Are slow cookers a smart choice for vegetarian dishes?
June 19, 2014 6:00 AM   Subscribe

I've read many articles about the flavor-enhancing properties of slow cookers when preparing meat dishes. Are they a good option for vegetarian and vegan dishes?

I'm not interested in the convenience of the slow cooker lifestyle; I simply want to enhance and enrichen the flavors of dishes like vegetarian stews, chilis and curries.

-Do slow cookers deepen the flavors of dishes made entirely with vegetables and veggie stocks? If so, for what recipes do they perform with the most aplomb?

-Which model of slow cooker provides the most bang for the buck?
posted by Gordion Knott to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
A lot of heavily-spiced dishes have a shift in flavor as they simmer for longer; American Chili, or a lot of Indian curries. (see The Indian Slow-Cooker though only about half the book is vegetarian)
Also spaghetti sauce - Italian grandmothers swear by simmering all day, and the crockpot is a great way to do that.

I don't know from brands, I just know that the one feature I'd never do without is a separate ceramic liner that I can soak in the sink without the electric part.

(Personally, I find the slow cooker somewhat convenient, but not a big shift in flavor. Only somewhat convenient for vegetarian foods, because without the meat to distract from flavor subtleties, you want to "do things right" and, for example, sautee the onions before you add them to the pot, which makes it not a dump-it-in one-dish meal any more)
posted by aimedwander at 6:13 AM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sure, slow cookers work for veggie dishes enhancing flavors just as they do for meat-based dishes. But you just want to be careful about overcooking. I just cooked a brisket in the slow cooker and left it in there (on LOW) for 9 hours. If I'd done that with, say, a root-vegetable dish, it would have been mush.

So you might not be able to turn on the pot, go to work for a full day, and come home to a ready-to-eat meal. That's about the only downside that I know of.

One nice thing: You can add dry beans to a slow cooker dish, and they will cook fully. In fact, I think that adding beans when they're dry actually extends the amount of time for which you can leave the cooker on, unattended, since they seem to absorb so much moisture as to somehow "slow down" the cooking. This is anecdotal, though, not scientific.
posted by Dr. Wu at 6:22 AM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not in my experience, as a vegetarian who tried to do the slow cooker thing.

Part of the reason grandmothers cooked stews, chilis, and tomato-based sauces all day was to slowly boil off the excess water, leaving a really thick and flavourful base. With a slow cooker the lid stays on, so your water doesn't evaporate into the air -- it evaporates back into the food. This is great for tender meat and.... less great for sauces.

It's especially bad for things where you want to do a sofrito or a mirepoix, because if you DON'T sautee them before hand (as aimedwander says) you end up with weirdly overpowering-yet-soggy onions, garlic, celery, etc.

Every thing I've ever made in the slow cooker turned out runny and watery tasting.
posted by AmandaA at 6:30 AM on June 19, 2014 [5 favorites]

I make a veggie stew/soup in my slow cooker and I love the way the flavors meld. I'm also a fan of making beans in the slow cooker. Actually, it's PERFECT for beans and legumes. So Chili too.

I usually just buy the cheapest slow cooker that's available. I think my current one is a Crock Pot, and I'd buy the cheapest one with a removable crock. I mean, depending on size, under $20.

I also like these for easy clean up, but you may be squicked out about cooking in plastic (I am a bit, but...convenience.)

I agree, if you're using veggies, like onions, or mirpoix, you will want to sautee first, it does give a better flavor.

But I made some baked beans out of dry navy beans and MAN were they delicious, and so easy to do!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:39 AM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I asked something similar about sous-vide vegan food a while back. Not quite the same thing, but anywho, it's here
posted by monocultured at 6:49 AM on June 19, 2014

Be cautious about cooking dried beans in a slow cooker: some have toxins that are not destroyed at the temperatures used.
posted by hawthorne at 6:49 AM on June 19, 2014

Every thing I've ever made in the slow cooker turned out runny and watery tasting.

I got rid of mine mostly for this reason. I found I had a lot better control and got results that were orders of magnitude better using Le Cruset-style enameled cast iron pots in the oven for controlled slow cooking. You can start them on the stovetop for sautéing onions, then switch to the oven for the slow cook part, and finish by cooking off extra liquid if that is needed.

I wouldn't feel comfortable leaving it unattended all day like you can with a crock pot, so that may be a factor for your use.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:50 AM on June 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have been vegetarian for maybe a third of my adult life, off and on, and used a slow cooker during those times, but it was 100% for convenience, not because it made especially delicious food. I do not think beans are better after cooking for 8 hours in a slow cooker vs 90 minutes on a stovetop, for example.
posted by something something at 6:58 AM on June 19, 2014

According to Deborah Madison in her popular book Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, vegetable stock, unlike meat stock, gains nothing from being cooked longer than one hour. After an hour, the vegetables having given all the flavor they have to give. I'm a vegetarian, and I would never buy a slow cooker, since I'd expect it to be purely a waste of my time and money.
posted by John Cohen at 7:01 AM on June 19, 2014

I make vegetarian curries in mine. I love cooking potatoes in there and mushrooms and onions, but it's solely because I am lazy and love putting something together at lunchtime and eating it at dinnertime.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:06 AM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I use the slow cooker for meats and like the effect with many dishes, but I only cook veg dishes in the slow cooker for convenience reasons; I don't think it enhances the taste of veggies at all. Like, I make a great vegan black-eyed-pea soup in the slow cooker, because it's super easy - just pour the ingredients in and leave it all day. But I've made the same soup on the stovetop and it tastes just as good. I wouldn't make any vegetarian dishes other than stews and soups in a slow cooker because of the wetness issues mentioned above. Slow cookers don't let things brown and they keep in all the moisture; this is rarely what I want in a non-soup vegetable dish.

The enameled cast-iron stove-top-to-oven-to-stove-top method is great, though.
posted by mskyle at 7:10 AM on June 19, 2014

A slow cooker is the opposite of flavor-enhancing. I've seen segments on Cook's Country where they routinely talk about jacking up the flavor in some way to make up for this.

A much better choice would be a pressure cooker.
posted by O9scar at 7:15 AM on June 19, 2014 [7 favorites]

Le Cruset-style enameled cast iron pots

Just to note: the actual Le Creuset stuff is great but costs a fortune; the far cheaper equivalents from Lodge and Walmart work the same, though less beautiful.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:18 AM on June 19, 2014

I use mine most for French onion soup - caramelise a ton of onions, stick them in the slow cooker with stock, butter, booze (if you want - brandy and wine are the general favourites, but we don't drink and thus usually don't bother and it still tastes great). Leave it on for as many hours as it can take/you have to wait, usually six as a minimum. Add soy sauce or liquid seasoning if it still lacks a little umami but you need to serve, and I like to toss over some roasted/dry-fried thyme and (of course) cheese croutons when serving.

I've had mixed success with other vegetarian recipes - curry good (especially the thinner kind with lots of coconut milk), chilli good, Chinese eggplant bad, mac and cheese actually surprisingly amazing (can't find the exact recipe I used but any would probably do), lentil mush not great.

It depends on what you're going for, and it can be a huge timesaver if you're willing to put in the prep and the time beforehand - I wouldn't cook everything like this but I would definitely always cook some things this way.
posted by terretu at 7:23 AM on June 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

I used to use mine for meat stews a lot, but these days I pretty much just use it for bean stews (which I make pretty often, and I always soak the beans for a day first).

I think it comes away with a lot of flavor, but it has to do with ingredients; I use chicken stock rather than water, and I add a lot of savory spices, like chili powder and cumin. I haven't really liked the result when using water as a base, and I don't think it would work well if you wanted really subtle flavors.

(I turn mine on overnight before I go to bed - I just can't stomach the idea of leaving an electrical appliance on all day while I'm out of the house.)
posted by vignettist at 7:49 AM on June 19, 2014

Nthing that a slow cooker does not enhance or concentrate flavors, it is essentially the opposite.

And at the temperatures they are required to run now for food safety (by the way: LO means it takes about an hour longer to get to the same temperature that HI does in a few minutes, it otherwise is the same temperature [source: Cook's Illustrated]), they really don't work very well even for meat over the 8-10 hours people are gone at work, which is the implied convenience even though you're not actually supposed to run them unattended. Most recipes are actually done in about 4-6 hours and then the rest is overcooking. Those recipes are over-seasoned to compensate for the fairly dramatic wettening of the dish.

What you are wanting to accomplish requires a higher heat and a shorter time. I agree with the others that enameled cast iron (Costco also has some very attractive red enameled cast iron) is a better investment.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:50 AM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I hardly ever use my slow cooker now that I have a pressure cooker. I highly, highly recommend looking into one of those - I am also vegetarian and I've found that they're just way better and more versatile for vegetables. You would be amazed at what you can do with a pressure cooker, from roasted beets to risotto to beans, the list goes on and on. The only thing that the slow cooker really does well is chili and there's a limit to how much chili I can eat.

Even when I was eating meat, I never felt the slow cooker added flavor, really, quite the opposite. You have to season twice as much because a lot of flavor just gets cooked away. It's great for cheap, tough meats and, like I said, chili, but that would probably be about it.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:11 AM on June 19, 2014

I agree with O9scar that if you want to concentrate and enrich flavor, a pressure cooker is the way to go.

The killer vegan app for slow cookers, though, is to get a small one (so it doesn't take up much room in your kitchen), and use it to cook beans. For the equivalent of 1-2 cans of beans, put in 1/2 to 1 cup of dried (unsoaked!) beans, a healthy pinch of salt, and fill the crock with water, cook all day. (Kidney beans are the only ones I've heard of that need to be heated to higher temperatures.)
posted by BrashTech at 10:19 AM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm an omnivore. My wife is vegetarian and leans toward vegan at times. She makes an amazing vegan chili in the slow cooker, however, as she does not make this particular recipe via any other cooking method, I don't know if the slow cooker improves the flavor. She has a recipe book exclusively of vegan slow cooker recipes, but we haven't tried many recipes out of that book yet. I suppose if a slow cooker wasn't advisable for vegetarian/vegan dishes, there wouldn't be a 300+ page cookbook devoted to such recipes, but I could be wrong.

I use the slow cooker a lot for meat dishes -- largely for convenience, and also because I am usually fairly inept in the kitchen. In particular there are packets you can buy where you just buy a big roast, dump it in the slow cooker, put the sauce on top, turn the slow cooker on all day, and you're done.

I suppose it depends on the dish and what goes into it. I've noticed that veggies like carrots, celery, and potatoes tend to turn into mush in the slow cooker. That's fine if you're making a meat stew or a pot roast, but if your veggies are the only components of your dish, then you probably don't want to cook them like that. On the other hand, my wife's vegan chili has lots of beans (black, kidney, garbanzo, et cetera), chili peppers, tomatoes (which you WANT to break down in a chili), and canned corn, among other things -- not a root veggie in sight.
posted by tckma at 11:08 AM on June 19, 2014

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