By Bonnie Dunn, Extension Specialist
Winter is a perfect time to bring out your slow cooker and prepare some hearty, nutritious meals for you and your family. But there’s more to the process than tossing in your ingredients and plugging it in. Let’s take a look at some safety procedures for using your slow cooker.
If you’re new to slow cooker meal prep, let’s first examine how the process works. The slow cooker, often called a Crock-Pot (which is actually a trademarked name often used generically to describe any slow cooker), cooks foods slowly at a low temperature, generally between 170°F and 280°F. The low heat helps less expensive, leaner cuts of meat become tender and shrink less (and allows you to go about your day while the food cooks). The direct heat from the pot, lengthy cooking and steam created within the tightly covered container combine to destroy bacteria and make the slow cooker a safe process for cooking foods.
Prep and Cooking Procedures
- Begin with a clean cooker, utensils and work area.
- Wash your hands before and during food preparation.
- Keep perishable foods refrigerated until preparation time.
- Always thaw meat or poultry before putting it into a slow cooker.
- If you cut up meat and vegetables in advance, store them separately in the refrigerator. The slow cooker may take several hours to reach a safe, bacteria-killing temperature. Constant refrigeration assures that bacteria, which multiply rapidly at room temperature, won’t get a “head start” during the first few hours of cooking.
- Make sure the cooker is plugged in and turned on.
- Place ingredients into the slow cooker according to your recipe’s instructions.
- Secure the lid and keep it in place. Do not keep taking it off to inspect the food. It is tempting, but in doing so you are reducing the cooking temperature.
High or Low?
Most slow cookers have two or more settings. Foods take different times to cook depending upon the setting used. Certainly, foods will cook faster on high than on low. However, for all-day cooking or for less-tender cuts of meat, you may want to use the low setting. If possible, turn the cooker on the highest setting for the first hour of cooking, then to low or the setting called for in your recipe. However, it’s safe to cook foods on low the entire time, especially if you’re leaving for work and will be gone until well into the afternoon. While food is cooking, and once it’s done, it will stay safe as long as the cooker is operating.
Store any leftovers in shallow, covered containers and refrigerate within two hours after cooking is finished. Reheating leftovers in a slow cooker is not recommended. Cooked food should be reheated on the stove, in a microwave or in a conventional oven until reaching 165°F. Then the hot food can be placed in a preheated slow cooker to keep it hot for serving, at least 140°F as measured with a food thermometer.
From appetizers to entrees, from soups to desserts, the slow cooker is quite versatile and a great investment for your kitchen. There are many models available in various sizes and with multiple features, from simple “high and low” settings to digital timers and more. Do some research, shop around for the best prices, and find the slow cooker that meets your needs and budget.
Happy slow cooking!