During the winter, menu planning often turns more to soups and stews than at other times of the year. When that happens, a slow cooker is the perfect appliance for preparing a nutritious meal that is ready when you walk through the door at the end of the day. A slow cooker or “crock pot” is a convenient portable electric appliance popular in today’s kitchens. Slow cookers have several advantages. It’s “all-day cooking without looking.” They are economical to operate and can be used to produce flavorful soups and stews. While many of us find that a slow cooker is our go-to choice for cooking soups and stews in the winter, a slow cooker can be handy any time of year. The slow cooker operates at low temperature, generally between 170° and 280°F. The combination of direct heat from the pot, lengthy cooking, and steam destroy bacteria, making the slow cooker a safe process for cooking foods as long as a few steps are followed.
Slow cooker food safety steps
- Start clean. Start with clean hands, utensils surfaces and a clean cooker.
- Thaw first. For food-safety sake, thaw meat or poultry before putting it into a slow cooker. If frozen meat is used, it may not reach above 140°F quickly enough (out of the Danger Zone), possibly allowing harmful bacteria to grow. If using a commercially frozen slow cooker meal, prepare according to the manufacturer’s instructions
- Set up for safety. Especially when cooking meat or poultry, it’s a good idea to set the cooker to the ‘high’ setting for at least the first hour. After the first hour, the temperature can be lowered for the remainder of the cooking time. Do not use the ‘warm’ setting to cook food. You can safely use the ‘warm’ setting to hold cooked food at the proper temperature prior to serving.
- Use the right amount of food. Fill the cooker no more than 3/4 full. An overly full cooker may heat too slowly. Surprisingly, vegetables cook slower than meats, so for best quality, put vegetables in first. Large cuts of meat and poultry may be safely cooked in a slow cooker; consult the instruction booklet for suggested sizes of meat pieces that can be safely prepared.
- Add the right amount of liquid. A slow cooker heats using moist steam heat. Be sure to add the amount of liquid called for in your recipe, generally at least 1-2 cups.
- Keep the lid on. Resist the temptation to lift the lid or open the cover during the cooking cycle. Each time the lid is raised, the internal temperature drops 10 to 15°F, slowing the cooking process and possibly putting food into the Danger Zone. Removing the lid also releases steam which is a definite ‘no no.’
- Check with a food thermometer to make sure your meal is ready. Before taking a bite, check with a food thermometer to make sure your meal has reached a safe internal temperature:
- Roasts: 145 to 160°F.
- Poultry: 165°F.
- Soups, stews, sauces: 165°F.
- Cool properly. Do not leave cooked food to cool down in the cooker. Once the cooker is turn off, serve immediately or place leftovers in shallow containers and refrigerate.
The USDA has attractive handouts on Slow Cookers and Food Safety available in English and En Espanol. Stay food-safe, Barb