Toi Degree column: Tips for using slow cookers

  • Posted: Monday, December 10, 2012 4:53 p.m.

Picture it: you opening the front door on a cold winter evening and being greeted by the inviting smells of beef stew or chicken noodle soup wafting from a slow cooker — this is every diner’s dream come true. But winter isn’t the only time a slow cooker is useful. Slow cookers,or “crock pots” as they are often referred to, are also excellent to use all year round. These small electrical appliances can be used in place of the oven.

A slow cooker can make life more convenient. A little advance planning will save you time, since slow cooking is “all-day cooking without looking.” Another plus to using the slow cooker is that it uses less electricity as opposed to the traditional oven, so it’s more economical.

The only thing I can think of that might stop people from using a slow cooker is that they may not think they are safe to use or may not know how they work.

Are they safe to use?

Yes. The slow cooker, a countertop electrical appliance, cooks foods slowly at a low temperature between 170 degrees and 280 degrees, is totally safe to use. The low heat helps less expensive, leaner 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.

Safe Beginnings

Begin with a clean slow cooker, utensils and work area. Always wash hands before and during food preparation. Also be sure to keep perishable foods refrigerated until preparation time. If you have cut up meat and vegetables in advance, store them separately in the refrigerator because the slow cooker may take several 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. 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. Either will shorten the time foods are in the temperature danger zone.

Helpful Tips

Test your slow cooker for safety. For steps on how to test your slow cooker visit:

To prevent foods from sticking and to simplify clean up, you can spray the inside of the cooker with a non-stick cooking spray, before adding ingredients.

Always thaw meat or poultry completely before putting it into the slow cooker.

Choose to make foods with high moisture content such as chili, soup, stew or spaghetti sauce.

If using a commercially frozen slow cooker meal, prepare according to manufacturer’s instructions.

Vegetables cook more slowly than meat and poultry in a slow cooker so if using them, put the vegetables in first (most slow cookers heat from the bottom and sides of the unit).

Large cuts of meat and poultry may be cooked safely in a slow cooker; however since slow cookers are available in several sizes, consult the instruction booklet for suggested sizes of meat and poultry to cook in your slow cooker.

Add the meat and desired amount of liquid suggested in the recipe, such as broth, water or barbecue sauce. The water or stock level should almost cover the ingre

dients to ensure effective heat transfer throughout the cooker. Water or liquid is necessary to create steam.

Fill cooker no less than half full and no more than two-thirds full.

Keep the lid in place, removing only to stir the food or check for doneness. Each time the lid is raised, the internal temperature drops 10 -15 degrees and the cooking process is slowed by 30 minutes.

Once the food is done

While food is cooking and once it’s done, food will stay safe as long as the cooker is operating. Food should not be left in the cooker to cool. If not consumed it should be stored in shallow covered containers and refrigerated within two hours after cooking is complete. It is not recommended or safe to reheat leftovers in a slow cooker. Heat leftovers in the oven, microwave, or stovetop, until the temperature reaches 165 degrees, and then add to a preheated slow cooker. In the slow cooker, food should remain hot for serving, 140 degrees or above, as measured by a calibrated food thermometer.

Slower cookers are an excellent way to assure that you will have a home cooked meal after a very long and busy work day. There is also a wealth of recipes so you can make almost anything from soup, stews, sauces, ciders/punches and even desserts. It’s the easiest cooking you will ever do — or not.

For information on slow cookers visit:

Toi N. Degree is a family and consumer education agent for Rowan County Cooperative Extension. She may be reached at 704-216-8970 or email her at:

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