Food Safety and the Slow Cooker

One of my favorite appliances, not just during the winter, but during all times of the year is my slow cooker. During the winter, being welcomed home with the smell of taco soup (*see recipe below). In the summer, avoiding introducing heat into the house. And during anytime of the year it takes less electricity than using the oven. Although it is one of my favorite, I still need to remember to implement good food safety practices when I am using my slow cooker.

The first important thing to remember about slow cookers is the easiest: turning it on before you leave. Food left in it that has been turned off all day will not be ready to eat and it will not be safe to eat. I have had my slow cooker for several years and periodically I check it to make sure that it is reaching the correct temperature to cook my food and to keep it safe. Do this by pouring water into the crock to the half way point and see if it reaches 140°F within two hours. If it does not reach 140°F – time to shop for a new appliance.

Make sure the slow cooker, utensils and work area are clean. And always wash your hands before and during food preparation.

Never start cooking rock-solid frozen food in a slow cooker. It takes a long time to heat the center of the food, especially large cuts of meat. The outside may become warm, but the center could be cool, leaving a good place for microorganisms to grow. If using a commercially frozen slow cooker meal, prepare according to manufacturer’s instructions. Spread food out in a slow cooker so food will cook evenly throughout.

Fill your cooker no less than half full and no more than two-thirds full. Vegetables cook slower than meat and poultry so if using them, put the vegetables in first. Then add the meat and desired amount of liquid. Keep the lid in place, removing only to stir the food or check for done-ness.

If you are not home during the entire slow-cooking process and power goes out, throw away the food even if it looks done. If you are home, finish cooking the ingredients immediately by some other means.  If the food has completely cooked and the power goes out, the food should remain safe up to two hours in the cooker with the power off.

Don’t ever put a slow cooker crock filled with food in the refrigerator after cooking. Because the crock still holds the heat it can keep the food at the temperature danger zone for microorganisms to grow, even in the refrigerator. Instead, put leftovers in shallow covered containers and refrigerate within two hours after cooking has finished. Reheating leftovers in a slow cooker is not recommended. Cooked food should be reheated on the stove, in a microwave, or in a conventional oven until it reaches 165°F. Then the hot food can be placed in a preheated slow cooker to keep it hot for serving.

Just using these few safety tips you can be assured that you will be serving safe food to your family, conserving energy, and freeing up a bit of time.

*Taco Soup in the Slow Cooker

  • 1 lb. ground beef, browned
  • 14 ½ oz can stewed tomatoes
  • 11 oz can corn kernels, with liquid (I use frozen to lower the sodium)
  • 15 oz can beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 ¼ oz taco seasoning package (check out the lower sodium variety)
  • 8 oz tomato sauce
  • 8 oz water

Brown beef in large skillet, drain. Stir in remaining ingredients; pour into slow cooker. Heat on low setting 6 to 8 hours; stirring occasionally.  4-6 servings. (Top with sour cream, chopped onion, and shredded cheese. Serve with tortilla chips or tortilla shells.)

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