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Mitzi Parker: Slow cooker safety tips

During the cold and windy winter season there is nothing more comforting than coming home to a hot dinner that is already prepared. A slow cooker, or “crock-pot,” can make your life so much easier! With a little prior preparation, your dinner could be cooking while you carry on with everyday life. I’ve noticed social media has been bombarded lately with mouth-watering slow cooker recipes so I thought I’d share some information on how to properly use your slow cooker to create a meal that is not only delicious but most importantly safe to eat!
A slow cooker, otherwise known as a crock pot, is a countertop appliance that cooks food slowly at low temperatures, usually between 170 degrees F. and 280 degrees F. The combination of direct heat from the pot, extended cooking times and steam trapped by a tight fitting lid destroys bacteria. When getting ready to use a slow cooker it is important to start with a clean cooker, clean utensils and a clean surface for food preparation. As always, hands should be washed before and during food preparation. Meat and vegetables cut up in advance should be stored separately in the refrigerator to prevent cross-contamination. The slow cooker can take several hours to reach a safe temperature that is hot enough to destroy bacteria, therefore it is important that perishable foods that will be used in the slow cooker be kept refrigerated until they are prepared. The extended time it takes for a slow cooker to heat to a temperature high enough to destroy bacteria puts foods that are not kept cold up until preparation time at risk for being in the bacterial danger zone for too long.
Always use thawed and cut up ingredients in a slow cooker. Frozen meat or poultry should be defrosted before cooking in slow cooker and food should be cut up into chunks or small pieces to facilitate thorough cooking. A slow cooker should not be used for cooking large pieces of meats like a roast or whole chicken because these will cook so slowly that inner portions of the meats could remain at dangerous temperatures suitable for rapid bacterial growth. It is best to use a slow cooker to make foods with a high moisture content such as chili, soup, stew or spaghetti sauce.
Amount of food and arrangement of food needs to be considered when using a slow cooker. It is important that a slow cooker be filled at least half way full but no more than two-thirds of the way full. Arrangement of foods is an issue when using a slow cooker because vegetables cook slower than meat and poultry in slow cookers. To accommodate for this discrepancy, vegetables should be put in first at the bottom and around the sides of the cooker and meats should be added towards the center. After arranging the vegetables and meats, cover the food with a liquid like broth, water or barbecue sauce and then put the lid securely in place. The lid should only be removed when necessary to stir the food or check for doneness.
Slow cookers generally have two or more settings for cooking temperatures. If you will be cooking all day with the slow cooker or are using tough cuts of meat it is best to use the low setting to cook. It is ideal to turn the cooker on the high setting for the first hour of cooking time and then switch to low or which ever temperature setting is best for the remainder of the cooking time. When time does not allow for this, it is safe to cook foods on low for the entire cooking time. After foods are done, they will stay safe in the slow cooker as long as the cooker is running.
If you leave the slow cooker to cook while you are away from home and you return home to discover that the power has gone out, throw away the food. If you are home during a power outage, continue the cooking process without interruption by some any other means available (gas stove, outdoor grill). If you are home when the power goes out and the food has finished cooking, the food will stay safe in the cooker for up to two hours with the power out.
Leftovers of foods made in a slow cooker need to be stored in shallow covered containers and refrigerated or frozen within two hours after cooking is done. Using a slow cooker to reheat leftovers is not recommended but it is acceptable to use a preheated slow cooker to keep leftovers warm that have been brought to steaming on the stove top or microwave oven.
Aside from their aspect of convenience, slow cookers are beneficial for several other reasons. The lengthy cooking time associated with slow cookers makes it very useful for tenderizing inexpensive, tough cuts of meat and slow cookers use less electricity than an oven. Using a slow cooker during the warmer months offers the benefit of introducing less heat to a house than an oven does.
Happy cooking!

Mitzi Parker is Sumter County Extension agent/Family and Consumer Sciences, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service. Contact her at 229-924-4476.