After doing a bit of research there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on slow cooking and if it drains or retains the nutrients in foods. Some articles favour for and some against. I’m not a nutritionist so in today’s blog I will focus on my own personal view “for” slow cooking and the retainment of nutrients and minerals, especially in these cold months using winter seasonal vegetables.
Before you stop reading because you may not have a slow cooker already, further down are alternatives using the oven and pots. Slow cooking has been evident nearly from the beginning of time because as soon as humans could cook, they were preparing their meals of plants, herbs and game over the open fire. Therefore you can go back to the traditional methods with a cooktop (aka “open fire”) without having a slow cooker which were only first introduced in 1971 by the company Rival.
In addition to improving the flavour and texture of some foods, slow cookers can also save time and money. Meals can be prepared in the morning with meat and vegetables thrown in and left to cook during the workday
Slow cookers are cheap to buy, economical to use and they're great for making the most of budget ingredients and use less energy than conventional ovens. They can offer a healthier, low-fat method of cooking and require the minimum amount of effort. Really, what's not to love?
As with any cooking method used at home, you have control over the nutrient profile of your meal. For instance, adding more vegetables than stated in the recipe increases the nutrients while creating a meal that is more filling due to the fibre and bulk of vegetables.
When tough cuts of meat are used, the longer cooking time and moist cooking method result in meats that are fork tender without the addition of fat or tenderizers. In addition, these more tough cuts are generally lower in fat, helping to lower the overall fat and calorie content of the meal.
With all cooking methods, there can be a breakdown in nutrients, although a few nutrients such as lycopene become more available with processing. The advantage of a slow cooker over other methods is that the foods are cooked at a relatively low heat for a longer time. This lower heat may not destroy as many nutrients as other methods such as steaming or boiling. Another benefit is that with slow cooker meals, the nutrients can often be recaptured when the resulting sauces or juices are served with the meal.
Limiting Processed Foods
Using a slow cooker, you are able to reduce your consumption of processed foods. Reducing the consumption of processed foods decreases the intake of sodium, fat and calories in your diet. Meals that you may have purchased from the boxed or frozen section of the store can be made at home with your slow cooker. For example, you can find slow cooker recipes for baked desserts, casseroles, soups and roasts. You are only limited by your creativity. Reducing these nutrients also increases the nutrient density, or the ratio of calories to nutrients, of the meal.
Save time & effort
Avoid recipes that suggest a lot of pre-preparation. For many dishes, particularly soups and stews, you really can just throw all the ingredients in. Brown onions and meats prior as the flavour is different to when you put them in raw.
If you're short on time in the morning, prepare everything you need for your slow-cooked meal the night before, put it into the slow-cooker dish, cover and store in the fridge overnight. Ideally the dish should be as close to room temperature as possible, so get it out of the fridge when you wake up and leave it for 20 minutes before turning the cooker on.
Slow cookers are great for cooking cheaper cuts like beef brisket, pork and lamb shoulder and chicken thigh. You can also use less meat as slow-cooking really extracts a meaty flavour that permeates the whole dish. Bulk up with vegetables instead which enhances the nutritional value.
Slow-cookers use substantially less energy than a conventional electric ovens so it’s win win.
Trim the fat
You don't need to add oil to a slow cooker and you don't need a lot of fat on your meat either. Normally when you fry meat, a lot of the fat drains away, this won't happen in a slow cooker so trim it off.
Go easy on the liquid
Because your slow cooker will have a tightly sealed lid, the liquid won't evaporate so if you're adapting a standard recipe, it's best to reduce the liquid by roughly a third. Liquid should just cover the meat and vegetables. Don't overfill your slow cooker or it may start leaking out the top and food won't cook as well. Half to two thirds full is ideal and certainly no more than three quarters.
Just as the liquid doesn't reduce it also doesn't thicken. You can roll meat in a small amount of seasoned flour before adding it to the slow cooker or use a little of your preferred flour at the end mixed as a paste with a little cold water and stirred into your simmering slow cooker contents, then replace the lid.
Slow is good
It is recommend to use the 'Low' setting as much as you can. Dishes really benefit from a slow, gentle heat to really bring out the flavours. This also means you won't need to worry if you're heading out for the day, it'll take care of itself – in a safe manner.
Leave it alone
Slow cookers are designed to do their own thing so you don't need to keep checking the contents. Every time you take the lid off it will release some of the heat (bit like opening the fridge door!), so if you keep doing this you'll have to increase the cooking time.
When to add food
Ideally you want to choose recipes where most, if not all, of the ingredients can be added at the beginning, leaving it to cook away on its own and you free to do other things. However in most cases, pasta, rice and fresh herbs will need to be added towards the end.
If you are considering purchasing a slow-cooker/Crock-Pot, factor in how many people you cook for. Slow, medium and large slow-cookers are available. Many slow-cookers have a ceramic interior. Some high-end cookers have a cast iron pot, which means you can brown meats and vegetables in that pot and just insert it into the cooker, instead of using a separate saucepan (less washing up!)
Food Safety and Bacteria
Without proper cooking in your slow cooker, the safety of your food may be questionable. Poor food handling makes the food unsafe and depending on the procedure, may further reduce nutrients when they are exposed to air or bacteria. You will want to follow recipes from reputable sources and the instruction manual that came with your slow cooker to ensure preparation of safe foods made in your slow cooker.
For a little article on Slow Cooking and Food Bacteria, click here
There are many slow cooker recipe found in hard cover books, eBooks and websites. Why not try something using what's in season this month and come home after a long days work to the aroma of dinner, ready to be served immediately.
Happy (slow) cooking!