How would you feel if you had an opportunity to assemble your meal in the morning, leave it in the slow cooker, and by the time you come back home, dinner is ready? Well, that’s the beauty of owning the best slow cooker. It saves your time, helps you prepare nutritious meals and most importantly saves lots of electric energy. But much as this method can be an economical choice, there are always some smart techniques you can use to make the most of these appliances as well as maximize on safety.
If you are the busy type and you plan to use your slow cooker for many hours while you are away from your house, the safes choice is to invest in a programmable unit. This advanced type of cookers can be adjusted to either HIGH or LOW for a specific period of time (allowing you increments of 30 minutes). Once the set time elapses, the cooker automatically switches to WARM mode, which essentially keeps your food just warm enough for you to eat. What you don’t want is a slow cooker that heats to unsafe temperatures while you are away from home. Likewise, you don’t want a slow cooker that shuts down after cooking and leaves your food to cool down such that you have to warm it again once you get back home.
Most inquiries on tips for safe slow cooking that we receive revolve around the actual appliance itself. Our suggestion is to always keep your cooker on a heat safe surface (generally flat) away from random kitchen towels or loose papers. Double check just to make sure the cord is not loose or entangled. Don’t forget to check if the vent hole on the lid is turned such that it faces out towards the top of your kitchen; not the top kitchen cabinet or wall. If this is your first time using a slow cooker, do so while you’re still around just to ensure that it is calibrated accordingly and heats evenly.
Much as slow cookers are meant to do just that – cook slowly, it is advisable to start the cooking process with high temperature. This tip particularly applies to sensitive meals such as meat. High-temperature boiling helps you kill all bacteria thereby making the meal safe for your entire family. Some bacteria in our food can survive in temperatures of as high as 165 degrees, so make sure you exceed that level in the first 30 minutes of the cooking process. The remaining time, you can switch the cooker to low heat.
Whenever you find that you need to prepare frozen food in the cooker, the best way to go about it is to first defrost it. Also, ensure that all other ingredients you add to are at least at room temperature. By doing this you will be sure to attain the right cooking temperature within the recommended cooking time. Considering cooking some freezer meal? Start by thawing it overnight or microwave it before dipping it in your pot. The reason for this is that slow cookers are not meant to break down solid ice blocks and your food might take too long to prepare (meaning it might be unsafe for you after all).
Overloading or under-loading your cooker is a big no-no. Slower cookers are designed to accommodate two-thirds or half-full contents – essentially leaving enough space for the cooking process to take place. Anything above or below that would affect the cooking process. For instance, less than normal quantities could mean that the liquid will evaporate too fast leaving the food to burn. Above normal quantities on the other hand would result in overflows.
Yet another common mistake with slow cookers is that people tend to lift the lid again and again. While this may seem like a harmless thing to do, it actually causes your cooker to lose some heat meaning, in the end you might end up with undercooked food despite leaving it to cook for the recommended time. If anything, the lid gets hot over time, and therefore, touching it with bare hands is risky. The only time when it is recommended to lift the lid is towards the end of the cooking process.
There is only one way to tell (for sure) whether your food is ready and safe to eat or not – and that is through an instead-read thermometer. You can do this by inserting the thermometer into one part of your cooked food (preferably the thickest part). If checking meat, avoid touching the bones with a thermometer. Food with pork or poultry should achieve between 160 and 165 degrees F. Beef should be at a minimum of 160 or a maximum of 170.
Never use a slow cooker to warm your food. Unlike your microwave or stovetop, they do not warm fast enough. By design, slow cookers are meant to reach high temperatures at a pretty slow rate but keep this high temperature for many hours. If in case you have any leftovers, consider keeping them in shallow containers and refrigerating them. If this is done in a timely manner (at least 2 hours after removing from the pot), it can actually protect you from the risk of food poisoning.
Blackouts do happen more frequently than we expect. In case that happens, and you are away for most of the day, throw away all the food even if it looks cooked. However, if you are at home, you will only need to finish the cooking immediately using an outdoor grill or a gas stove. Note that if the food was almost cooked (e.g. with only 30 minutes remaining), the food should be safe provided it is not left in the cooker for more than two hours with the power off.
Slow cookers are indeed a dream come true for multitaskers. However, if you flout some basic safety rules, this handy machine could quickly turn into a nightmare. Do not cut corners. Make good use of the imperative tips above to ensure your safety and that of your family.