Many consumers prefer the convenience of a slow cooker for preparing soups, stews and other favorites. These appliances cook foods slowly at a low temperature, so vitamins and minerals are retained. Also, less expensive cuts of meat are tenderized and meats shrink less. Best of all, the slow cooker can do all this while you’re away from home.
Is a slow cooker safe?
Yes, the slow cooker cooks foods slowly at a low temperature — generally between 170 and 280 F. The direct, intense heat, combined with the bacteria-killing steam created inside the tightly covered container, make the slow cooker a safe alternative to the risky process of cooking foods for extended periods at a very low temperature in a conventional oven.
How to use a slow cooker
Begin with a clean cooker, clean utensils and a clean work area. Wash hands before and during food preparation.
Keep perishable foods refrigerated until preparation time. 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, will not get a "head start" during the first few hours of cooking.
Thaw and cut up ingredients
Always defrost meat or poultry before putting it into a slow cooker. Choose to make foods with high moisture content such as chili, soup, stew or spaghetti sauce. Cut food into chunks or small pieces to ensure thorough cooking. Do not use the slow cooker for large pieces like a roast or whole chicken because the food will cook so slowly it could remain in the bacterial danger zone too long.
Use the right amount of food
Fill cooker no less than half full and no more than two-thirds full. Vegetables cook slower than meat and poultry in a slow cooker, so if you are using them, put the vegetables in first, at the bottom and around the sides of the cooker Then add meat and cover the food with liquid such as broth, water or sauce. Keep the lid in place, removing only to stir the food or check for doneness.
Most cookers have two or more settings. Food takes different times to cook depending upon the setting used. Certainly, food will cook faster on high than on low. However, for all-day cooking or for less-tender cuts, you may want to use the low setting.
If possible, turn the cooker on the highest setting for the first hour of cooking time and then to low or the setting called for in your recipe. However, it is safe to cook foods on low the entire time — if you are leaving for work, for example, and preparation time is limited. While food is cooking and once it is done, food will stay safe as long as the cooker is operating.
Adapted from the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (January 2006), "Slow Cookers
and Food Safety."
Debbie Wilburn is county extension agent in family and consumer science with the Hall County Extension Service. Contact: 770-535-8290.