds full. Go ahead and cook big roasts and whole chickens; just make sure you use a large crock and that the lid fits snugly on top.
For silky sauces and gravies, take a minute or two and cut the excess fat from the meat. Skip this step and you risk ending up with oily, greasy cooking liquid. When possible, remove chicken skin too.
For even cooking, cut food into uniform-size pieces. Place firm, slow-cooking root vegetables like potatoes and carrots at the bottom of the crock and pile the meat on top.
Add dairy last
Sour cream, milk and yogurt tend to break down in the slow cooker, so stir them in during the last 15 minutes of cooking. Coconut milk is great to use instead of dairy.
Watch the wine
Because the cooker is sealed, the alcohol in wine doesn’t evaporate as it would in a regular pot or skillet. Just a splash goes a long way.
End on a fresh note
A sprinkle of fresh herbs or squeeze of lemon juice at the end of simmering can brighten flavors and cut through the richness of long-cooked recipes.