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AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala. – During the holidays, there are many reasons to gather around the table for food and fellowship. Taking the time to cook that food, in addition to everyday meals, can put a strain on the schedule. Slow cookers are great tools that can help you sail through the holidays unscathed.

Read the Manual First

Depending on the brand of slow cooker you have, there may be different care and cooking instructions. Slow cookers are often sold as a put-it-and-leave-it type of appliance. However, this is not always the case. Some cookers may be left unattended, while others may need supervision during the cooking process. Think about safety first and follow manufacturer recommendations.

Janice Hall, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System coordinator in Macon County, said this is why it is imperative to read the manual before using the slow cooker.

“The manual should provide certain guidelines–such as the proper safety, care and cooking suggestions–for that particular slow cooker,” Hall said.

Thaw Before Cooking

While it may be tempting to put items directly from the freezer into the slow cooker, Hall said all meats and poultry should be completely thawed before cooking. If not thawed, you run the risk of the food entering what is known as the temperature danger zone. In a slow cooker, frozen meats may not reach 140 F quickly enough, resulting in risk of a food borne illness.

“Bacteria grows rapidly at temperatures between 70 and 125 F,” Hall said. “Because slow cookers cook food at a low temperature over several hours (generally between 170 and 280F), frozen items would enter the danger zone as they thaw.”

Cook at the Correct Temperature

Slow Cooker White Chicken ChiliIn addition to thawing, it is equally as important to preheat the cooker and cook foods at the correct temperature.

“Preheating allows the food to have a head start on the cooking process,” Hall said. “Also, do not cook foods on the warm setting. This setting does not allow temperatures to get high enough to properly cook the food.”

While the food is cooking, make sure to keep the lid closed. Opening the lid to check on the food will allow heat to escape, lowering the temperature by 10 to 15 F each time it is opened. This substantially increases the overall cooking time.

Any time you are using a slow cooker–especially for meats–always check the internal temperature before consuming. The following are the proper cooking temperatures for commonly cooked meals 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

Cool Down, Then Store

If you are using a slow cooker to make meals ahead of time–or have any leftovers–you must let the food cool down before storing it.

“Divide the food into smaller portions–using stainless steel containers–and place the containers into an ice bath,” Hall said. “Stir the food frequently to distribute the cold temperatures. This will safely cool the food so it can be stored. You can also add ice cubes to the food as a method of cooling.”

More Information

Whether you’re making buffalo chicken dip for a party or a warm pot of soup for dinner, food safety always needs to be added to the schedule. For more information on food safety this holiday season, visit the Food Safety section of the Alabama Extension website, www.aces.edu.