Slow Cooker Safety Tips

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This column was featured January 26, 2011 in The Shelby Star

How comforting to return home on a cold winter day to be greeted by the pleasant aroma of your favorite soup, stew or chili permeating from the kitchen. The slow cooker – a handy, efficient timesaving kitchen appliance – can help you prepare safe, healthy meals and game-day favorites.

A safe slow cooker must be able to cook slow enough for unattended cooking, yet fast enough to keep food out of the temperature danger zone (40 degrees to 140 degrees Fahrenheit).

The slow cooker cooks food slowly at a low temperature – generally between 170 degrees and 280 degrees Fahrenheit. The direct heat from the pot, lengthy cooking and steam within the tightly-covered pot combine to destroy bacteria and make the slow cooker a safe process for cooking foods. Try these slow cooker safety tips.

Safe Preparation. 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 ingredients into small pieces to ensure thorough cooking. Always defrost meat or poultry before putting it into a slow cooker. When using commercially frozen slow cooker meals, prepare according to manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Fill cooker no less than half full and no more than two-thirds full. Keep the lid in place during cooking, removing only to stir the food or check for doneness.

Settings. Foods take different times to cook depending upon the setting used. For all-day cooking or 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.

Power Outage. If you are not at home during the entire slow-cooking process and the power goes out, throw away the food even if it looks done. If you are at home, finish cooking the ingredients immediately by some other means; on a gas stove, on the outdoor grill or at a house where the power is on. If the food was completely cooked before the power went out, the food should remain safe up to two hours in the cooker with the power off.

Leftovers. Store 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 it reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Then the hot food can be placed in a preheated slow cooker to keep it hot for serving – at least 140 degrees Fahrenheit as measured with a food thermometer.

Source: USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)

North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Cleveland County Center, for more information on food and nutrition and food safety, contact Nancy Abasiekong by phone: 704-482-4365, by e-mail: nancy_abasiekong@ncsu.edu, or by mail: 130 South Post Road, Suite 1, Shelby, NC 28152