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I've heard so much about slow cookers. Everyone seems to have one. Although I always knew they were cheap to run, I was unconvinced how much effort they would actually save me in the kitchen. However, a friend finally persuaded me to have a look on Amazon and when I spotted the Breville VTP105 for the respectable price of £21.95 I decided to give it a try. It seemed good value for a 4.5 litre capacity model.
This slow cooker is black with a removable ceramic bowl that is attractive enough to bring to your table so that people can serve themselves. I can't get too excited about what it looks like but that wasn't my primary concern. It's stylish enough without looking particularly trendy. I am glad I didn't opt for stainless steel because my experience of having a stainless steel kettle is that I am always polishing it to try and remove finger marks. By contrast, the exterior of my slow cooker remains sleek-looking at all times.
The 4.5 litre capacity has proved ample for my hungry family of four and it allows me to feed everyone and have a portion left to freeze, which comes in handy if I'm on my own in the week. I discovered that I was able to make enough soup in this slow cooker to feed 9 people at Christmas. Its generous size (and oval shape) means it could accommodate a whole chicken, although I am yet to experiment with such things, my main culinary interests being soups, casseroles, curries and stews.
Although the ceramic bowl is big, it's not so big that it wouldn't fit in the fridge. For example, if you wanted to prepare your vegetables and meat the night before, you could put them into the pot with the lid on and keep them in the fridge overnight, ready to start the cooking process in the morning. (After all, not everyone feels up to peeling and chopping onions at 7.a.m. before work.)
It is ironic that I never got round to buying a slow cooker when I was going out to work. I work from home now, but I still have hectic days when I am working to deadlines and it is at such times when the slow cooker has proved a godsend. It is wonderful to be able to prepare the meal at the start of the day when I feel fresh, switch the cooker on and then get on with my work, knowing that I won't have to break off at around 4.30 to get the evening meal on the go.
The Breville slow cooker comes with a slim but informative user guide that will tell you all you need to know. It will take you all of 5 minutes to read it, so don't make the mistake that I did and rush in, assuming you can improvise. For example, I didn't realise at first that you need to use less liquid (generally half as much) than specified in a conventional recipe, so in my haste to try out all my usual curry and casserole recipes I ended up with 1 or 2 watery offerings in the early days. Now I'm aware of this, I can adjust my recipes accordingly. On the rare occasions when, despite taking such steps, I have still been left with what I consider to be a bit too much liquid at the end of the cooking time, I just remove the lid and cook on high to evaporate the excess water away. This sorts the problem out.
Teething problems aside, this slow cooker could not be more straightforward to use. You simply put your food into the pot, switch it on at the mains and turn the dial on the front to the required setting. There is a choice of three settings. 'Low' will simmer your food for an extended period of time and is the setting I choose if I am going to be out all day, although such days are (thankfully) rare now. It's also handy for keeping food warm once it has finished cooking. For example, if you are warming up some naan bread to go with a curry, you know the food will stay piping hot but won't start to dry out while you wait.
The 'High' setting will cook food in roughly half the time as on 'Low' and this is useful for me when I fancy a nice fresh soup for my lunch. I can put the ingredients in the slow cooker at 9 o clock, go off to my work room and it will be ready when I break off at noon.
The 'Auto' setting is a useful feature as it allows greater flexibility in cooking. It will cook your meal on high for the first hour or so then switch to the lower setting. I like to use Auto for peace of mind when cooking meats as I know that the high temperature in the first hour or so will zap any bacteria.
The transparent glass lid is in theory a good idea as it means you can check the progress of your food without taking the lid off and losing heat, but in reality it tends to get so misted over with condensation that I can't see much anyway.
Some might consider it a disadvantage that the cooking pot is not dishwasher safe, but this really is not a big problem for me. Unlike dishes that go in the oven, food does not get burnt onto the slow cooker pot so it is simple to clean and rarely needs to be soaked overnight. The lid can be put in the dishwasher but frankly I can't see the point. Why take up dishwasher space with something that is so easy to clean by hand?
Unlike some models, the Breville slow cooker does not have a timer. However, this is not a big deal for me as I am happy to use the timer on my oven.
The ceramic pot is not particularly lightweight. (I imagine it could be rather heavy if you cooked a whole chicken in it!) However, I have certainly not had problems lifting it. The cool touch handles are a good feature as they stop you from burning your hands. Obviously the exterior and lid of the slow cooker do get hot when it is in use, so care should be taken, especially when children are around.
Having this slow cooker has made me enthusiastic about cooking again and I've learned some great new recipes along the way. For example, I have discovered a delicious lazy Mexican chicken stew which has quickly become a family favourite. Although I would normally pre-cook meat before adding it to the slow cooker, this recipe is proof that you don't always need to. Four skinless chicken breasts go straight into the pot. I stir fry a chopped onion and some garlic and add that too along with a teaspoon of crushed chilli, smoked paprika and a can of chopped tomatoes. The meal is then cooked on high for 2 hours. When the time is up I just lift the chicken breasts out and shred them with two forks, adding the meat back into the pot. The meat is so tender that it just falls away. It takes no time at all to shred. One of my pet hates is having to cut up raw chicken, so this effortless stew is a wonderful discovery for me. All I need to do then is warm up a few tortillas in the microwave and maybe rustle up some salad and a tasty family dinner awaits us.
I have also learned how to make the easiest soup ever - spiced carrot and lentil. You don't even have to go to the trouble of chopping and frying an onion. You just put 2 tablespoons of olive oil into the base of the cooker, sprinkle on a teaspoon of cumin seeds and a pinch of chilli flakes, then lazily slice half a dozen or so carrots and add them to the pot with 140 grams of split red lentils and 700 mls of hot stock. You then cook it on high for three hours. When the time is up just add 125 mls of milk, whizz it up in the blender and serve with some crusty bread. It couldn't be simpler. I had a cold over Christmas and my appetite was poor so it was incredibly comforting to have a warm pot of this soup on hand so that I could ladle myself a small bowlful when required. If you don't have much energy but need nutritious meals to help you recover from illness, the slow cooker really does come into its own.
Since I bought this slow cooker I have become much better at using up left over vegetables. It has opened my eyes to how many cheap but tasty meals you can make in a slow cooker and I now keep my fridge full of vegetables and my cupboards stocked with cans of tomatoes, lentils, beans and spices, knowing that I'm just a few hours away from a hearty soup. Of course you can buy cheaper cuts of meat than you might otherwise want to choose, knowing that the slow cooking method will make them tender and flavoursome.
I have always scoffed at the idea of making puddings in a slow cooker but I see it differently now I actually own one. The world really is your oyster! The Breville slow cooker is deep enough to accommodate a family-sized steamed pudding in a basin and unlike the conventional cooking method where you have to keep an eye on the water levels, it isn't going to boil dry.
This Christmas the slow cooker came in useful to make mulled wine, which is something I would never have thought of before. As someone who usually hates mulled wine, I can honestly say that I enjoyed it for the first time ever. The sliced oranges and lemon were cooked in red wine along with half a cinnamon stick and some cloves and bay leaves on 'Auto' for 3 to 4 hours and the flavour was rich and beautiful. As for the aroma which permeated through the house, it was even better than a Yankee Candle. I am looking forward to trying out a recipe for hot chocolate. "Hot chocolate in a slow cooker?" I hear you say. "Has she gone mad?" Well, why not? Imagine how nice it would be to have a supply of hot chocolate on tap throughout the day when the snow is falling outside.
I am very happy with my slow cooker. It does the job I bought it for and has inspired me to eat healthily (hot chocolate fantasies aside!) and cheaply. I think it represents great value for money.
Incidentally, you don't need to spend a fortune on recipe books to get the best out of a slow cooker. The guidebook has a sample of 4 recipes to get you started and you can tweak these basic recipes slightly to create new ones. Also it's worth remembering that there are lots of recipe sites to be found online and I have discovered some great slow cooker dishes at BBCgoodfood.com.
I cannot fault the cooker's performance at all as every slow cooker recipe I have followed so far has turned out to my satisfaction and hasn't looked or tasted different to what the recipe has led me to expect. I use it most days, which I never thought I would. As a beginner to slow cookers, I would certainly recommend ithe Breville VTO105 as a basic, straightforward model which you will quickly get to grips with.
Breville 4.5 Litre Black Slow Cooker VTP105 / The Breville VTP105 slow cooker will make a wide range of easy economical and tasty dishes / It comes with an easy to remove ceramic bowl that can be taken straight to the table / When the cook time is complete the slow cooker swiftly switches on to the keep warm mode to keep the meal at serving temperature / The slow cooker has cool touch handle and comes with a tempered glass lid so you get see your meal as it cooks.Slow and even cookingLow High and Auto settingsRemovable ceramic bowl can be taken straight to the tableCool touch handlesTempered glass lid / Short name: Breville VTP105