Pick up any slow cooker cookbook, and you’ll be amazed at the versatility of this simple appliance. With a slow cooker, you can combine the ingredients for anything from stew to oatmeal to cobbler within minutes, then just walk away until it’s time to serve and eat.
Are there other advantages to slow cooking? Are there any hidden disadvantages? And is slow cooking safe? Let’s find out.
- Energy efficiency. Running the oven for extended periods of time can be expensive, and much of the electricity is wasted heating up the kitchen (not desirable on a summer day). The slow cooker pulls comparatively little power and wastes none of it.
- Convenience. How much easier does it get than a slow cooker? Pile in ingredients and wait for dinner!
- Lack of odor. No smoke, no smells of burnt food. Just a warm, savory smell when someone opens the lid. (But please resist the urge—opening the slow cooker increases the time the food takes to cook.)
- Food safety. Don’t worry about the long cooking process when it comes to meat. The FDA recommends cooking food at temperatures above 140°F, while most slow cookers fall within a range of 170°F to 300°F. If the meat is done, the pathogens have been killed, even if the slow cooker was set on low heat most of the time. If the food is cooked, but you are not ready to eat it yet, leave the slow cooker on low to prevent the temperature from falling into a range more suitable for bacteria. As a final precaution, thaw meat thoroughly before cooking.
- Impossibility of burning food. Okay, you can overcook food in a slow cooker; some meats, particularly chicken, may get too dry if they go too long without enough broth or other liquid. But actually burning the food is virtually impossible.
- Tenderness. Even low-quality cuts thrive on slow cooking. This is because the collagen in connective tissue is what makes meat tough. Slow cooking melts the collagen away, leaving a tender piece of meat.
- Flavor. The longer food simmers, the better the flavor gets. Therefore, food from a slow cooker always has a delightful, savory flavor.
- Need for planning and preparation. Changing your plans at the last minute just doesn’t work with a slow cooker. You will need to know what you are making well in advance of dinner, perhaps even early in the morning. Then you will have to prepare your ingredients and thaw your meat.
- Slow pace. Need dinner in a hurry? Obviously, a slow cooker will not help you here.
- Incompatibility with cans. Many home cooks complain about the texture of canned food, particularly vegetables, cooked in a slow cooker. Fresh produce has the structural integrity to be tenderized while slow cooking instead of turning into mush. Frozen produce works, too, but note that as it thaws it can make the meal somewhat watery.
- Uneven results. If you combine vegetables and meats in the slow cooker, you may notice that the vegetables (especially potatoes) take longer to cook than the meat. Often a little extra cooking won’t hurt the meat a bit. If you are concerned, however, either precook the vegetables slightly, or put them into the slow cooker well before adding the meat. Chopping them finer helps, as well.
- Nutrient loss. As vegetables sit in the slow cooker for extended periods of time, they slowly lose nutritional value. Don’t worry—the vitamins and minerals are still present in the broth. But if maximizing nutrient intake is a priority, eat your vegetables raw.
- Bean toxins. Raw beans, particularly kidney beans, contain the toxin phytohaemagglutinin, which is why they must be cooked thoroughly at very high temperatures before being eaten. A slow cooker does not get hot enough to destroy phytohaemagglutinin, so all beans must be boiled before going into the mix.
The slow cooker has so much going for it that it is considered indispensable by many home chefs! The biggest drawback is exactly what makes the finished product taste so good—a slow pace. As long as you can plan and prepare well before it’s time to eat, you may find that the slow cooker becomes your best kitchen assistant.