Q. Are there any food safety concerns I should be aware of when using a slow cooker?
A. Many of us have pulled the slow-cooker out of hiding and rediscovered how easy cooking can be. As with all cooking, food safety is very important.To be considered sound, a slow cooker must cook food slowly enough so that it can be left unattended, yet hot enough to keep food at a safe temperature.
The low setting is designed to be about 200°F; the high setting is designed to be about 300°F, with food temperatures between 170°F and 280°F. This lower heat helps tougher, less expensive cuts of meat become tender and shrink less.
The direct heat from the pot, lengthy cooking, and steam created within the tightly covered container combine to destroy bacteria and make slow cooking a safe process for cooking foods.
Handle your food properly before cooking to help ensure a safe dinner. Keep slow cooker, utensils, and work area clean. Keep perishable foods refrigerated until preparation time.
Cut food into one-inch chunks or smaller pieces to ensure thorough cooking, and never use the slow cooker to cook whole chicken, since the temperature inside a whole chicken may not reach a safe temperature quickly enough to prevent bacteria growth.
Likewise, don't turn off the heat and use your slow cooker to keep foods warm; the temperature will not stay high enough to keep bacteria at bay. Always remove cooked food from the slow cooker and store it promptly.
Defrost meat or poultry in the refrigerator completely before cooking. To help distribute heat evenly, choose recipes with a high moisture content, such as chili, soup, or sauces. 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.
If you are not at home during the cooking process and the power goes out, check the temperature of the food with a thermometer. If it is below 165°F, the food is probably not safe to eat.
Remember the following tips for safe slow-cooker cooking:
- When doing advanced preparation, remember to store uncooked meats and vegetables separately.
- Once your food is cooked, don't keep it in the slow cooker too long. Foods need to be kept cooler than 40°F or hotter than 140°F to avoid harmful bacteria.
- Do not reheat leftovers in the slow cooker! Use the microwave oven, range or oven for reheating.
For more information on slow cookers, including recipes, see: