After I recently published a story that broke down whether you should buy a slow cooker or a newfangled pressure-cooking multicooker (which you can also use to slow cook), I heard from one reader who reminded me that I should have mentioned one very simple alternative: the oven.
It's a fair point. While slow cookers have been helping us cook low and, well, slow for several decades, people have long been using ovens (electric or wood-burning), hearths and even pits in the ground to prepare food over many hours. There are plenty of reasons for it - flavour, texture, convenience and, such as with Jews observing sabbath, religion.
Really, though, what's more important than the time involved is the temperature, says Andrew Schloss, author of "Cooking Slow: Recipes for Slowing Down and Cooking More." Cooking at a low temperature can give you foolproof, magnificent food that would be harder or impossible to obtain at a higher temperature. Here's what you need to know.
- The principles. Cooking at a low temperature makes it less likely that you will overcook your food. "By keeping the temperature moderate," Schloss writes, "proteins firm more gently, making finished meats more tender, custards softer, fish moister and casseroles creamier." In essence, that's because the oven temperature is below or not too far above the target temperature of what you're cooking. With everything happening at what is basically a culinary snail's pace, you have a lot more wiggle room - up to an hour or two, according to Schloss. There's less moisture loss, happening at a slower rate, meaning meats especially come out more tender.
- The temperature. Most ovens bottom out at around 170 degrees these days, Schloss says. Read your manual and look at the various settings. My home oven's "warm" setting, for example is 170 degrees. Schloss recommends verifying your oven's accuracy by setting it to 200 degrees and checking it with an oven thermometer. If your oven struggles to get very low, just know that the technique has enough flexibility that cooking at, say, 200 degrees instead of 175 will not be catastrophic as long as you account for the fact that the cook time may be less. A probe or instant-read thermometer is a useful tool to have.
- The methods. Braising, roasting and baking are the slow-cooking methods that require the least in the way of equipment or effort. If you have a Dutch oven and cast-iron skillet, you're well on your way to slow-cooking success. A roasting pan can be useful, too.
Essentially, braising involves cooking food - meat, seafood or vegetables - in a sealed environment with some liquid. As it's heated, the braising liquid releases steam. The steam hits the underside of the pot lid, condenses and falls back onto the main ingredient (meat or poultry for the purposes of this guide). So you get a constant cycle that causes the flavors of the liquid and the meat to meld, with an especially tender result by the end of cooking.
Cookbook author Molly Stevens ("All About Braising") likes to aim for a temperature range of 275 to 300 degrees when braising, but you can go even lower to draw things out. As Schloss explains, food in liquid cannot get hotter than 212 degrees, a.k.a. the boiling point of water. "In slow braising and simmering, the temperatures are kept far below a boil, so, for example, a brisket or pork shoulder simmering at 160 to 180 degrees . . . can cook all day without losing moisture and without overcooking - the temperature of the liquid never gets hotter than you want the meat to be when it is done," he writes. "Braising or simmering tougher cuts of muscled meats at these lower temperatures produces far more tender results than traditional braising techniques."
Roasting and baking are, of course, different in that you need to encourage the loss of some moisture rather than trap it. It's a balancing act, keeping as much moisture as you can in the food while limiting it in the environment, Schloss says. Lower temperatures can help accomplish that by cooking off just enough moisture to cook food and make it taste good - "when things are dehydrated, you have concentration of flavor" - without the more rapid evaporation that happens at higher temperatures.
- The difference from slow cookers. Slow cookers allow for very little evaporation in a sealed environment, Schloss says. Compared to food roasting uncovered in an oven or even in a closed Dutch oven that allows for some of the water to cook off on the underside of a hot metal lid, there's a lot of potential for liquid to hang around - great for some dishes, such as oatmeal or meats you want to be stewy, but not for others.
- What to cook. Meat, especially large cuts, benefits the most from oven slow cooking. Because moisture loss is minimal, it can help to brown the meat first, either on the stove top or in a hot oven that you then significantly drop for the rest of the cook time. For example, Schloss's Extremely Slow-Roasted Turkey Breast, a reader favorite from The Washington Post archives, starts with a 15-minute roast at 450 degrees followed by an 8- to 9-hour stint at 175 degrees.
Slow roasting can be especially effective for meats that have a decent amount of fat, Schloss says. But you can do leaner meats, too, especially in a moist setting.
Another category of food that Schloss likes to bake at a low temperature: Custards. They set at a range that maxes out at 180 degrees (any hotter and they can curdle or scramble), which is why many recipes for such custard-based fare as cheesecakes and creme brulee call for using a water bath (or Bain-Marie) to provide moisture for the environment and keep the mix from boiling and/or cracking. When baked at a temperature well below boiling and at or near the setting point, the result is ultra-silky, smooth custards.
Baked beans are another natural candidate for slow cooking, and they'll emerge from the oven tender and creamy.
- Safety. Slow cooking can be especially convenient when done overnight. "If your oven hasn't burst into flames while you're awake," it's unlikely it will when you're asleep, Schloss says. As always, check to make sure your smoke alarms are in working order. That said, if you're uncomfortable with leaving your oven on while you sleep, you can accomplish slow cooking over the course of an afternoon or even a day at home.
On the food safety front, Schloss says that harmful bacteria cannot penetrate past the exterior of whole cuts cooked for a long period of time. That's where browning can come in handy, to eliminate the bacteria before slow cooking. Salting and then refrigerating meat can help, too. Schloss cautions against slow cooking ground meats unless they are heavily salted (such as in sausages) or browned all the way through.
This article was originally published on The Washington Post