Keep your kitchen cool - use a slow cooker

July 18, 2007|by LYNN LITTLE

It's hot and the idea of cooking in an even hotter kitchen is not inviting. Try a slow cooker.

Many of us tend to use the slow cooker in winter, when warm soups and thick stews are on the menu. But slow cookers also are useful when you want to prepare summer meals and avoid a hot oven.

Slow cookers make meal planning easier any time of year. By planning ahead with a slow cooker, you save time later, and these countertop appliances use less electricity than an oven. The slow cooker is a safe, economical way to cook food. An added bonus is when you come in the door you will be greeted with inviting smells, plus you know dinner will be ready!

Because slow cookers cook foods slowly at a low temperature, many people wonder if foods prepared in them are safe. Most slow cookers cook food at temperatures between 170 degrees and 280 degrees. 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.


Consider these suggestions for safely using your slow cooker:

Begin with a clean cooker, clean utensils and a clean work area. Wash your hands before and during food preparation.

Look for recipes that have been tested for use in a slow cooker. A multitude of recipes are available in magazines, cookbooks and online. Be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions for the recommended use of your slow cooker.

Keep perishable foods refrigerated until preparation time. If you cut up meat and vegetables in advance, store them separately in the refrigerator. The slow cooker might take several hours to reach a safe, bacteria-killing temperature. Constant refrigeration assures that bacteria, which multiply quickly at room temperature, won't get a head start during the first few hours of cooking.

Always defrost meat or poultry before putting it into a slow cooker. Cut food into chunks or small pieces to ensure thorough cooking. Brown the meat if the recipe calls for it.

Do not use the slow cooker for large pieces, such as a roast or whole chicken, because the food will cook so slowly that it could remain in the bacterial "danger zone" - between 40 and 140 degrees - for too long.

Use the right amount of food. Fill the cooker no less than half full and no more than two-thirds full. Put vegetables in first, at the bottom and around the sides of the crock. Then add meat and cover the food with liquid.

Keep the lid in place, removing it only to stir the food or check for doneness. It takes time for the cooker to replace lost heat.

Many cookers have two heat settings. If possible, use the highest temperature setting for the first hour of cooking and then turn to a lower temperature. It is safe to cook foods on the lower setting for the entire time, especially if you plan for all-day cooking.

What should you do if the power goes out? If you're not at home during the entire slow-cooking process and the power goes out, discard the food even if it looks done. If you are home, finish cooking by other means: on a gas stove or on an outdoor grill.

Store leftovers in shallow, covered containers and refrigerate within two hours of cooking.

Reheating leftovers in the slow cooker is not recommended. Cooked food should be brought to steaming on the stove top or in the microwave oven and then put into a preheated slow cooker for keeping hot for serving.

Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

The Herald-Mail Articles