AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala. – It’s officially slow cooker season! As the temperatures cool down, it’s time to warm up with a slow cooker creation. Before the cooking commences, make sure to avoid catastrophes by using the cookers properly.
First things, first: read the manual. Janice Hall, Alabama Extension Macon County coordinator, said it is imperative to read the manual before using a slow cooker.
“The manual should provide certain guidelines, such as the proper safety, care and cooking suggestions for the particular slow cooker,” Hall said.
Slow cookers tend to have the “put the food in and leave it” reputation. However, some cookers may be left unattended while others may need supervision. Therefore, read the manufacturer’s directions for safe attendance and use of the cooker before beginning.
Get a clean start when it’s time to cook. As always, wash hands, utensils and the slow cooker before handling any food.
Equally as important, make sure to completely thaw all meats and ingredients before cooking. As the food is thawing or being prepared, it is imperative to preheat the cooker.
“Preheating allows the food to have a head start on the cooking process,” she said.
When preheating or choosing which setting to cook on, Hall says to never cook food on the warm setting.
“The warm setting is designed to keep your food warm after cooking,” Hall said. “It will not allow temperatures to get high enough to actually cook food.”
As the food is cooking, as tempting as it may be, try to keep the lid closed. Opening the lid will allow heat to escape, lowering the temperature by 10 to 15 degrees each time it’s opened. This will substantially increase the overall cooking time.
After enjoying the delicious slow cooker creation, cool down all leftovers before storing them.
“Divide the food into small portions, use stainless steel containers and place these containers into an ice bath,” she said. “Stir the food frequently to distribute the cold temperatures.”
This process will cool the food without having to place it in the fridge while it is still warm.
There may be occasions where the power goes out while something is cooking in the slow cooker. Hall offers these recommendations in the case of a power outage:
- When no one is home and the power goes out before the meal is done, discard the food even if it looks okay.
- If someone is home and the power goes out before the meal is done, try to continue cooking the food by some other means.
- If the cooking process is completed, the food will remain safe for up to two hours.
The Cook Anything Slow Cooker
It seems like there is nothing a slow cooker can’t cook. However, Hall says the only food that should not be cooked in a slow cooker are large cuts of frozen meats. This is due to the temperature danger zone, where bacteria can start to grow.
“Bacteria grows at temperatures between 41°F and 135°F. However, bacteria grows very rapidly at temperatures between 70°F and 125°F,” Hall said.
Slow cookers cook food at a low temperature over several hours, generally between 170°F and 280°F. Therefore, it’s essential to thoroughly thaw meats before cooking.
“Cooking frozen meat at a slow rate and temperature can cause bacteria to grow, resulting in a contaminated product,” Hall said.
When cooking meats, always check the internal temperature before consuming. The following are the proper temperatures for some of the meals people commonly cook in a slow cooker:
- roasts of meat – 145 to 160°F
- poultry (chicken, turkey parts and duck) – 165°F
- soups, stews and sauces – 165°F
Cleaning and Storing
Again, make sure to check the manual for the best cleaning options for the particular slow cooker. Some inner pots are dishwasher safe, while others may require hand-washing.
“Once dried, place the inner pot back into the heating unit and store it with the lid in place,” Hall said. “Storing with the lid in place prevents air contaminants from settling in the pot.”
From hearty chili, to a warm chicken dish, there is no wrong seasonal slow cooker creation. For more information on food safety this holiday season, visit the Alabama Extension website, www.aces.edu.