Slow cooker meals: easy, delicious and hands-off

From soups to sweets, unleash your slow cooker’s full potential with these expert tips.

A slow cooker is a kitchen staple for many people, and for good reason. It’s easy to use and can produce delicious, home-cooked meals with minimal effort.

Although it takes longer to cook food, it’s also a budget-friendly option. A recent investigation by Uswitch showed that slow cookers are cheaper to run than some electric ovens, using less than a tenth of the electricity that ovens use.

However, we’re probably all guilty of repeat-cooking the same meals in a slow cooker. Stews, curries and joints of meat all work perfectly, but what else can you cook in a slow cooker? We chat to the experts to find out.

Chicken made in a slow cookerCredit: – Shutterstock/From my point of view

What is a slow cooker?

Fuss-free and healthy

First invented back in 1940, the slow cooker (or crockpot as the American-born invention was called) has become an integral part of many kitchens the world over.

Its name derives from the fact that it cooks food slowly over a period of several hours at a lowish temperature of between 80°C and 150°C.

Slow cookers usually feature a removable inner pot, which is heated by an element in the base, and a lid that keeps the heat and steam inside during cooking.

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The more modern slow cookers often have digital control panels and the ability to sear meat before beginning the slow cooking process, while some also have multi-cook abilities, including an air fryer, grill or pressure cooker.

Helen Best-Shaw, the cooking wonder behind Fuss Free Flavours, says she loves using slow cookers because they offer an easy way to cook.

“Once you have done the initial preparation and set everything to cook, you can generally let it do its thing,” she says.

“I love that a slow cooker makes the tougher cuts of meat meltingly soft and is really cheap to buy and run, as well as that you can safely leave it unattended.”

Why use a slow cooker?

Simply add your ingredients to the slow cooker in the morning and come home to a delicious meal in the evening.

Slow cooking at lower temperatures preserves the nutrients in your food better than other cooking methods.

Slow cookers are relatively inexpensive to purchase and operate. Due to the longer cooking time, you can also choose cheaper cuts of meat, which will still turn out to be delicious and tender.

While most people use them for just soups and stews, slow cookers are remarkably versatile and can cook everything from granola to delicious rice pudding.

Is a slow cooker good for soups and stews?

This is what slow cookers were made for

Let’s kick things off with the classic slow cooker dishes: hearty stews and soups. Whether it’s a comforting beef casserole, a rich and creamy potato soup, or a spicy chilli, the slow cooker excels at simmering ingredients to perfection. The long, slow cooking process allows flavours to mix, resulting in a bowl of pure comfort.

Best-Shaw says her go-to slow cooker dish is a curry.

“My favourite dish to cook is probably my easy chicken curry, packed full of flavour with fall-apart chicken thighs in a delicious coconut cream curry sauce,” she says.

“I make a big batch once a month as it freezes well, and actually improves upon freezing.”

Not only are these meals great for feeding larger groups, they’re also very cost-effective. Take, for example, a beef stew. If you use lower-cost braising steak or beef brisket, you can cut the cost but still be able to create a tasty meal.

The one problem you may come across with a slow cooker curry or casserole is that the sauce isn’t thick enough at the end, but Best-Shaw has a solution for that.

“Simply put two heaped teaspoons of cornflour into a small bowl, then scoop out a few spoons of the liquid in the slow cooker and stir into the cornflour to make a thin paste,” she says.

“Pour into the slow cooker and stir through. After a few minutes, the sauce will start to thicken. If you want to go further, repeat. However, never add the cornflour directly to the slow cooker without making the thin paste first. You will never get the lumps out!”

What is the best meat for slow cooking?

Turn tough into tender

One of the slow cooker’s superpowers is its ability to turn tough cuts of meat into tender, succulent delights.

“Larger cuts of meat, like lamb or pork shoulder, are ideal for the slow cooker,” says Bintu Hardy, founder of the Recipes From a Pantry blog, who creates her favourite pulled pork recipe in her slow cooker.

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The low temperature and long cooking time help to break down the connective tissues, resulting in tender, juicy meat, infused with flavour.

Prefer chicken? Hardy’s big tip is to go for darker meat, choosing legs and thighs, which again are often the cheaper cuts of the meat.

“I find that leaner cuts of meat tend to dry out too quickly,” she advises.

Do vegetarian and vegan dishes work in a slow cooker?

Don’t neglect plant-based food

Vegetarians and vegans can also enjoy delicious slow cooker meals.

“I make more vegetarian and vegan dishes in my slow cooker than anything else,” says Hardy. “It’s fabulous for cooking up all sorts of soups, like my creamy tomato soup, stews and curries. This flavourful lentil curry is a go-to in my house.”

Best-Shaw makes a slow cooker marinara sauce, which she then freezes into ice cubes. Adding the sauce to pasta or beans makes a super-quick and healthy meal.

Here are a few tips for cooking vegetarian and vegan meals in your slow cooker:

  • Use hearty vegetables that can withstand long cooking times, such as sweet potatoes, carrots, onions and potatoes.
  • Add more flavourful ingredients – such as spices, herbs, and sauces – to your dishes to enhance the flavour.
  • Add any delicate ingredients – such as fresh herbs or dairy products – at the end of cooking.

Can I make breakfast in my slow cooker?

Your slow cooker is not just for dinner

A slow cooker is a good choice for healthy breakfasts. It’s especially good if you’re in a rush every morning, as you can prep the night before then cook overnight so they’re ready for you first thing.

Hardy likes using her slow cooker to make apple cinnamon porridge, perfect for the cooler autumn mornings. She says you can make a big batch and keep the cooked oats in the fridge for a couple of days – they are just as delicious cold as warm.

Other breakfast ideas to try in your slow cooker include French toast casserole, baked beans and even a complete cooked breakfast – how amazing is that?

What desserts can you make in a slow cooker?

Satisfy your sweet tooth

Don’t forget to finish off your meal with a slow cooker dessert. With everything from warm and gooey chocolate cake to silky-smooth rice pudding, your sweet tooth will thank you. Sponge puddings, cheesecakes and even fudge can all be crafted in the slow cooker for a delightful treat.

“You might be surprised at how many desserts I make using my slow cooker,” Hardy tells us.

“Right now I’m using it to whip up loads of pumpkin bread pudding, but I’ll soon be making batches of classic crockpot Christmas candy. And my slow cooker chocolate lava cake and chocolate peanut butter cake are true family favourites.”

Best-Shaw uses her slow cooker to finish off the Christmas pudding.

“If you don’t have a spare ring on the stove, pop it in a slow cooker,” she suggests.

“It won’t boil dry, and you can safely leave it cooking in the garage or a utility room if you don’t have space on your kitchen worktop.”

Expert tips for using a slow cooker

“Slow cooking is fantastic, but you do need to do some preparation,” warns Best-Shaw.

“Some ‘throw it all in and leave it to cook’ recipes work very well, but for others it does pay dividends to fry off onions and meat first. I nearly always fry meat to brown it and get that extra flavour, but with some soups you really can just throw it all in.”

Most slow cookers have two settings: low and high. Low is typically used for cooking for 8-10 hours, while high is used for cooking for 4-6 hours.

“Remember that slow cookers will cook at different rates depending on the size, make and model,” advises Hardy.

“Think of the cooking times listed in recipes as a guide, consult your user manual, and adjust the cook time accordingly.”

If you’re cooking lots of food, it may be better to batch-cook. Overcrowding the pot can prevent the food from cooking evenly.

Slow cookers need liquid to prevent the food from drying out. Be sure to add enough liquid to cover the bottom of the pot.

“This may seem obvious, but keeping the lid on the slow cooker is a must,” says Hardy.

“Each time you open it to check on your food, the temperature drops – sometimes as much as 10-15 degrees – and affects the cooking process.”

What can’t you cook in a slow cooker?

Avoid shellfish, lean meat and dairy

“Delicate seafood, shellfish and frozen foods that haven’t been thawed should steer clear of the slow cooker,” advises Hardy. Instead, she recommends using a multi-cooker or air fryer when preparing dishes that include these ingredients.

Furthermore, when it comes to lean meats, they are best suited to the air fryer, as they can become dry over prolonged cooking periods due to their low fat content.

As for dairy products like cream, they are a no-go in the slow cooker. To avoid curdling and ensure a delicious outcome, add dairy to your recipe right before serving, stirring it in gently.

Fresh herbs also appear on the “do not include” list. The extended cooking time causes them to wilt and lose their flavour. Consider switching to dried herbs or incorporate fresh ones at the end of the cooking process to preserve their aromatic goodness.

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Jayne Cherrington-Cook

Written by Jayne Cherrington-Cook she/her

Updated:

Jayne is the Senior Editor at Saga Exceptional. She cut her online journalism teeth 24 years ago in an era when a dialling tone and slow page load were standard. During this time, she’s written about a variety of subjects and is just at home road-testing TVs as she is interviewing TV stars. A diverse career has seen Jayne launch websites for popular magazines, collaborate with top brands, write regularly for major publications including Woman&Home, Yahoo! and The Daily Telegraph, create a podcast, and also write a tech column for Women’s Own.

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