Slow cookers and food safety
Five tips for staying safe with slow cookers.
Arriving home on a chilly winter night and opening your front door to be greeted by the inviting aroma of dinner wafting from a slow cooker can be a dream come true in today’s busy world. An electric cooking pot can make life a little more convenient. And by planning ahead, you can save time later. It also takes less electricity to use a slow cooker than a regular oven. If you choose to use a slow cooker, here are some ideas to make your experience a safe one:
- Safe beginnings: Begin with a clean cooker, utensils and work area. Always wash your hands before and during the food preparation when working with different types of foods. Keep foods refrigerated until prep time. The cooker may take several hours to reach a safe temperature and constant refrigeration assures that bacteria won’t get a “head start” during the first hours of cooking. If you cut meat and veggies in advance, use separate cutting boards and store them separately in the refrigerator to avoid cross-contamination.
- Thaw ingredients: Always thaw your beef, chicken or another type of meat before putting it into a slow cooker. Choosing to create meals with high moisture contents, like chili, soups, stews or spaghetti sauce are good ideas.
- Use the right amount of food: Believe it or not, vegetables cook slower than meat and poultry in a slow cooker, so put the vegetables in first. After they have started cooking you can add the meat and desired amount of the liquid of your choice. There are many options available for liquids you can add – be creative. Do not overfill the cooker and keep the pot covered; only open it to stir or check for doneness.
- Settings: Most cookers have two or more settings as foods take different times to cook. Foods will cook faster on high, but for all-day cooking or for fewer tender cuts of meat, you may want to use the low setting. Ideally, turn the cooker on high for the first hour and then to low or the setting called for in your recipe. If that can’t be done because of your schedule, it is safe to cook foods on low the entire time. Make sure the lid fits tightly to maintain a safe temperature.
- Handling leftovers: Michigan State University Extension recommends cooling the food within two hours after your meal is cooked. Leftovers should be stored in a shallow covered container and refrigerated. Once the leftover container is cooled, you can label it to freeze for a future meal or eat it again within three days. Do not reheat the leftovers in a slow cooker! Leftovers should be reheated on the stove, microwave or in an oven until they reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
By making healthy choices and keeping food safety in mind, we can hopefully avoid food poisoning. Don’t wait for a bout with foodborne illness; be proactive to keep yourself safe. Be aware of cross contamination; thaw your foods correctly; use recipes that are food safe, and if you would like more information about food safety, contact your local MSU Extension office.