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Slow cookers and food safety

Slow cooker with a thermometer.

A slow cooker or "crock pot" is a convenient portable electric appliance popular in today's kitchens. Slow cookers have several advantages. It's "all-day cooking without looking." They are economical to operate and a great way to tenderize less expensive and tougher cuts of meat (shoulder, round, and chuck).

Is a slow cooker a safe way to cook food?

Yes, if you use them correctly. The slow cooker cooks foods slowly at a low temperature, generally between 170 and 280 degrees F, over several hours. The combination of direct heat from the pot, lengthy cooking and steam, destroys bacteria making the slow cooker a safe process for cooking foods.

How much liquid do I add?

Water or liquid is necessary to create steam. When cooking meat or poultry, the water or liquid level should cover the ingredients to ensure effective heat transfer throughout the crock. Some manufacturers of slow cookers recommend adding liquid to fill the stoneware 1/2 to 3/4 full. Follow the manufacturer's recipes and directions for best results.

Slow cooker food safety reminders

  • Research conducted by USDA FSIS indicates it's safe to cook large cuts of meat and poultry in a slow cooker. Follow the manufacturer's recipes and safety guidelines.
  • Start clean. Start with clean hands, utensils surfaces and a clean cooker.
  • Thaw first. Always thaw meat or poultry before putting it into a slow cooker. If frozen pieces are used, they will not reach 140 F quick enough and could possibly result in a foodborne illness.
  • Preheat cooker. Preheat the cooker and add hot liquids, if possible. Preheating the crock before adding ingredients or cooking on the highest setting for the first hour will ensure a rapid heat start and will shorten the time foods are in the temperature danger zone. This is highly recommended when cooking meat or poultry in a slow cooker.
  • Food temperature danger zone.
    The food danger zone is 40-140 F
    Don't cook on warm. Do not use the warm setting to cook food. It is designed to keep cooked food hot.
  • Soak and boil dried beans first. Dried beans, especially kidney, contain a natural toxin. These toxins are easily destroyed by boiling temperatures. Soak beans for 12 hours, rinse and then boil on the stove top for at least 10 minutes before adding the beans to a slow cooker.
  • Put vegetables on the bottom or sides. Vegetables cook the slowest, so place them near the heat, at the bottom and sides of the slow cooker.
  • Keep the lid on. Do not lift the lid or cover unnecessarily during the cooking cycle. Each time the lid is raised, the internal temperature drops 10 to 15 degrees and the cooking process is slowed by 30 minutes.
  • Check with food thermometer. Before taking a bite, check meat and poultry with a food thermometer to make sure it has reached a safe internal temperate to destroy bacteria.
    • Roasts: 145 to 160 F.
    • Poultry: 165 F.
    • Soups, stews, sauces: 165 F.
  • Cool properly. Do not leave cooked food to cool down in the crock. Eat immediately or place leftovers in shallow containers and refrigerate.
  • Don't reheat in a slow cooker. Do not reheat food or leftovers in a slow cooker; instead reheat on stove top or microwave (165 F or above) and transfer to slow cooker to keep warm (140 F or above).

Suzanne Driessen, Extension educator and Glenyce Peterson-Vangsness, former Extension educator

Reviewed in 2018

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