Love me tender: Are slow cookers worth the effort?

Sales of slow cookers are booming – but do the results always have to be bland? Jamie Merrill puts the crunch-busting appliance to the test

On a cold and dank winter's evening there is surely nothing better than coming home from a hard day's work to find a bubbling stew or creamy casserole sitting ready to eat on the kitchen table. It's not surprising then that in these hard times slow cooker sales are booming and that an ever-increasing army of devotees are returning to the time and money saving device with a newfound enthusiasm. For these penny-pinching and time-conscious cooks, all that remains to do each evening is to soak up the aromas as they chop some vegetables or slice a loaf of crusty bread before sitting down to a delicious and hassle-free diner.

First introduced in the 1970s, by Rival, which named it the Crock-Pot, the slow cooker soon became the must have gadget for the proud suburban housewife. Designed for moist-heat cooking, the slow cooker produces steam which condenses on the lid, then returns to the pot, making it particularly ideal for stews, soups and casseroles.

Now, though, they have shed their retro image and come back into vogue as cash-strapped consumers adopt the ethos of slow, low-energy and low-cost living – slow cookers only use the same amount of electricity as a light bulb and are perfect for transforming cheaper cuts of meat, such as chicken thighs, shoulders of lamb and belly of pork, into tender and tasty dishes.

They are also proving increasingly popular among busy professionals who want to rein in their spending and are attracted by the idea of having a healthy and nutritious home-cooked meal ready for when they get in from work.

Winter traditionally heralds a rise in slow cooker sales, but it is recession that has pushed sales through the roof. Tesco alone is seeing 12,000 of the appliances fly of its shelves every week, while John Lewis and Morphy Richards have seen sales grow 64 per cent and 16.4 per cent respectively since last year. And Robert Dyas, Lakeland and Ultimate Products, a major buyer a distributor of homewares, have also reported significant increases in sales.

Paul Martin, a senior electricals buyer at John Lewis says, "We've been seeing slow cookers absolutely flying off the shelves. Their popularity surely stems from more and more people having to tighten their belts due to the rising cost of living. They offer an economic way to cook as well as having the added benefit of being a real time-saver for those living life in the fast lane."

However, despite this new found popularity are slow cooker really all they are cracked up to be? Won't a good number of them be ending up in the kitchen graveyard next to those redundant bread makers and rarely used smoothie makers? So to put the theory that slow cookers are a great way of rustling up a tasty and trouble free meal, I'm going to try my hand a cooking slow for a week.

At this point though I must make a culinary confession; I hate slow cookers. Ever since my mum relied on them as she juggled a busy career and childcare I haven't been able to stand their bland creations. Mum's slow-cooked meals always tasted the same no matter what they were, and regularly paled in comparison to her fantastic shepherd's pie, Chinese spring rolls, spaghetti bolognese, Sunday roasts and my favourite her tiramisu (all made without the help of a slow cooker). She was delighted then, and not un-amused, to discover, after her years of suggesting I try one out for myself, that I'd be putting one through it paces.

After setting myself up with an oversized stainless steel cooker – there are smaller ones on the market available from as little as £19.99 – a quick search online yields dozens of potential recipes and I hit the supermarket on Sunday night in preparation for the week's slow cooked delicacies.

Keeping things simple I start with spaghetti bolognaise, a dish I'm normally very adroit at, preparing it before work. But browning the mince, chopping the onions and crushing gloves of garlic is real chore at 7am on a Monday morning. Leaving behind a pile of dishes stagnating in the sink I chuck the now diced and browned ingredients in the ceramic pot with a tin of chopped tomatoes and a third of a bottle of cheap plonk. Returning from work, the aroma is certainly very welcoming and only having to boil some pasta is a nice change from cooking a full meal. The end result is perfectly pleasant, if a little bland for a dish laden with fresh herbs, red wine and garlic. My housemate is equally unimpressed as he digs into his share, "It's quite disappointing for a dish with so many fresh ingredients," he says.

The next day an Irish stew, using diced lamb, stock, potatoes, carrots and thyme, is certainly a more flavoursome affair and nice and hearty for a cold winter's evening when served with a side of spinach and new potatoes. Even if I do have to buy off my housemates with large helpings that could otherwise be frozen for the weekend – our kitchen isn't large and they are complaining that the slow cooker is taking over. It's becoming clear, though, that if I'm to rustle up any of the truly delicious meals that slow cooker fans rave about I'll need some expert advice.

Taking a break from slow cooking on Wednesday I turn to Judith Finlayson, author of The 150 Best Slow Cooker Recipes and Delicious & Dependable Slow Cooker Recipes, for some sage advice on how to finish the week in style. "It's true that slow cooking does tend to mitigate flavour. But this can be dealt with by using lots of aromatics like onions and garlic. Instead of grinding peppercorns, I crush them in a mortar so they release their flavour slowly as the dish cooks. So too with, seeds such as cumin, fennel, coriander. With rosemary and thyme, I'll often use the fresh version but toss the whole stem in, along with the leaves. The stem cooks slowly, releasing flavour and keeping the dish seasoned. Also I'll add spices such as fresh chillies at the end of the cooking time, and just cook them long enough for the flavours to meld," she says.

With Finlayson's tips in mind I risk a green Thai curry on Thursday and curried lamb shanks to end the week. Thai curry, complete with fresh lemon grass, chillies, lime leaves and fresh herbs, isn't cheap and requires some serious preparation. Yet despite being left to cook for nearly 18 hours it is totally delicious. The slow heat and the late addition of further herbs has really melded the different flavours together in a true Thai fusion. Friday's curried lamb shanks are equally successful, which is good because I'm entertaining. I clock off work early from work – I'm discovering slow cooking is not always as convenient as you think – to re-season them with fresh coriander and more curry powder before serving with rice, mango chutney and poppadoms. Easily the highlight of the week – with my dinner guest, and my housemates who've taken to dipping into the pot for a sneak taste, they go down a treat. "The meat's so tender," notes my guest, "It just drops off the bone."

With my week over I'm not sure slow cooking is for me but I do agree with Finlayson that, "there is nothing better than a piece of tender meat bathed in a deep luscious sauce or a hearty soup accompanied by farmhouse cheese and some whole grain bread when you come home from work." The flip side of that, however, is all the work you had to put in that morning – I'm just not a morning person so all the preparation is a real annoyance. And it's not just the chopping: meat has to be browned, garlic crushed and onions softened. Hence the smelly fingers and being late for work most days this week. What's more, throwing all the ingredients in at once means you miss out on the rewarding process of tasting and seasoning as you enjoy a post-work glass of wine.

The biggest advantage that a slow cookers offers, and the reason why they are proving so popular at the moment, isn't their convenience or flavour – I found both of these benefits to be marginal – but that they really can save you money. "The slow cooker is the perfect appliance for a recession. It performs best with the less expensive cuts of meat and does a fabulous job with inexpensive staples such a root vegetables, lentils and beans. So people can cut back on their food budgets, while producing delicious, nutritious food," says Finlayson.

So while I might not be joining the ranks of the slow cooker converts just yet I'll certainly be keeping mine around for the next year or so for that occasional comforting stew. Finlayson might be slightly gushing but she does have a point. "A slow cooker is the perfect appliance for a recession. They cook the kind of comfort food that offers the culinary equivalent of a haven in a heartless world."

Osso Buco with Lemon Gremolata

Slow cooking isn't just about plain, hearty stews. Here's one of Judith Finlayson's favourites to cook up when you have guests.

Serves 6 to 8

Large (minimum 5 quart) slow cooker

This is probably my all-time favourite veal dish. I love the wine-flavoured sauce and the succulent meat, enhanced with just a soupçon of gremolata, pungent with fresh garlic and lemon zest. But best of all, I adore eating the marrow from the bones, a rare and delicious treat. Pass coffee spoons to ensure that every mouth-watering morsel is extracted from the bone.

1 package (14g) dried porcini mushrooms
250ml boiling water
50ml flour
1 tsp salt
1/2tsp freshly ground black pepper
6 to 8 sliced veal shanks
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
3 leeks, white part only, cleaned and thinly sliced
2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon dried thyme or 2 sprigs fresh thyme
125ml dry white wine

Lemon Gremolata

2 cloves garlic, minced
250ml finely chopped parsley
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

In a heatproof bowl, combine porcini mushrooms and boiling water. Let stand for 30 minutes. Drain through a fine sieve, reserving liquid. Pat mushrooms dry with paper towel and chop finely. Set aside.

In a bowl, mix together flour, salt and black pepper. Lightly coat veal shanks with mixture, shaking off the excess. Set any flour mixture remaining aside.

In a large skillet, heat oil and butter over medium heat. Add veal and cook until lightly browned on both sides. Transfer to slow cooker.

Add leeks, carrots and celery to pan and stir well. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook until vegetables are softened, about 10 minutes. Increase heat to medium. Add garlic, thyme and reserved mushrooms and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add reserved flour mixture, and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add wine and reserved mushroom liquid and bring to a boil.

Pour mixture over veal, cover and cook on Low for 12 hours, until veal is very tender.

For the Lemon Gremolata: just before serving, combine garlic, parsley, lemon zest and olive oil in a small serving bowl and pass around the table, allowing guests to individually garnish.

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