Ever looked to your slow cooker to deliver a next-level salad or to satisfy chocolate cake cravings?
Most people associate it with curries and soups but food writer, recipe developer and cook Katrina Meynink wants us to think about it in a different way.
"Slow cookers are either deemed irrelevant kitchen real estate, the stuff of wannabee cooks who want to remove themselves from the very act of cooking, or they are held in such high esteem that people do not want to cook without them," Meynink says.
"Whether you pull your slow cooker from the back of the cupboard and dust it off, or you want to try taking it for a different spin, or even if you've never used one in your life, my new book is for you.
"Slow cookers are for people who love to cook ... there is no shame in using a slow cooker.
READ MORE: What is the most useless kitchen appliance?
"In fact, if you're not using one, you are missing out. There are so many great culinary rewards to be had if only we can release this harshly judged kitchen appliance from the bonds of its 1950s housewife stereotype."
Here are a few ideas for pushing the boundaries with your slow cooker. Who doesn't love a good hack?
Slow cooker hacks
1.Perfectly melt chocolate and prevent burning. Add the chocolate to jars, place them in the slow cooker, then pour in enough water to come three-quarters of the way up the jars. Cook on low for one hour.
2.Swap out stock for beer or even coffee for a stronger, heartier flavour in less time.
3.It's great for poaching. There's no danger of boiling water in your slow cooker, so it makes an ideal environment for gentle poaching. Think of it as a pseudo sous-vide machine.
4.Use it as a smoker. While you are never going to achieve the same authentic smoky flavour as you would using a proper smoker or barbecue, you can introduce a smoky flavour to your cooking by incorporating wood chips at the base of your cooker as part of the braising process. Soak one to two cups of wood chips (I like hickory) in water for 30 minutes, then drain. Place the chips on a sheet of baking paper, gathering up the edges to enclose the chips and make a packet that will sit in the base of the cooker. Make a few small incisions in the bag with a sharp knife or pair of scissors to allow the steam to escape. Place the bag in the base of the cooker and put your protein, or whatever you are cooking, directly on top. Pour 250ml liquid into the base of the cooker to create a little steam, but not enough to swamp the wood chips.
5. Eggs for binding. Eggs will always help to bind a sauce and are best suited to white, creamy sauces. Mix an egg with some flour to create a roux before adding liquid to create a sauce, or simply whisk in an egg yolk to help bind and thicken sauces or soups.
6.Use it for proving. Fill your slow cooker halfway with water and set to the low setting. Put the lid on upside down, lay a tea towel on top, then set your bowl of dough in the lid. The radiant heat from the hot water below will help the dough to rise.
7.Brining. Brine leaner cuts of meat before cooking to stop them drying out during the low, slow cook. For a very basic brine, add 80g salt to 1 litre water and stir to dissolve. You can also add aromatics. Brine the meat in the fridge overnight.
8.Add a steaming basket and some water to the base of the bowl and use to steam dumplings. Or simply place a bunch of herbs and greens directly into the steamer basket and place a piece of fish on top of that. The fish steams in the moisture from the herbs below - no liquid required.
9.Use it as a large steamer. Build a platform (most slow cookers come with a stand or platform insert that can be used for this) in the slow cooker's bowl, place the food on top, then fill with water until just under the top of the platform.
- Slow Victories: A food lover's guide to slow cooker glory, by Katrina Meynink. Hardie Grant, $35.
Turmeric herb chickpeas and rice
This is the kind of superbly simple, healthy dinner that you can throw together in an instant. This recipe uses dried chickpeas, but if time is against you, you could wash and strain a tin of chickpeas, reduce the cooking time to about one hour and reduce the amount of stock by just over half.
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, crushed
5cm piece ginger, finely sliced
3 tsp freshly grated turmeric, or 1 1/2 generous tsp ground turmeric
250g dried chickpeas
1/4 preserved lemon, finely chopped
750ml vegetable or chicken stock, plus extra if needed
3 tbsp sultanas
370g cooked white rice
100g baby spinach
1/2 bunch coriander, leaves roughly chopped
handful of dill fronds
1/2 bunch flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
2 tbsp marjoram or lemon thyme leaves
Greek or coconut yoghurt
1. Set the slow cooker to the sauté function. Add the oil and, once shimmering, add the onion and cook until translucent and fragrant, about five minutes. Add the garlic, ginger and turmeric and cook for another minute. Add the chickpeas and preserved lemon and cook until coated in the mixture. Add the stock, cover with the lid and cook for eight to 10 hours on low. Add the sultanas for the last 20 minutes of cooking, along with a splash more stock if the chickpeas have absorbed all the liquid.
2. Stir in the cooked rice, adding more stock again if necessary, to create a slightly loose, stew-like consistency. Cook for an additional minute, then remove from the heat and stir through the spinach and herbs. Let it rest for one minute to allow the spinach to soften, then add a dollop of Greek yoghurt. Season to taste and serve with a few extra coriander leaves.
Potato, leek and kale gratin with too much cheese
This is your nan's potato bake for a new age. Because, kale. And fancy cheese. No matter how you spin it, this side dish is the ultimate wingman. Whether it's for braised meats or some crisp and bitter greens, it's a truly great culinary friend to have on hand.
1 tbsp olive oil
2 large leeks, white and light green parts only; washed thoroughly, finely sliced
1/2 small bunch of flat-leaf kale, stems removed, leaves chopped
375ml thickened cream
125ml chicken or vegetable stock
85g gruyere, grated
125g parmesan, grated
150g creamy blue cheese
900g washed potatoes (I use sebago), sliced about 3mm thick
1. Set the slow cooker to the sauté function. Add the oil and, once hot, add the leek and cook for one to two minutes, then add the kale and continue cooking for another two to three minutes, or until the leek is soft. Gently scoop into a bowl. Line the slow cooker with a sheet of baking paper, working carefully as it will be hot.
2. Add the cream, stock and cheeses to a bowl and use a fork to combine.
3. Arrange one-third of the potato slices over the bottom of the lined bowl, overlapping them slightly. Pour in one-third of the cream mixture and sprinkle with one-third of the leek mixture. Season and repeat the process until all the ingredients have been used. You should get three decent layers of cheesy potato goodness. Close the lid and cook on high for four hours.
4. Check the liquid at the three-hour mark. If there is a lot of liquid remaining, leave the lid off for the last hour of cooking. If, at four hours, there is still too much liquid, remove the lid and, if your cooker has it, hit the reduce function, or simply the sauté function, and cook for two to five minutes. This will quickly get rid of any excess moisture.
5. Allow to cool for at least 15 minutes in the slow cooker before gently removing. If you try to cut it when still hot, it tends to go everywhere. Alternatively, scoop the gratin straight from the bowl onto the plate. It might not look amazing, but it's the kind of dish that is here for a good time, not a long time.
6. Season generously with salt and pepper and serve. Eat wearing stretchy pants; you are going to need them.
The ultimate chilli chicken
Normally, I specify browning your meat and aromatics first when it comes to slow cooking, but this recipe is a dump-and-run scenario. It builds on layers, starting with the chicken and, for whatever reason, it just works. I wanted a chilli chicken that wasn't tomato based, and this is it. Given the variation between slow cookers, liquid can evaporate at different speeds, so I have included an option for thickening the sauce. This is by no means mandatory - just make sure you shred the chicken into the sauce before you decide if it needs thickening (it will absorb more liquid when shredded). Even though it's called chilli chicken, this dish is mild. When slow cooking, you can really intensify the heat, so it's best to incorporate the fire of a good chilli at the end - with chilli flakes, fresh green chilli, whatever you like. The last thing you want to do is make it so hot that it is inedible, and you find you have wasted all those great ingredients. If you can't find masa flour, you can substitute with half cornmeal and half plain flour.
4 skinless chicken breasts (about 1 kg)
1 tbsp each ground cumin and ground coriander
2 tsp dried oregano
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh oregano
1 tsp sweet smoked paprika
2 tsp chipotle powder
200g dried white beans, washed thoroughly
2 celery stalks, sliced
4 garlic cloves, minced
3 jalapeno chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
1 onion, chopped
2 green capsicums, deseeded, chopped
1 litre chicken stock
zest and juice of 1 lime
60g grated Monterey Jack cheese (or use cheddar/feta if unavailable)
185ml full-cream milk
40g masa flour
extra cheese, if desired sour cream
coriander leaves and oregano
corn tortillas or tortilla chips
sliced green chilli
1. Place the chicken breasts in the base of the slow cooker. Mix the cumin, coriander, oregano (dried and fresh), paprika and chipotle in a bowl, then sprinkle over the chicken, tossing evenly to coat. Top with the remaining ingredients, except the lime zest and juice and cheese, then close the lid and cook on low for 10 hours.
2. Using a couple of forks, gently shred the chicken in the bowl of your slow cooker and stir it through the sauce. If, at this point, you feel the sauce needs thickening, mix the milk with the masa flour, pour into the slow cooker and stir to combine. Close the lid and cook on low for another 10-15 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened.
3. Add the lime zest and juice and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. I love to add cheese straight to the pot before serving and stir it through the chicken so that it melts. Serve with all the extras.
One-cup triple-choc brownies with raspberry salt
It's not the complexity of the recipe but the quality of the ingredients that creates an otherworldly brownie. Use superb-quality chocolate and cocoa powder here. Give it a bit more oomph with the raspberry salt and it will not disappoint. This version is dense and fudgy with that crackled top - just the way I like my brownies. Given the slow-cooked nature of the bake, you won't get a cake-like texture if that's what you are after, but you will get a wedge of brownie, solid and comforting when served in world atlas-sized portions. The shape of the bowl will have an impact on your cooking time, depending on the height and width, with wider, shallower bowls allowing for more heat, thereby reducing the cooking time.
250g butter, melted and cooled, plus extra for greasing
125g Dutch cocoa powder
150g plain flour
230g dark brown sugar
115g caster sugar
1 tbsp vanilla bean paste
175g chocolate chunks (mixture of milk, white and dark)
4 large eggs
10g freeze-dried raspberries
2 tsp raw sugar
1 tsp salt flakes
1. Preheat the slow cooker on low while making the brownie mixture.
2. Add all the brownie ingredients to a bowl and, using a whisk, beat to combine. Grease and line the bowl of your slow cooker with baking paper. Pour the batter in and use the back of a wooden spoon to level out the top. Cook with the lid off for two and a half hours. The first time you make these, I recommend checking the brownie at the two-hour mark. If you use a deep, round bowl, your batter will be thicker and your cooking time will likely be longer - anything up to three hours.
3. Allow to cool before slicing. When ready to serve, combine the raspberry salt ingredients in a small bowl, then sprinkle generously over the brownie.
4. Leftover brownies will keep in the fridge for up to one week.
Makes about 10.
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