Read: Irish Examiner | Slow cook to save energy and time
First published in the Irish Examiner on 25 November 2022.
Edited to reflect changes in electricity prices.
Reduce energy use and come home to a cooked meal: that’s the slow cooker dream. As we look at the bottom line on our electricity bills, we’ve become acutely aware of what appliances are most expensive to run. Sadly, the oven is in the top three, behind the immersion and tumble dryer. But making a home-cooked meal doesn’t have to put you into the red: according to Electric Ireland, slow cookers use only about 150 watts (around €0.06) per hour at a low setting compared to electric ovens using a whopping 2kWhs (approx. €0.87) per hour of cooking.
Slow cookers are simple appliances. After you prepare and add the ingredients to the pot, they do all the rest of the work by cooking the food at a steady simmer over a long period of time. They’re not expensive: a basic 3.5 litre model – exactly the brand that I have working hard to feed our family of four – was recently selling in a German discounter for €24.99. That said, as with any gadget, you can also easily trade up: many different brands and types come with all kinds of bells and whistles for a lot more money.
Registered dietician Gillian McConnell of Dublin-based Inside Out Nutrition is a major slow cooker fan, to the extent that she’s even written her own, self-published cookbook, The Essential Slow Cooker Cookbook. “I wrote it initially because I’m a busy mum of three so I’m all about efficiency,” explains McConnell, “and you can’t ask for more than creating nutritious meals in one pot! I used to use a casserole dish but you have to be around to turn that off after a couple of hours. With a slow cooker you can bung everything in in the morning, head off, do a day’s work and walk into the house that evening to the yummy smell of a cooked dinner all ready to eat.” As a dietician, she feels that slow cookers win when it comes to producing nutritious homecooked meals: “Using a slow cooker is a great way to pack all the nutrition into one place. There are certain nutrients that actually like the heat and have a boost in nutrient bioavailability as a result. [For example] the powerful antioxidant lycopene, which is linked to heart health and cancer protection, is released when heated. Lutein, found in spinach, increases also as it’s cooked and lutein is essential to help against diseases of the eyes.”
Any fears that meat or vegetables may lose their nutritional value while cooking for long time periods – many slow cooker recipes are timed to cook for six to eight hours – can also be laid to rest, according to McConnell. “Nutrients remain more stable because they are being cooked at a lower temperature compared to other cooking methods,” she explains. “Any nutrients that are lost from cooking vegetables are simply reabsorbed into the meal in the slow cooker. The protein structure of meat, fish, chicken and tofu doesn’t change.” Where possible, McConnell suggests using seasonal, locally grown vegetables “to help maximise antioxidant and mineral content.”
Another slow cooker fan is Galway chef and mother of two Louise Robbie. She owns a pair of slow cookers: a regular 3.5 litre model along with a large one that can take up to 6.5 liters so that she can maximise meal prep time.
On her Instagram feed (@littleloucooks), she demonstrates how she uses the large slow cooker to batch cook dishes like beef bolognese, a veggie-loaded curry sauce or root vegetable soup that can be frozen in meal-sized portions. Considering it a “winter appliance,” Robbie uses her slow cookers mainly for soups, curries or stews, concentrating on inexpensive but high-flavour “cuts of meat that benefit low and slow cooking like stewing beef, chicken thighs, pork or lamb shoulder.”
McConnell likes the fact that it’s possible to cook a variety of food this way. “Meat, fish, chicken, tofu and pulses all cook well in a slow cooker along with many vegetables, especially root vegetables. If your slow cooker recipes are mainly meat based, make sure to cook some leafy greens on the side to make sure you’re getting those antioxidants and fibre in too.” For The Essential Slow Cooker Cookbook, she was conscious of keeping it budget-friendly and focused on “easy recipes that people would go back to time and time again. I also added top nutrition tips and the nutritional breakdown of each recipe to give a bit of extra informative content for people.”
Simple to use, energy-saving and producing delicious, nutritious results: the slow cooker is one appliance that’s here to stay. The Essential Slow Cooker Cookbook by Gillian McConnell is available from her website in both e-book or hard copy formats at www.insideoutnutrition.ie. She’s on Instagram at @gillian.insideoutnutrition.
Find Louise Robbie on Instagram at @littleloucooks.
Seven top slow cooker tips:
Some people think that slow cooked dishes all taste the same but there are ways to avoid a bland meal.
Reduce liquid: slow cookers don’t reduce the stock or water that you’ve used so it’s important to make sure that you don’t add too much in the first place. Still too much at the end of cooking time? Strain into a saucepan and simmer until the flavours intensify.
Taste before serving: always important but especially with long-cooked dishes. Make sure you taste and season properly before bringing dinner to the table.
Acid drops: sometimes what’s needed is a splash of vinegar or squeeze of lemon juice to brighten food and enhance flavours.
Jazz it up: adding fresh herbs before serving brings extra colour and aroma to stews and curries.
Extra veg: add a few handfuls of baby spinach, a cup of defrosted peas or some thinly sliced peppers towards the end of cooking time for more nutrition.
Make it crunch: a sprinkle of toasted seeds or nuts adds extra interest to your dinner.
Cook once, eat (at least) twice: make double the meal – more if you have a large slow cooker – and freeze in meal-sized portions for another day.
Peanut Chicken Curry
From The Essential Slow Cooker Cookbook by Gillian McConnell at www.insideoutnutrition.ie.
6 chicken fillets, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tbsp soya sauce
Juice of 1 lime
1 tbsp chopped ginger
1 tbsp mild curry powder
1 red onion, chopped
1 chili diced (optional)
3tbsp peanut butter (crunchy or smooth)
1 tin tomatoes
1 tin coconut milk (optional)
Combine all the ingredients together and cook in the slow cooker with the lid on at Low for 5 hours.
Serve with basmati rice and broccoli.
Nutrition tip: A protein rich meal that’s always a winner with kids. Peanuts are high in oleic oil, a monounsaturated heart healthy oil. Surprisingly peanuts contain antioxidants, including coumarin and resveratrol. To increase fibre it can be served with brown rice and extra veggies.
More slow cooker:
2020 Read: The Echo | Lifting the lid on how to be slow cooker savvy…
2020 Slow cooker whole spiced cauliflower
2019 Gathering food: Slow cooked brisket with stout, rhubarb and mustard
2019 17 ideas for (super cheap and tasty) bean feasts
2018 TheJournal.ie: ‘This girl’s best friend is her slow cooker’
2017 Slow cooker apples + apple sponge
And even more…slow cooker