My appetite for slow cooking started when I was an exchange student living in Guadalajara, a cultural and culinary capital of Mexico. For the first month I literally ate tacos every day. There was a pink, rainbow adorned street stand called Tacos Gay where a taco was just 20 cents, but the undisputed best tacos were from a stand that didn’t open ‘til 9pm, feeding the city’s late night revellers. My favourite filling was the braised beef tongue. It was there my love of slow cooked meats was born, and somewhat of a taco addiction formed.
Thanks to my Mexican friends I managed to broaden my food horizons. I’ll never forget the first time I had birria, a slow cooked, rich and spicy stew made with marinated goat meat served with tortillas. Then there was barbacoa, made with either pork, lamb, goat or beef cheeks depending on what part of Mexico you’re in. This amazing experience opened my eyes to the many ways you can use a slow cooker, and I learned these marvellous machines are not just for stews but a myriad of amazing flavoursome dishes.
Try this recipe for a gourmet take on barbacoa using beef cheeks:
For any vegetarians still reading, it’s important to note that slow cooking isn’t just about meat. Even in carnivorous Mexico I discovered slow cooked bean dishes that were bursting with flavour. That’s the beauty of slow cooking, you can create the most intense and deep flavours from the cheapest ingredients – be it a cut of meat, grain or vegetable.
So, here are my top tips for broadening your slow cooking horizons, and making the most of the ultimate way to cook in winter.
1. Choose your equipment
I should say first up, that slow cookers are incredibly convenient because you can simply set and forget. You also don’t have to worry about leaving the house with it turned on, which is ideal if you want to come home from work to a steaming hot slow cooked dinner. If you don’t have a slow cooker, a heavy-based casserole dish works fine. You’ll just have to keep an eye on it on the stove. Alternatively you can put the pot in the oven and leave it on a low heat for melt in your mouth results.
2. Know your cuts
The best meat cuts for slow cooking are also the cheapest because they come from the animal’s toughest, most exercised muscles. They just need more cooking time for the tendons and muscles to break down into tender, succulent meat.
COOKING WITH BEEF:
If you’re slow cooking beef, you can’t go wrong with blade or chuck steak. For stronger flavours use brisket, beef cheeks, osso bucco (veal shanks) or oxtail.
This ultra-decadent recipe for oxtail ragu is a showstopper. Use up any fresh herbs hiding in the fridge to finish it off:
The whole family will love this tomato based veal shank dish that really packs in the flavour:
COOKING WITH LAMB:
When cooking lamb, forequarter chops are great for curries and stews while lamb shanks and shoulders are perfect for Mediterranean and Middle Eastern style dishes. If you’re a lover of lamb, try these mouth watering slow cooked creations:
Middle Eastern flavours abound in this pomegranate, dukkah and lamb shank dish:
An epic 8 hour Greek style recipe that will have your kitchen smelling like the Mediterranean:
This lactose-free recipe for spiced rice with lamb shoulder works well in the oven or a slow cooker:
COOKING WITH PORK:
If you’re trying your hand at pulled pork, firstly that’s great news! Secondly make sure you use a pork shoulder. Enjoy authentic Mexican with this recipe for pulled pork tacos, and you could even try making your own tortillas:
Another great cut is the belly, which can be difficult to get right in the oven, but if you get the amount of liquid right then you’ll have very tender juicy pork.
Try this tender pork belly in a sweet Japanese sauce:
Keep the thick layer of fat from your pork belly, and make crackling with this melt in mouth pork belly curry recipe:
COOKING WITH POULTRY:
There’s no doubt a juicy slow cooked chicken is a crowd favourite, but have you thought about turkey? Both work wonderfully in slow cooked dishes. Pretty much all cuts are on the table when it comes to slow cooking, which makes poultry a great choice.
Pulled chicken makes for fantastic tacos and tostadas. Try this recipe using chicken thighs:
Turkey shanks are quite possibly my favourite cut. In winter I love to slow cook them, and you will too if you try this dish for Garlic Lemon Turkey Shanks:
COOKING WITH VEGETABLES, GRAINS & PULSES:
Slow cookers aren’t just meat machines. There’s an abundance of vegetarian recipes that benefit from the flavour a slow cooker imbues. Some of my favourite non-meat ingredients are lentils, quinoa, black beans and potatoes.
Try this deliciously warming recipe for slow cooked lentil soup:
I bet you didn’t realise, slow cooking doesn’t stop at dinner. A firm winter favourite rice pudding, can also be made in your slow cooker. Try this maple-spiced rice pudding to warm yourself up:
Once you’ve decided on your ingredients and chosen a slow cooked dish, here’s a few essential tips to keep in your slow cooking tool belt…
- Preparing your meat
If you’re not browning the meat before it goes in then you’re missing out. Browning isn’t about sealing flavour inside the meat, it helps build depth of flavour due to the taste and texture of the caramelised bits. A light dusting with flour is important because it adds body to saucy dishes, but make sure the meat isn’t ‘wet’ from defrosting or being too cold. Pat dry with a paper towel before you start cooking for best results.
- Keep a lid on it
Keep the lid on while the magic happens inside. If you’re using a slow cooker on low there’s no need to open it. If you’re using a casserole dish you might want to stir occasionally to avoid burning the bottom, but move swiftly to make sure too much heat doesn’t escape.
- Finishing touches
To avoid an overly rich and stodgy dish, reserve some fresh herbs and citrus juice to add at the end. When I make barbacoa I use the coriander stems at the start and save most of the leaves until the end, keeping some for garnish too. For Mediterranean style dishes, I prefer to add tomato passata after slow cooking, to freshen up the flavour and add a touch of acidity to the rich meat.
I hope you’re inspired now to go create slow cooked recipes and experiment with different types of dishes. After all, there’s more to (slow cooking) life than stew! Tell us about your favourite ways to use your slow cooker by leaving us a comment below.