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I frequently hear people telling me about how wonderful their slow cookers (AKA "crock pot") are. In many cases they're right - meat that tends to come out tough in normal cooking comes out very tender from a slow cooker.

But do I really need a slow cooker to pull this off? It seems like such a basic concept - simmer and/or steam at low heat. What's so special about these devices? For kitchens with very limited space, can a slow cooker be "synthesized" from other cooking implements, or is there really no substitute?

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I'm still waiting for someone to make a combination slow cooker / rice cooker / deep fryer / steamer for apartment dwellers ... they're all just a container with a heater. (and rice cookers will switch to warm when the water's absorbed, whereas I don't know if any slow cookers will) –  Joe Jul 10 '10 at 15:13
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I have a rice cooker with 3 of the 4 - slow cooker/rice cooker/steamer. If you were feeling MacGuyverish, you could probably repurpose it for a deep fryer - I've never checked it's maximum temp. –  Eclipse Jul 10 '10 at 16:23
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@Joe - my slow cooker switches to warm when done. Many programmable ones do. –  justkt Aug 11 '10 at 12:53
    
@justkt : most slow cookers switch to warm after a pre-determined time, or some of the new ones because you hit temp with a probe thermometer, not because there's no water available like a rice cooker will. –  Joe Aug 11 '10 at 13:25
    
It's just an oven on low - only difference is the cost and possibly safety of leaving your oven on for 8hours –  Martin Beckett Mar 29 '11 at 5:08

12 Answers 12

up vote 16 down vote accepted

Your best bet would be a dutch oven on a low to medium low heat in the oven. You could use a regular pot in the oven, but you'd need to stir it regularly (maybe every hour) to stop everything from sticking to the sides and burning.

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This is exactly how I make pulled pork in the winter and a few similar dishes. Would you say it's the same as using a slow cooker? (Since I don't own one, I can't compare.) –  Aaronut Jul 10 '10 at 14:15
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I actually prefer it to a slow cooker. I find things in a slow cooker turn out "wet" as opposed to moist, particularly meat. I like the dutch oven as I find meat is tender, but still has a bit of "structure". In a slow cooker I find it almost makes the meat mushy. –  lomaxx Jul 10 '10 at 14:26
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You can also get creative by burying your dutch oven in the ground with some hot (heated in a fire) rocks underneath, and on top of it, then burying it with dirt. Granted, you'll have to be comfortable with digging holes in your yard and handling hot rocks, but it is fun. :) Oh yes, don't heat rocks that you've pulled from a river or lake. The water absorbed in them will turn to steam and can cause catastrophic explosions. –  hobodave Jul 15 '10 at 14:16

The thing with slow cooking, is that the temperature (for meat, at least) should be stable, and not fluctuate.

You can create your own, more portable and expandable sous vide equipment quite cheap: http://seattlefoodgeek.com/2010/02/diy-sous-vide-heating-immersion-circulator-for-about-75/

An oven probably can't be used, as the temperature in an oven changes too much (100C setting on the oven might mean that the real temperature in the oven changes between 90C and 110C).

Sous vide can also be accomplished with a PID temperature controller, a simple, electrical heatplate and a regular pot or a rice cooker with an analogue switch (link).

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If you're wet cooking, then the liquid will buffer the temperature, and it should be fairly stable. (braising) –  Chris Cudmore Jul 22 '10 at 14:16

the short answer is you don't have to.

if you use a gas stove to simulate these slow cookers you need to have a really small fire (sometimes, even the smallest inner ring is too much for the food) and eventually you will be using more money for the heating. sometimes you can't easily cook thing without boiling when using gas stove which you can easily with the temperature regulated cookers.

plus there is less fire hazard associated with it.

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I don't believe there is anything that can be cooked in a slow cooker that can't also be cooked by conventional methods, in a casserole dish, with the same results. The most important question is how to prepare the ingredients correctly.

Any cut of meat, if not treated correctly, can turn out 'tough' or 'rubbery' so the first thing to do is get to understand how to prepare meat. Believe me, it's not as simple as it sounds.

There are also downsides to slow cookers, some of which have resulted in hospital cases through poisoning, simply because the slow cooker wasn't able to supply enough heat. Vegetables loose more nutrients through slow cooking as well as their colour.

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I agree. A slow cooker has the advantage though that it is designed, and thus save, to leave running while you are not at home. –  user2215 Sep 7 '10 at 3:08
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If you're eating the liquid in which the vegetables have been cooked, will you still get the nutrients? –  Martha F. Sep 21 '10 at 1:36
    
@MarthaF. : Not entirely; some nutrients break down when cooked, so they might no longer be in the dish at all. This is a good thing in some cases, as humans can't always absorb the nutrients in the initial form. –  Joe Dec 29 '13 at 16:48

I'd go with @lomaxx's suggestion first of a dutch oven (or any heavy oven-safe pot or crock with a heavy lid) in the oven, but the trick here is either thermal mass or insulation to help even out the temperatures in the oven that @jmoeller mentioned, and keep the food temperature from fluctuating significantly

You might be able to get decent results with a lighter weight pot by adding thermal mass to the oven (pizza stone, bricks, etc.), but I've never tried it for this purpose -- only for baking.

update : @JulesLT's comment remind me of something -- before everyone had ovens in their home, and you'd take your stews and the like to the town baker to throw in his oven after the morning's bread baking was done, you might seal the dish with bread. It doesn't have to taste good, as it's going to be thrown away, but you mix flour and water into a dough, then roll it into a strand that you can press into the top rim of the dish, then press the lid on.

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I use a cast-iron casserole with a heavy lid. With some recipes it can help to add a tightly wrapped layer of foil over the top of the casserole before putting the lid on top, if you want to keep even more moisture in than the heavy lid alone will provide. –  JulesLt Aug 14 '10 at 14:41
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It should be noted that, as @JulesLt said, sealing the lid tightly is best for some recipes, but not others. For example, when I make chili I put a pot in the oven, but I leave the lid slightly ajar because I want the chili to stay at as low a simmer as possible and reduce while cooking. –  CodyP Dec 28 '13 at 17:41

If the recipe is a small quantity (stew for one person), you can use an insulating container like a Thermos.

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I quite frequently cook thing in my oven (electric).

I simply place the meat in a oven-proof pot along with water. Usually so that it just covers the meat. Then place the oven at around 100˚C/212˚F and wait 4-8 hours.

Has worked like a charm so far.

Just consider the state of your oven if you dear this. And make sure there if enough of water. I also make sure that the lid is quite tight-fitting, so that if the food-stuff would attempt to take fire there will not be oxygen enough to sustain a proper fire.

Remember that when you cook meat first it's undercooked. Then overcooked, then through-cooked. When the ligaments and filaments starts to turn soft.

Good luck Leif

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Well, I've never tried but this is on my to-do list: Cook Your Meat in a Beer Cooler: The World's Best (and Cheapest) Sous-Vide Hack

The results seem to be very similar.

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I have no idea if this would actually work - I suspect that beer coolers are not that good at insulating - but an interesting idea nevertheless! –  Aaronut Jul 15 '10 at 13:58
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I have a meat smoker, and I use a cooler like the one in the article to hold smoked meat. It can keep a brisket or pork butt piping hot for hours. –  Kenster Dec 15 '10 at 22:18

The key to slow cooking with a conventional oven is making sure the dish is piping hot before you put it in. If you have an oven on a low temperature it will never get the dish up to temperature and wont cook it properly.

Make your casserole on a hob, get it all hot. Then put in your casserole dish and in the oven. (I usually use a casserole dish that can also be used on the hob). You can then put your oven on its lowest possible setting and almost leave it as long as you want.

I often get the ingredients together in the evening, boil it all up on the hob in the morning, then put it in the oven all day whilst I'm at work. Usually around 12 hours in the oven.

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I have a Hamilton Beach 18-quart roaster oven. You can use it as all those things (with accesories) and I love it. Hope this helps you out.

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What do you mean when you say you can use it as "all those things"? What are "those things"? –  lemontwist Nov 2 '12 at 21:59

I found this book at my local library. Her method is actually patented. It's slow cooker-ish in that everything goes into one pot - dutch oven - all at once. Layering ingredients correctly is the key for the meat to cook while also cooking the veggies but not over cooking. Cooking time is less than an hour. So far I tried the Pot Roast and it worked as advertised.

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Forget electric slow cookers.The best and only way to cook stews etc for hours and hours is in the Clay Bakers that the Germans make. Cook at 100 centigrade. The clay holds the heat beautifully and the results are just fabulous. Plus it's much more rustic to get your clay pot out of the oven and take it straight to the table.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HG7I4Le-buY

I'm 63 and they've been used all my life. My Mum was Dutch and she knew how to cook stews and stuff better than anyone. An electric slow cooker is a waste of space in your kitchen, just another expensive gadget to get in the way.

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While I agree that a Römertopf (the official name of the German version of a clay baker) makes great food, your arguments against the slow cooker are somewhat strange. The Römertopf itself takes up quite a bit of space, and is not that much cheaper than a slow cooker. –  rumtscho Dec 28 '13 at 8:11

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