Chef reveals 12 tricks to make better meals in your slow cooker

Who wouldn’t want to finish work in the evening and have a warm, tasty meal all good to go?

The key, is to use a slow cooker.

You can throw some things in before work, and while you’re working, it does its thing.

But, sometimes the meals can end up tasteless or a little watery.

To help Jamie Robinson, an executive chef at Tesco, has 12 top tips to make every slow cooked dish a success.

Choose cheaper cuts of meat

Cooking for a long time on a low heat is perfect for cheaper cuts of meat, meaning you can save some money too.

James says: ‘When picking your meat, I have two top tips:

  • Always go for something with a good level of fat on it, this will prevent the meat drying out
  • Make sure you brown off your meat by searing it in a frying pan first, the more colour it gets the juicier the meat will be.

Meats he recommends include:

  • Beef cheek, short ribs, feather blade and shin
  • Chicken legs
  • Pork belly or shoulder
  • Lamb neck, shoulder, leg or breast

Use multiple functions

Some slow cookers have different functions and they can really help improve your meals.

James says: ‘I suggest making the most of them while you cook your dish.

‘Vegetables and meat are best on the sauté function, allowing them to cook on a high heat quickly, then change to the slow cook setting for the rest of the recipe, layering the ingredients according to their cooking time.

‘Then don’t forget to use the keep warm function when it is ready.’

Don’t sneak a peek

While cooking for such a long time might make you excited to try, don’t keep looking at what’s inside.

James explains: ‘Leave your slow cooker to do its thing, and don’t keep sneaking a peek. Pulling the lid off will release some of the heat, increasing the cooking time and spoiling the magic of the slow cooking method.

‘Trust the process, and yourself.’

Deglaze for ultimate flavour

When you’re preparing everything before putting it in the slow cooker, make sure you deglaze the pan.

This means adding a little liquid to lift everything off the bottom.

‘Once your meat and vegetables are caramelised, add a stock cube or dash of wine to deglaze the pan and lift all those sticky bits off the bottom – this is where all the flavours are!’ James adds.

‘I love to use wine for this as it adds another layer of punchy flavours to the dish. Just like in this delicious Tesco Real Food slow cooker beef bourguignon recipe.’

Bouquet garni

It might sounds fancy but a bouquet garni is just a bunch of herbs to add flavour in a slow cooked fish.

James says: ‘Aromatic herbs can help to boost the flavour of a dish – anything from bay leaves, thyme, rosemary, oregano, sage and parsley stalks. I recommend tying them together with a string and adding them at the beginning, then removing before serving. This is called ‘bouquet garni’ and means you get all the flavour, but none of the bits.

‘Bouquet garni is best made fresh. However, if you prefer to make several bouquet garni at once for ease, you can wrap them tightly in cling film and freeze them in well-sealed freezer bags or freezer containers to help prevent dehydration.’

Try sweet dishes too

You might associate the slow cooker with stews and casseroles but it can be very versatile.

James says: ‘Cooking fudge in the slow cooker is a great alternative way to make it, and because it’s temperature controlled you are a lot less likely to burn it – this simple fudge recipe is a great one to try at home with the kids.

‘Additionally this Slow Cooker Bread Pudding with Caramel is the perfect indulgent weekend dessert to follow a Sunday roast, or this Slow Cooker Apple Crumble is another winner.’

Double up your slow cooker as a bread maker

It can be used for baking too, particularly bread.

‘It’s an easy one to do before a long chilly winter walk and great with a big hot bowl of soup,’ James says

Don’t under or overcook the meat

It’s important to think about whether your cut of meat suits the cooking technique, as if it’s lean, it can end up being very dry.

James says: ‘Although cooking in the slow cooker is pretty fail-safe, there are a few key common mistakes to watch out for.

‘For slow cooking I tend to favour less lean cuts, such as chicken thighs in place of breast meat.

‘You can also under cook the meat too, leaving you with a rubbery texture, so it’s always best to assess the texture before serving to ensure it’s the perfect consistency.’

Two ways to use veg

James has some important advice on veg too.

He says: ‘Whenever I am slow cooking I use the veg in two different ways.

‘I generally start all of my slow cooks with onion or shallot, leeks and garlic, and sometimes also carrots too. I like to sweat this down until they caramelise to help really strengthen the base flavour of my dish.

‘When using vegetables in this way, the aim is to actually get them to break down and disappear into the base of your sauce.’

But if you want veg to be visible in the final dish, you need to take a different approach,

James adds: ‘These need to be staggered in the later parts of the cook. I like to group these veggies up in order of hardiness.

‘So root vegetables always go first, such as big chunks of carrots, celeriac and swede, along with the woody herbs like thyme and rosemary. These should go in one hour before you finish your slow cook dish.

‘Then the slightly less hard veg, such as peppers, courgettes, cabbages, cauliflower and broccoli should go in 20-30 minutes before you finish your dish, though the duration depends on the size of the chunks – smaller pieces require less time, while bigger chunks take longer.

‘The last to be added is the softest veg, such as asparagus, green beans and peas, and herbs such as fresh parsley and basil. By grouping the vegetables and herbs like this you will really layer the flavour of the dish to make it super tasty, but also avoid the dreaded mushy veg.’

Don’t season until the very end

It might be tempting to throw the seasoning in at the start and then just serve up when the timer is done but James says it’s better to leave a little time at the end to season and taste.

He says: ‘I always add salt and pepper right at the end. If you add too much seasoning too early, it could become too strong as the dish cooks on. Remember you can always add more but you can’t take it away.’

Brine your meat

While not essential, James says preparing your meat the night before can also make a big difference to the taste and texture.

He explains: ‘I like to brine my meat – or whatever protein I’m adding – when doing a slow cook. I generally add 10% salt and 5% sugar to cold water and mix until dissolved. I then cover my protein in the brine and leave it in the fridge for up to four hours before cooking.

‘Not only does this flavour and tenderise the meat, but it also helps retain moisture through the cook, leaving you with the juiciest most succulent dish. I would recommend this route when using leaner cuts of meat to avoid them drying out.’

To finish with a bang – acidity is key

Finally, adding a touch of acid in the form of vinegar, lemon or lime juice, can really make the flavours sing.

James says: ‘When slow cooking the flavours can become deep and very rich so balancing the end product is really important.

‘While most people use salt and pepper to season their food, a really important thing to think about – especially in rich slow cooks – is acidity.

‘A little squeeze of fresh lemon or a splash of good quality vinegar – but not malt – can really lift and transform a dish. Definitely one to try it out next time you are in the kitchen.’

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