7 Do's and Don'ts For Safe Slow Cooker Meals
A few savvy tips can help prevent a dinner disaster
With a slow cooker, getting a delicious meal on the table is a cinch. Just dump in your ingredients, press a button or turn a dial and walk away.
But are slow cookers safe? Isn't leaving meat out on a counter for hours at a time on low heat a recipe for food poisoning? Not if you keep these slow cooker safety tips in mind.
Related: Guilt-Free Family Meals
Don't fill it to the brim. Packing a slow cooker with too many ingredients could result in food that’s not exposed to heat long enough to kill any existing bacteria. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, in order for food to become completely done in a slow cooker, the appliance should be no more than one-half to three-quarters full. There’s also a chance that an over-filled slow cooker will leak.
Don't riff on recipes. Follow slow cooker recipes to a T, especially when it comes to measuring water or broth. In order for enough steam to be created to completely cook food, enough liquid must be added to cover (or nearly cover) it in the pot.
Don't peek. Stovetop recipes may call for stirring and tasting, but not slow cooker ones. “The pot will lose heat each time you lift the lid,” warns Alissa Rumsey, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For every disruption, the internal temperature of a slow cooker will take a 10- to 15-degree nosedive.
Do defrost. Low and slow is an ideal way to braise tough cuts of beef, lamb or pork. Just make sure individual chunks of meat are thoroughly defrosted. They also shouldn’t be too big. Large pieces of meat or partially frozen meat may not reach a safe internal temperature, explains Rumsey.
Do preheat. Bacteria can thrive in temperatures above 40 degrees F and below 140 degrees F, reports the University of Minnesota Extension. To make sure slow-cooked food stays in this range from start to finish, preheat the slow cooker before adding the ingredients (following the manufacturer’s instructions).
Do be careful when using wine or milk. “Too much alcohol can leave behind a strong, harsh taste because it doesn’t burn off as quickly in a slow cooker as it does in an open pan or skillet,” explains Rumsey. If your recipe calls for milk or cream, stir it in during the last 30 minutes of cooking and no sooner so it doesn’t curdle.
Do precook beans. Dried beans, particularly kidney beans, need special attention. They contain a natural toxin that needs to be destroyed by boiling. Before putting them in a slow cooker, soak beans for 12 hours and then boil them for at least 10 minutes.
Do pack up promptly. Before you get sucked into the latest episode of Scandal, transfer slow-cooked leftovers to the fridge or freezer. “Once a slow cooker is turned off, the food inside should be refrigerated within two hours so that it reaches a safe temperature of 40 degrees or less,” says Sarah Krieger, MPH, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist at All Children’s Hospital Johns Hopkins Medicine.