Tagine vs slow cooker
March 30, 2014 11:54 PM   Subscribe

I have one of these that I use for tagine recipes (with a diffuser on my gas range, usually for around 2 hours). I've been looking at slow cooker recipes, and notice that the ingredients are very similar. What I assume is different is that a slow cooker cooks for longer with lower heat. What is the essential difference between tagine and slow-cooker cooking, and how can I adapt slow cooker recipes for cooking in my pot?
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike to Food & Drink (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Assuming that you're using the braiser with the lid on, you can use any slow-cooker recipe in it and just adjust the cooking time. The primary difference between regular recipes and slow cooker recipes is the amount of liquids used--slow cookers need less than an uncovered pot, since the water vapor condenses on the lid and drips back into the pot. Tagines do the same thing, as does a normal pot with a lid on it.

IMO, slow cookers are basically modern tagines, if less versatile. They came out in the seventies and were marketed as time- and energy-saving devices for the busy woman. Leaving an oven or stove on all day was both expensive and unsafe, but the slow cooker was (at least allegedly) much safer, and almost certainly cheaper. The basic concept for both tagines and slow cookers is the same though--cooking food slowly, over low heat, and minimising water loss and energy use.

Regarding the cook time adjustment, I think that many slow cooker recipes (especially for stews and smaller cuts of meat) err on the side of longer cooking than is needed. I use recipes for slow cookers and tagines however I'm already cooking--if the oven's running, they go in the pot in the oven, and if not, it's 50/50 stovetop/crockpot, because I have a small kitchen and resent the crockpot's ability to eat counterspace. With the exception of large roasts and things of that nature, I find that recipes are usually done well before the alleged eight hours on low cooking time, regardless of what they're being cooked in.
posted by MeghanC at 1:04 AM on March 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

I cook with both a traditional terracotta tagine and a slow-cooker. The main differences is that you'll fit more in a slow cooker, it'll handle "wetter" stews and braises and you can cook and keep warm longer. A tagine (particularly a terracotta one that you soak in water prior to use) requires almost no extra liquid, will give a slightly less soupy result, and cannot be used to cook for hours and hours (food drying out, and the risk of cracking the tagine). Mind you, it's hard to beat a tagine for presentation and there's a school of thought that says the terracotta adds a certain something to the flavour.
posted by ninazer0 at 1:53 AM on March 31, 2014

When I give a big party, I'll often cook some dishes in tagines or similar pots and one in the slow cooker. There is definitely a difference in taste - I find it more difficult to get the right spiciness in the slow-cooker and the dishes come out more watery, regardless of what I do to compensate.
BUT: my guests are equally fond of both types of stew/tagine.
I recently bought a locally published cookbook in Morocco, and in that, almost all dishes are made in a pressure cooker, which led me to buying one and trying that out. In my opinion, this is a great way to cook tagines and similar dishes, so I'll probably replace the slow cooker with the pressure cooker for my next party.
posted by mumimor at 2:51 AM on March 31, 2014

(And I'm with MeghanC: I'd love to get that slow cooker off of my kitchen counter)
posted by mumimor at 2:53 AM on March 31, 2014

I own a clay tagine. The clay definitely changes the flavor of the food. You also don't need nearly as much liquid to cook the food in a tagine as you would in a Crockpot, which tends to make for a heartier stew. Slow-cookers are really slow-boilers, but the tagine doesn't boil anything, it merely heats the moisture inside its cavity to cook the food, so it's better for making chunky soups and stews with minimal oil or broth. You can use a tagine on a stovetop with a diffuser, but I haven't tried that yet. I put mine in the oven, and set it on low.

A clay tagine (not sure if this applies to the terracotta variety) is objectively harder to cook with. Clay needs to be primed before use, so you have to cook your empty clay tagine once for at least a few hours before using it. Clay also can't tolerate quick temperature changes, so you can't pre-heat the oven when cooking with clay. You must put the food together in the tagine in a cold oven, then wait for it to heat, then wait for the food to cook (which takes several hours). (Not sure how this would change on the stove.) I've also been told not to raise the temperature of the oven above 275-300 degrees Fahrenheit, or risk cracking the clay. Tagines apparently have a shelf life, and after X amount of uses, even a well cared for tagine will eventually crack. So that's worth considering before investing in an expensive one.
posted by deathpanels at 4:50 AM on March 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes, you can absolutely adapt slow cooker recipes to your brasier. Just leave out the liquid, keep the heat as low as it will go, and cook for several hours. It will probably end up better than anything you would get out of a slow cooker.

A real cooking tagine cooks at a much lower temperature than a slow cooker, not higher as some have claimed. They are also meant to be used on the stovetop, not in the oven. The whole point of the dome on a real tagine is that it is cool and condenses vapors back down into the food. This effect is completely lost when a tagine is used in the oven, because the dome is hot. This is why they are properly used over extremely low heat (with a diffuser when used on the stove top). Tagines do take a long time to cook, and because there is very little moisture loss they typically need zero added liquid since the meat and vegetables produce plenty of it on their own. I would recommend Paula Wolfert's The Food of Morocco as well as this earlier food forum discussion in which she participated for good information on tagine cooking. I must say that I disagree with deathpanels about how hard unglazed cooking tagines are to use, how they are used, and whether they are ultimately destined to break. I've had an unglazed Souss tagine for almost ten years now and it just keeps getting better.

I think you will find that a slow cooker cooks at a higher temperature than you could do with either your Emile Henry brasier or a real tagine. Personally, having owned plenty of slow cookers in my day, I begin to wonder what the point of them is. You have no control over the heat setting, and almost everything comes out overcooked unless you time it perfectly and watch it like a hawk. They are supposed to be convenient but I find them anything but. If I had a dollar for every meal I have been served out of a slow cooker that consisted of dry meat and grease-soaked mushy vegetables, I'd probably have enough for a downpayment on a house. My experience is that it is much easier and produces a better and more consistent result to go in the opposite direction and use a pressure cooker. A pressure cooker can also do lots of things that a slow cooker could never do. Not for nothing, but most people in Morocco use a pressure cooker rather than a tagine nowadays.

As for adapting slow cooker recipes to a tagine or your Emile Henry brasier, I don't see any reason why you couldn't do it. Just use less liquid, not more, and, if you want to have a superior product, keep the heat way down low and let it cook for a really long time (in general, if your dishes are cooking for two hours now, you could probably improve them by reducing the heat a good bit and going more like four hours). That said, other than the supposed convenience of slow cooker recipes, I can't say that I have ever encountered any that were better than a good non-slow cooker recipe.
posted by slkinsey at 5:32 AM on March 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

I bought a slow cooker after reading a lot of praise for them here, but ended up disappointed and eventually gave it away. I agree completely with the comments above. The one advantage of a slow cooker is the ability to run it while you are out of the house, which I am not comfortable doing with the oven or stovetop.

Personally I get better results with a mix of stovetop and oven braising. I don't own a tagine but after being served an amazing dinner from one recently have been considering picking one up to add it to the mix.

So unless you really need the ability to set the timer and leave the house while it is cooking, I'd skip the slow cooker and stick with your current approach. The results will be better, you save on buying an extra appliance, and you know this is working for you.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:44 AM on March 31, 2014

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