How to get the best out of your slow cooker

Golden-brown meat from a slow cooker? Gaz Smith shares his recipes for pork carnitas, confit lamb and cheesy meatballs

Slow cooking: Gaz Smith of Michael’s restaurant in Mount Merrion, in south Dublin. Photograph: Tom Honan

Slow cooking: Gaz Smith of Michael’s restaurant in Mount Merrion, in south Dublin. Photograph: Tom Honan

 

Depending on your experience of using them, slow cookers can be either the best thing since sliced bread, or a dust-gatherer taking up cupboard and counter space.

The plug-in appliance could be the answer to a busy cook’s prayers – just fill them up, turn them on, walk away and get on with other things. They could be saving us money too, allowing us to make the most of cheaper cuts of meat, and sturdy cheap root vegetables, that come into their own when cooked over a long period of time. They’re cheap to run too, using about the same amount of electricity as a single electric bulb.

But there’s a flaw, and it is one that regular users are wary of – dishes cooked in slow cookers often end up lacking texture and being one of a variety of unappetising shades of greige.

Fattier cuts of meat lend themselves to slow cooking, as the fat breaks down, creating its own delicious lubrication

However, chef Gaz Smith, owner of the popular Michael’s restaurant in Mount Merrion in south Dublin, has cracked it, developing recipes that challenge those perceptions.

It was his casual mention on social media of a way to confit a shoulder of lamb that caught our attention. So how was Smith achieving the appetising burnished gold crust in photographs of his finished lamb – from an appliance that turns everything I cook in it into sludge?

“Traditionally confit means to cook the meat in its own fat, but we don’t all have lamb fat knocking around the fridge, so feel free to use lard, duck fat, vegetable oil or butter, they all work. And go for a fattier shoulder.

“You start it off skin side down, and when it is in contact with the base of the slow cooker, the fat renders down and it cooks like a confit, with the help of the added fat,” he explains.

But there is another vital piece of advice: “I cook this without a lid on for the last couple of hours and it works out great, leaving a nice browned crust.” Slow cooker manuals probably don’t recommend this, and Smith advises not leaving the appliance unattended should you decide to slow-cook with the lid off. And if your finished lamb shoulder is not sufficiently browned, “you can pop it under a hot grill for a few minutes.”

Smith’s pork carnitas with citrus became a family favourite  and it’s easy to see why.

“Fattier cuts of meat lend themselves to slow cooking, as the fat breaks down, creating its own delicious lubrication, so go for a piece of shoulder with a cap of fat and skin left on it.

“You braise this whole and after a good few hours it will be falling-apart tender, so just shred it with two forks. If you wish, pop the meat under a grill or in a hot dry pan to crisp it up, adding the cooking liquor at the end, or just serve it as is.”

Smith says the pork “has a zingy freshness that belies the slow cooking” and suggests serving it as a filling for anything from tacos to jacket potatoes, or with rice on the side. “This tastes even better the next day,” he adds, though the likelihood of leftovers is slim.

Slow cookers also make the best stock. Because the cooking process is so gentle, there is no agitation of the ingredients, so you get an almost consomme-like liquor

His tip for cooking the beef and lamb meatballs is to resist the temptation to brown them in a frying pan at the start of the cooking process, because the hidden cheese filling might start to leak out and spoil the surprise.

But the real surprise is how very different these recipes are from many of the dinners that come out of slow cookers.

I experienced a surprise of my own recently too: slow cookers make the best stock. Because the cooking process is so gentle, there is no agitation of the ingredients. And so a couple of raw pork ribs or chicken wings, a carrot, a celery stick, an onion and a few peppercorns turn into a completely clear, almost consomme-like liquor that is gelatinous and deeply flavoured. Give it a go, it’s life-changing.

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Gaz Smith’s top tips for slow cooking

1 The general rule is to put the meat in first, then the harder vegetables, and then softer vegetables and herbs on top.

2 Browning meat before putting it in the slow cooker is not essential. The way I see it, if you make it complicated, people are going to swerve it and call for a takeaway instead.

3 If I am cooking at home, I throw a stock cube into most things. The jelly pots are actually quite good.

When the slow cooker has worked its magic, I add a splash of sherry vinegar at the end to liven it up and freshen the whole dish.

PORK CARNITAS WITH PINEAPPLE AND CITRUS

Serves four

Pork carnitas with pineapple and citrus. Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times.
Pork carnitas with pineapple and citrus. Photograph: Tom Honan

Ingredients
1kg pork shoulder, left whole
2 onions, finely sliced
1 bulb garlic, peeled and chopped finely
3 red chillies, thinly sliced
Half a pineapple, peeled and diced
3 limes, juice and zest of
2 oranges, juice and zest of
1 stick of cinnamon, broken into 3-4 pieces
2tsp salt
2tsp ground cumin
200ml of cider (or two-thirds of a can of cola)
Splash of sherry vinegar at the end, just before serving

To serve
Taco shells or tortillas
Guacamole
Sour cream

Method
The method for this is very simple, just put the pork in the slow cooker first and layer up with onions, garlic and pineapple, with the chilies and spices on top.

I use a slow cooker that has a high and low setting. You can either turn it to high for six hours, or use the the low setting and cook overnight

I have had great results leaving the lid off for the final hour, it tightens the sauce nicely.

Once it is cooked, take the meat out and shred it. Serve in taco shells or wrapped in flour or corn tortillas, with a dollop of guacamole and sour cream.

SLOW-COOKED CONFIT LAMB WITH HERB SALSA

Serves four

Slow cooked confit lamb with herby salsa. Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times
Slow cooked confit lamb with herb salsa. Photograph: Tom Honan

Ingredients
Half a lamb shoulder – around 1.5 kg
100g oil (you can use duck fat, vegetable oil, butter or lard)
2 cloves garlic
1 fresh bay leaf
1 sprig thyme
2tsp salt
2tsp black pepper

For the salsa
1tbsp (generous) each of tarragon, parsley, basil and mint leaves (I prefer curly parsley, but flat works too)
1 shallot, finely diced
4 anchovies (optional, but they really bring the dish together)
2tbsp mint sauce
2tbsp white wine vinegar
2tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2tbsp vegetable oil

Method
Rub the lamb shoulder with the salt and pepper and put it in the pot, broad side down, so as much of the lamb as possible is in contact with the bottom of the slow cooker.

Turn the cooker on to high and add the oil and seasonings after the lamb. I found that three to four hours on high, then two to three on low – with the lid off – works best.

You should have a nice crust, but if not, whacking it under a hot grill fixes that.

Just before the meat is ready, make the salsa by blitzing all the ingredients together in a food processor. The anchovies will supply the salt, but if you think it needs a pinch of salt, too, go for it.

If you’d rather make the salsa in advance, add the vinegar just before serving, so it retains the green of the herbs.

I have a soft spot for mint sauce, and I find it is better here than fresh mint alone, as it brings a rounded sweetness to the salsa.

To serve, drizzle the meat with the herby salsa and sprinkle with some coarse sea salt.

CHEESY LAMB AND BEEF MEATBALLS

Serves four

Cheesy lamb and beef meatballs. Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times
Cheesy lamb and beef meatballs. Photograph: Tom Honan

Ingredients
200g minced lamb
200g minced beef – ask for 20-per-cent-fat or burger mince
2tsp garlic powder
2tsp salt
1tsp dried oregano
2 eggs
50ml milk
65g breadcrumbs
100g fresh mozzarella, dried on a paper towel and cut into 1cm pieces

For the sauce
1 tin good-quality chopped tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2tsp sugar
2tsp salt

Method
Make the meatball mix by combining everything except the cheese. Mix it very well but don’t use a blender, it will make the balls springy and tough. Use your hands and it will end up a nicer, fluffier texture.

When the mix is made, take a piece the size of a golf ball and wrap it around a piece of mozzarella, ensuring it is enclosed – we don’t want that cheese escaping and denying you the joy of biting into it.

When the meatballs are all formed, pop them into the slow cooker and pour the tin of chopped tomatoes in, then add the garlic, sugar and salt. Cook on the low setting for four to five hours.

Serve with buttered spaghetti and torn fresh basil. They also make a mean meatball sub for lunch the next day.

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