Nearly two years ago I launched a Vegan 101 Series to celebrate one year of being vegan. This is just one way that I try to provide new vegans, or the veg-curious, resources and tips on the vegan journey.
I had the pleasure of meeting Robin at Vida Vegan Con in 2011 and am delighted to bring her wise words on vegan crockpot cooking to all of you!
Robin Robertson, author of 19 vegan and vegetarian cookbooks, is a 25-year veteran restaurant chef, caterer, columnist, cooking teacher, and food writer. She writes the “Global Vegan” column for VegNews magazine and was a contributing editor and columnist for Vegetarian Times. She lives in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
Vegan Cooking with a Slow Cooker
Although slow cookers first became popular for cooking cheap cuts of meat, it’s interesting to note that bean cooking was actually the intended use of the first slow cookers. Beans are a natural fit for the slow-cooking method: cooking beans from the dried state, as well as recipes that use cooked beans.
When I first began using a slow cooker, I relied on it primarily to cook dried beans. I then began using those cooked beans to make chili and hearty soups and stews in the slow cooker. Because beans take longer to cook than vegetables and other ingredients, I prefer to use beans that have already been cooked in most of my recipes in order to avoid overcooking the vegetables. Another reason for using precooked beans in recipes is that you can drain off the cooking liquid after cooking the beans, making them more digestible to use in your recipe.
Beyond the basic bean cooking, the extended cooking time of a slow cooker is also ideal for cooking many vegetables, casseroles, frittatas, seitan, and even for “baking” desserts. You can use a slow cooker to make such diverse dishes as risotto, lasagna, stuffed peppers, and bread pudding. I’ve also used it to braise vegetables, “bake” breads and cakes, and cook delectable appetizers and snacks, as well as jams, fruit butters, and chutney. In addition to making great seitan from scratch, you can use a slow cooker to cook seitan roasts, and also dishes containing either cooked or raw seitan. Tempeh dishes also do well in a slow cooker, as do certain tofu recipes.
For all its great qualities, however, a slow cooker does not have magic powers, so, when cooking vegetable dishes in a slow cooker, you need to consider a few factors. For example, hard vegetables, such as onions and carrots, added raw to soups will soften well because of the amount of liquid they are cooking in. However, if those same vegetables are added raw to a stew-type dish, they may remain hard long after the rest of the ingredients are cooked because there is not as much liquid for them to cook in. For that reason, when using hard vegetables in certain recipes, you might want to give them a head start by sautéing them first for a few minutes in a little water or oil, to soften them a bit. Another way to get ingredients to cook uniformly, is to cut or slice harder ingredients into smaller pieces – the smaller or thinner you cut or slice ingredients, the more quickly they will cook.
On the other end of the cooking spectrum are the delicate ingredients such as leafy greens and fresh herbs, which should be added to a slow cooker dish at the end of the cooking time, so they don’t overcook. You can even cook grain and pasta dishes in a slow cooker, as long as you follow a few simple guidelines for best results.
Because of how well slow cookers cook many bean, grain, and vegetable dishes, they are especially useful for preparing vegan meals. While some people may prefer using a pressure cooker for beans and other long-cooking recipes, I find the slow cooker more convenient since you can leave it unattended—something you wouldn’t do with a pressure cooker or other cooking method. Even though meals prepared in a slow cooker take longer to cook, they can actually save you time. Because slow cookers cook with a moist heat, many of the recipes you can make in a slow cooker are naturally low-fat or even fat-free.
To use a slow cooker, you simply assemble your ingredients in the insert, turn on the slow cooker, and that’s it — several hours later, dinner is served. Slow cooking can be a terrific solution for busy people who are trying to eat healthier and for anyone who wants an easy way to eat more deliciously. I find it liberating when I have dinner cooking in a slow cooker – it’s one less thing to think about during a busy day. In fact, slow cooking can actually help you to eat more well-balanced and economical meals on the nights when you’re running late or too tired to cook. The reason is that those are the nights when you’re tempted to order takeout, or eat junk food or a packaged convenience food. Simply by planning ahead, slow cooking can actually reward you with the ultimate convenience food.
While your main dish is simmering in the slow cooker, you also have more time to be creative with your side dishes, salads, or other accompaniments. Food doesn’t burn when left unattended because the heating coils in slow cookers cook food gently and evenly from the bottom and sides. The lid keeps the heat and moisture inside. While the benefits of slow cooking make it ideal for when you’re not home, it’s also a great relief to busy stay-at-home moms and others who may be at home but who don’t have the time to linger in the kitchen.
Dishes that have been simmered for hours in a slow cooker can actually taste better than the same recipe prepared quickly on top of the stove because the extended, gentle cooking in the covered cooker allows the flavors of the ingredients to meld into a deep complexity that is often unparalleled in other cooking methods. In addition, a slow cooker doesn’t heat up the kitchen the way other cooking methods do, which is a great relief when you’re cooking on hot days. A slow cooker uses less energy than other cooking methods, so you save money on utilities. It can also help save money because it’s an easy way to cook larger quantities of food that can then be frozen. This is much preferable to relying on frozen convenience foods, which are more expensive.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about a slow cooker is that it can be used to make desserts. Sure, you might expect that it makes great bread pudding or even baked apples, but you can also use it to make cobblers, cakes, and even cheesecakes—all without turning on the oven. I like to see the expressions of people when I tell them the cheesecake they’re enjoying not only contains no dairy, but was also “baked” in a slow cooker.
A slow cooker can also be a great help when company’s coming, allowing you to keep the soup or main dish warm while you entertain your guests. Using a slow cooker also lets you free up other cooking surfaces which can be especially handy for holiday meals. Slow-cooked dishes are also great for potlucks. Just prepare your dish in the slow cooker, bring along the entire unit, and plug it in when you arrive to keep your dish warm for serving.
As most slow-cooker enthusiasts will tell you, it’s the convenience, economy, and great tasting results that keep them coming back to their slow cookers time and again.
Thank you, Robin! Your new book is gorgeous and a great resource for vegans!
Readers: what is your favorite vegan crockpot meal?