Safe Slow Cooking
Safe Slow Cooking
Electrical and mechanical safety for slow cookers
Make sure your slow cookery, crockery cooker or crock pot is sitting on a dry, stable surface, not touching walls or other items on your counter. The outside of the crock may get hot. Always inspect the plug and cord before plugging in. Make sure it is firmly plugged in, directly to an outlet; avoid extension cords. To unplug, pull on the plug, not the cord.
Always inspect the inside of the crock before adding foods. Do not use a crock that has chips, cracks or breaks. Don't add hot food to the crock unless you prewarm the crock with hot water.
To be considered safe, a slow cooker must be able to cook food slowly enough so that it can be left unattended, but hot enough to keep food at a safe temperature. The low setting is designed to be 200 degrees, the high setting is designed to be 300 degrees with food temperatures maintained between 170 and 280 degrees. This low heat helps less expensive, tougher 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 the slow cooker a safe process for cooking foods.
A traditional crock pot (where the heat comes from all around the insert) is safer than the slow cooker kind (where the heat comes from underneath). The reason is that when the heat is all around the insert, the food cooks faster and more evenly. The 6 quart NESCO roaster, which is available with a non-stick oval "crock" is even more versatile than a traditional crock pot, you set it at 200 degrees for low and 300 degrees for high, and check it just as you would a crock pot.
Food safety basics for slow cookers
Handling your food properly before cooking helps ensure a safe dinner. Begin with a clean cooker, clean utensils and a clean work area. Wash your hands before and during food preparation. Keep perishable foods refrigerated until preparation time. Cut food into 1"chunks or smaller pieces to ensure thorough cooking, and never use the slow cooker to cook whole stuffed chickens. If you cut up meat and vegetables in advance, store them separately in the refrigerator. Why? The slow cooker may take two hours to reach a safe, bacteria-killing temperature. Constant refrigeration assures that bacteria, which multiply rapidly at room temperature, won't get a "head start" during the first few hours of cooking.
Always defrost meat or poultry in the refrigerator completely before putting it into a slow cooker. To help distribute heat evenly, choose recipes with a high moisture content such as chili, soup, stew or spaghetti sauce. 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. However, once you have tested the temperatures on your slow cooker, it is safe to cook foods on low the entire time.
Fill a cooker no less than half full and no more than two-thirds full. Always put vegetables in first. Vegetables take longer to cook than meat does, so for layering purposes, start with vegetables, then meat, and finally seasonings and small amounts of liquid. To prevent overcooking, fresh dairy products, pastas or instant rice should only be added during the last 30 minutes of cooking time, or as your recipe directs. Keep the lid in place. Remove it only to stir the food or check for doneness.
While food is cooking and once it's done, food will stay safe as long as the cooker is operating. If you are not at home during the entire cooking process and the power goes out, check the temperature with you quickread thermometer. If it is below 165 degrees, throw away the food even if it looks done.
Test your slow cooker for temperature
How can you tell if your slow cooker will heat to a safe temperature? This is the two part test:
1) Fill your slow cooker with 2 quarts of tepid water. Heat covered on low for 2 hours without peeking. Using a quick-read thermometer, check the temperature of the water quickly as the temperature can drop dramatically when the lid is removed. It should be above 165 degrees. If the temperature is below 160 degrees, this means that your slow cooker does not heat foods quickly enough to reach a safe temperature.
2) Replace the lid and continue heating on low for 6 more hours (total 8 hours). Check the temperature of the water again with a quick read thermometer. The temperature of the water should be 185 degrees F. If the temperature is higher than 185 degrees, this would indicate that a meal cooked for 8 hours without stirring would be overdone. If the temperature is below 185 degrees, this could mean that your slow cooker does not heat food to an adequate temperature in order avoid potential food safety problems.
Food Cautions for Safe Crockery Cooking
- Always begin with fresh or thawed meats, do not use meat that is still frozen.
- Rather than large cuts or roasts, cut meat into chunks. For poultry, do not use a whole chicken, but rather pieces (legs, thighs, breasts, etc).
- Cook meat on high for the first hour, turn slow cooker down to low for the remaining time. This allows the cooker to heat up quickly and yet tenderize the meat gradually.
- Recipes should include some form of liquid. If a recipe does not include a liquid, consider adding 1/2 cup of water or broth, or simply use a different recipe.
- Keep the lid closed. Opening the lid to take a peek adds precious cooking time in increments of 20-30 minutes EVERY TIME it is opened!
- Check the internal temperature with a thermometer to ensure that the food reaches 160-165 degrees F.
- Do not use your slow cooker to reheat foods. This is simply not what your slow cooker was made to do.
- To help your food reach the proper temperature faster, you can prepare food on the stovetop, like soups, and get them bubbly hot before adding them to the warmed crock to finish cooking. This will greatly reduce the time the food is in the danger zone. You should also make sure the lid is properly positioned on the pot.
Food Safety Review
In cooked food held at room temperature, there is a chance of Bacillus cereus food poisoning, a major intestinal illness. Worse, if the food is not thoroughly reheated before consumption, there is a chance of salmonella, e coli or staph. Even if it is reheated, when cooked food has been in the danger zone for three to four hours, there remains a risk of food poisoning because heating does not destroy all toxins.
If food has remained in the temperature danger zone for 3 to 4 hours it should be considered spoiled and should be discarded. Reheating the food does not correct the problem as heat does not inactivate all toxins. Food does not have to be visibly spoiled in order to be toxic and cause illness evidenced by nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Even if food has not been at the incubating temperatures of the danger zone for the full 3 to 4 hours, absolutely discard food that is bubbling, foaming, has a bad smell, is becoming discolored, or gives any other indication of spoilage. Discard it out of reach of animals and children and thoroughly wash the pot. Discard it without tasting it as even small amounts can make an adult very sick.
If the food cannot be chilled, an alternative method of holding cooked food is to reliably maintain the temperature of the entire food mass above 125° F (53° C). First heat the food to boiling, simmering for a few minutes to allow heat to penetrate to the center of each particle and for a pocket of steam to collect under the lid. Then proceed as for retained heat cooking. This provides the level of temperature needed throughout the food, whereas leaving a pot of food on a very small flame may allow food at the edges to remain in the danger zone.
If temperatures below 50° F (10° C) cannot be obtained, it is still valuable to drop food temperatures as low as possible and as quickly as possible rather than allowing food to remain warm since bacteria grow more slowly at lower temperatures. Where food cannot be chilled or kept heated, it is safe to cook only amounts of food that will be consumed in one meal soon after being cooked.