Slow Cooker Vegetarian Cooking
This essay is an introduction to Slow Cooker Vegetarian cooking.
If you want to have a vegetarian based diet - a diet where the majority of your nutrition comes from non-animal sources - a slow cooker can be a very valuable and convenient tool to have. In this essay I want to briefly talk about how a slow cooker can be used, what it does well and what it doesn't do well, and some ideas for getting started with experimenting with it.
1.What a slow cooker does well
Slow cookers are at their absolute best with bean cooking, especially with bean and pea based stews and soups.
They also work well with root vegetables, and heavy vegetables like squash that have a long or indefinite cooking period.
Soups made with grains, or with grain and beans or peas, also work well in a slow cooker since the grain does not need to be precisely timed.
Stews work well with slow cookers because it is the perfect kind of cooking for flavors to interrelate, merge and intensify in a subtle kind of a way. Higher cooking temperatures and shorter cooking are harder on flavors. Slow cooking is gentler, coaxing out the best of flavor from food.
It is unfortunate that so many slow cooker recipes end up using convenience fast-food processed ingredients for a starting point. The thinking seems to be that, since I am using the slow cooker since it is so easy, I start with easy ingredients to reduce the work.
Slow cookers are very good at bringing out the best of flavor of foods. So, you need less intense seasoning. And, it works its absolute best with simple, natural foods and spices.
2.What the slow cooker does not do well
Whole grains don't work very well in a slow cooker, because they usually need to be fairly precisely timed to turn out well. Also, I have found that with grains like oatmeal, the grain tends to stick a lot to the sides of the cooker, which is the source of the heat.
Fortunately, for those who are so inclined, rice cookers do a very good job with whole grains. There are also other fairly quick and easy ways to cook whole grains, so it is fairly easy to have a main course bean and vegetable dish in a slow cooker, complemented by a grain dish from a rice cooker or steamer.
The other kind of food that does not work well in a slow cooker is vegetables that have a short cooking time, or that need a precise cooking time to keep from being overcooked. This eliminates quick cooking vegetables like delicate greens.
3.Working with beans and peas in a slow cooker
The kind of long, slow cooking with a moderately low heat source that a slow cooker provides is ideal for beans and peas, and is close to the way beans were traditionally cooked, sitting in a pot at the back of the fire and left to cook all day over low heat.
For general information on cooking beans and peas, please see my essay on making beans easy to digest.
Almost all beans, with the possible exception of very long-cooking beans like soybeans and chickpeas, will cook in tenderness in 6 to 8 hours in a slow cooker if they have been presoaked, and if you bring the cooking water to a boil before adding it to the cooker for the day. For chickpeas, I think something closer to 12 hours in a slow cooker works better, so you can soak those during a day, and then cook them overnight and all of the next day.
Quick cooking beans, like lentils, red lentils, moong dal, split peas, and black-eyed peas, cook in 6 to 8 hours without previous soaking, although with split peas the soaking helps them become soft more quickly.
Please take into account that the cooking time of beans can vary widely according to how old the beans are, how your slow cooker works, how hard the water is, your height above sea level, and probably other factors like phase of the moon. Please use these ideas as general guidelines, experiment and see what works best for you.
Here are a few guidelines for getting beans and peas to turn out really well in a slow cooker.
- First of all, avoid adding your spices, especially salt and acidic spices like tomatoes, until after the beans are completely tender.
- With most whole beans, it helps to bring the beans and cooking water to a full boil before adding them to the cooker. Having the cooking water already hot before you start slow cooking can take 2 or 3 hours off of the necessary cooking time.
- Once the beans are completely tender, you can add your salt and other spices, and it helps to give the dish at least another hour before serving for the flavors to merge. I find that many bean stews taste better the second day.
- It is just about impossible to overcook beans or peas provided you use enough cooking water, so you don't need to worry about timing them. This means you can start your beans cooking very early in the morning and not worry about the final seasoning until shortly before dinner hour.
- If you are cooking plain beans to use as a base for other dishes, or if you just want to cook ahead, it also works well to let your beans cook overnight.
- If you are doing a dish like chili, that tastes better if you cook it the day before, you can let your dish cook all day, add your seasonings in the evening, and then put the whole slow cooker in a cool part of the house to sit - I use our basement. Since you can do vegetarian dishes with no meat or other animal products you don't need to worry about the dish spoiling. After the dish sits overnight, I hook up the cooker again in the morning, make sure it has sufficient cooking liquid, and turn it on low and just let it sit all day. For chilis this produces a very rich and intense flavor.
- If you are around the cooker during the day, it works well to cook the beans the first 2 or 3 hours on high, and then turn the cooker down to low for the rest of the day.
4.Adapting other Recipes for a slow cooker
Here are a few general guidelines you can use when adapting recipes for use with a slow cooker.
- First, on using beans -the only thing you really need to be concerned about is that, if you are using beans or peas, that they should be completely tender before you add most of your other seasoning. So, if you are using a recipe that calls for already cooked or canned beans, count on slow-cooking the dried beans in advance for 6 to 8 hours until they are completely tender before adding the seasonings.
- With any recipe, it is worth taking into account that slow cooking intensifies flavors, so you often end up needing smaller amounts of spices to get as rich a flavor.
- With a slow cooker, as with making soups and stews in general, it is a good idea to add your flavoring vegetables and spices to oil, and saute them for awhile before adding them to the cooking liquid. Just throwing raw onions and celery into water won't do much to flavor a soup, but sauteing them first in a good quality oil (my favorite is olive) greatly improves the flavor.
Keep these few guidelines in mind, use a bit of common sense and an open mind, and your slow cooker can turn into a very valuable cooking tool, and a good friend to have when you want to do high quality cooking and have limited cooking time.