There’s nothing better than coming home to the enticing aroma of dinner cooking. Not always about convenience, the key to slow cooking is a lower temperature over a longer period of time which both slows ourselves down and allows us to draw more nutrients from the food we eat.
Cooking slow enables you to be a more ethical meat eater, by making use of the whole animal. Undervalued cuts such as shoulders, necks, shanks or brisket will improve in texture and flavour when subjected to the potent alchemy of gentle heat and time that reduces moisture-loss, tenderises and concentrates flavours.
Every cuisine around the world has devised ways to turn sinewy, boney cuts into delicious tender braises. Think French beef bourguignon, Italian osso bucco, Kashmiri rogan josh or a Mexican pozole. If heated to at least 70 °C the connective tissue and collagen turns into gelatine, and when cooked slowly, the meat won’t dry out.
Slow cooking isn’t limited to braises or stews, vegetable-based meals like soups, mash and dhal are all better when cooked slowly and it can be useful when preserving your home-grown produce such as black garlic, apple sauce and even bone broth.
The minimal effort needed to set your meal on to slow cook in the morning is totally worth being able to spend the rest of the day knowing dinner is done. Consider cooking multiple meals at once to save time, electricity or wood use, and food is already prepared for the week.
A basic slow cooker or crockpot is an efficient use of electricity or daytime solar, and a way most people feel safe to leave food cooking while out. The food is heated from the bottom and sides of the ceramic insert, with the moisture condensing on the lid and dripping back into the food. Some believe this contributes to a lack of flavour because there is no reduction or concentrating of the food. A heavy-based casserole dish in an oven can address this problem. Because the heat comes from all sides, you can set the lid aside towards the end of the cooking process to reduce and brown the meal.
An indoor wood stove creates incredible flavours due to being reduced so slowly. Tending the fire takes time if you’re cooking through the day, but you can put your meal in the stove at night, let the fire die down overnight and you’ll be met with an amazing result in the morning. A similar result can be achieved with an outdoor pizza or earth oven; after you’ve finished cooking at high temperatures, you can slide your casserole dish in, seal the oven, and let your food cook overnight with the reducing latent heat.
Other options include setting a heavy-based dish on top of a wood heater to slow cook, or placing a camp oven on a bed of coals before shovelling hot coals onto the metal lid for more even cooking.
Size And Temperature
There is an art to slow-cooking food and ending up with succulent meat and vegetables that still hold their form and flavours. The larger the pieces of meat, the more moisture will be retained, so where possible keep meat as one cut, or at least larger pieces which can be pulled apart once cooked. Cut root vegetables into two-centimetre cubes and add soft vegetables such as tomatoes and zucchini during the last hour of cooking, unless you want them to break down.
Often recipes call for meat to be browned first in a hot pan, and for onions and aromatics to be caramalised, and this can enhance the flavours dramatically. This creates the Maillard reaction; a chemical reaction of the sugars in carbohydrates and amino acids. It only happens at high temperatures (over 110 °C), creating new flavours, which remain when the temperature is reduced to sub-90 °C for slow cooking.
Using liquid as a cooking medium is an essential part of cooking slow. You can use vegetable or meat stock, milk, wine or beer – even pureed fruit or vegetables. The liquid carries flavour well and ensures flavours are evenly distributed. It can also become a nourishing sauce if reduced at the end.
For the collagen in tough connective tissue to be dissolved into gelatine, a minimum temperature of 70–80 °C needs to be reached. By cooking too much above this temperature, the muscle fibres can dry out. It also pays to bring food to a simmer very slowly. The longer meat spends below 50 °C the more moisture it will retain.
The boney, sinewy cuts of meat perfect for slow cooking are also highly nutritious when broken down slowly at a low temperature. The gelatine that results from the breakdown of collagen is a nutritious food that soothes your digestive system and contributes to healthy joints. Even if you use bone broth as your cooking liquid you can still add an extra bone to your slow-cooked casseroles, curries and stews, for an even more flavoursome and nutritious meal. Slow cooking your meals means you can produce nutrient-dense food while saving yourself both time and money.
Beer and thyme braise
16 baby onions
3 stalks celery, chopped
400 g baby carrots, trimmed
4 sprigs fresh thyme
375 ml beer
250 ml beef stock
70 g tomato paste
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp wholegrain mustard
2 kg lamb shanks, beef short ribs or oxtail
150 g broccolini
Peel onions, leaving root end intact and place in slow cooker along with celery, carrots and thyme sprigs. Combine beer, stock, paste, Worcestershire sauce, sugar and mustard and add to the slow cooker.
Add your chosen meat, turn to coat in the liquid, cover with a lid and cook on a low setting for 9½ hours. When there’s 30 minutes left of the cooking time, remove the thyme sprigs and add the broccolini to the pot to cook gently. Serve with a sprinkling of fresh thyme.