Using slow cookers and keeping food safe

Using a slow cooker properly will keep your food safe.

A slow cooker is a wonderful way to create meals for today’s busy family. This handy appliance can help you create more than the standard roasted chicken or pot roast encourages Michigan State University Extension. Just skimming through recipe books and magazines, recipes jump off the pages offering you cooking convenience and a way to save energy.    

 If you have not used your slow cooker recently or you picked one up at an estate sale, you may want to conduct a simple test to make sure it heats up quickly enough to keep food above the temperature danger zone (above 40 degrees Fahrenheit to 140 degrees Fahrenheit) when cooking. Fill the cooker with two quarts of water. Place the lid on and heat on low for eight hours. Check the water temperature with an instant read thermometer. The temperature of the water should be 185 degrees Fahrenheit.  If it reads above 185 degrees Fahrenheit, you will need to adjust your cooking time slightly to ensure your meals are not overcooked. If the water does not reach 185 degrees Fahrenheit in eight hours, you will need to discard the slow cooker. You are taking a risk of getting sick because the slow cooker is not reaching a safe cooking temperature quickly enough. 

The United States Department of Agriculture recommends these other tips to ensure you prepare a food safe meal:

Begin safely - Start with a clean slow cooker, clean work area and clean utensils. Also make sure to wash hands before handling food and after handling raw meats or poultry.

Keep cold foods cold - Perishable foods need to stay refrigerated until it is time to use them; this assures that bacteria won’t multiply as quickly during the first few hours of cooking. 

Thaw ingredients – Never put a frozen piece of meat into the slow cooker and expect it to cook from the frozen state.  This will keep the food in the temperature danger zone much longer than is considered safe. Always begin with thawed meat or poultry. If you are using a commercially frozen slow cooker meal, be sure to follow the directions exactly as the manufacturers have indicated. 

Use the right amount of food – Don’t overfill your slow cooker, manufacturers suggest the cooker should be no less than half full and no more than two-thirds full. Vegetables cook slower than meat and poultry so put them on the bottom of the slow cooker; add liquid if the recipe calls for it, last.

Settings – Newer slow cookers offer more options than some of the older models. Regardless, it is recommended that the slow cooker be set on the highest setting for the first hour of the cooking time and then to low or a lower setting if available or called for in the recipe. If you are leaving as soon as you have assembled your ingredients, it is ok to cook on low for the entire cooking time. 

A slow cooker should not be used to reheat leftovers. Previously cooked food should be reheated on the stovetop, microwave or an oven until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.  The food may then be placed in the slow cooker. 

The slow cooker can serve as an appliance to cook a meal or help hold hot food on a busy holiday. It works at a low heat, usually between 170 degrees Fahrenheit and 280 degrees Fahrenheit, making it different than an electric roaster that some may use for cooking as well.

If there is a power outage while you are away, Michigan State University Extension recommends that you discard the food. You have no idea how long the power was off and how long the food was in the temperature danger zone. If you are at home when the power goes out, you may be able to finish the cooking process by an alternative method such as a gas oven, stove or grill.

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