I have been cooking meals in my slow cooker regularly for the past 18 years (and writing about it for the past seven!). It's accurate to say that I love my slow cooker. Err, slow cookers; I currently have 14 in the house, and try to use a slow cooker for our main meal four to five times a week.
I get emails every week with questions about slow-cooker cooking, and many of them are about using slow cookers safely. You have questions? I have answers! Here is a top-five list for slow-cooker safety — do you follow all these rules?
The 5 Safety Rules of Slow Cookers
Slow cookers are incredibly convenient appliances, but they do need to be used correctly. Here are the five most important rules for using them safely. You can read more about these rules at the USDA.
- Slow Cookers and Food Safety at the USDA
1. Only use the slow cooker on a countertop or other flat, safe surface.
Most of the slow-cooker questions I receive regarding safety revolve around the actual appliance itself. My suggestion is to always use your slow cooker on a flat, heat-safe surface — like your kitchen countertop! — away from piles of loose papers or random kitchen towels, or where puddles of water might form (in other words, away from the sink or an open window).
I also recommend double checking that the cord is not crimped or stuck under a corner of the pot in any weird way, and that the vent hole on the lid is turned so it is facing out towards the center of the kitchen instead of the wall or top kitchen cabinet.
The first few times you use your slow cooker, do so while you are at home to ensure it heats evenly and is calibrated correctly.
2. Use a programmable slow cooker.
If you do plan on using your slow cooker for long periods of time while you are out of the house, it is best to invest in a programmable slow cooker. This type of slow cooker can be set to cook on either LOW or HIGH for a predetermined length of time, often in 30-minute increments.
After the cooking time has elapsed, these programmable pots automatically click over to a WARM setting. This keeps your food hot and at a safe temperature until you get home and are ready to eat. What you don't want is for your slow cooker to simply turn off after cooking and let your food cool to unsafe temperatures before you get home.
3. Understand the dos and don'ts of frozen foods.
If you are going to cook frozen food in the slow cooker, such as a frozen chuck roast, it is recommended by the appliance manufacturers that it is first defrosted, and that the rest of the ingredients you throw into the pot are room temperature (broth, canned tomatoes, etc.) or slightly warmed. This is to ensure that all the food reaches the proper cooking temperature within a safe cooking time, as designed.
If you are using a bagged "freezer meal" in your slow cooker, thaw it overnight in the refrigerator, or thaw it in the microwave before placing it into the pot. Why? Slow cookers are not designed to bring a solid block of ice like this to a boil and your food may spend too long in the danger zone to be eaten safely.
To ensure your food is cooked safely, the contents of the slow cooker all need to reach 140°F within two hours of operation. The newer slow cookers on the market do this fairly reliably because the sides and the bottom both have heating elements; older slow cookers usually just heat from the bottom, which can make them less reliable for cooking frozen foods. As with all appliances, refer to the enclosed manufacturer instruction booklet for clarity regarding your specific cooker.
4. Thoroughly test vintage slow cookers before using.
It's quite tempting to pick up used and antique slow cookers at secondhand stores or a garage sale — they look so cool! But before using it for your family's dinner, check the heating element and calibration. Fill the slow cooker 2/3 to 3/4 of the way full with tap water (tepid, not too hot or cold), set it to the low setting, and then check with a food thermometer after eight hours. The thermometer should read at least 185°F.
5. Correctly store (and reheat) leftovers.
As with all food that gets stored in the refrigerator or freezer, leftovers from your slow cooker need to be cooled on the countertop to about room temperature before placing into the fridge or freezer for storage. Do this within two hours of finishing cooking. Do not put the hot slow-cooker insert directly into the fridge.
When it comes to reheating, do not reheat food in the slow cooker. Again, it can take too long for the food to come up to a safe temperature. Safety experts recommend reheating cooked food on the stove or by another quicker method, until steaming. After that you can place the food in a slow cooker to keep it warm for up to two hours.
- More on reheating and slow cookers: Super Bowl, Slow Cookers, and Food Safety: An Unbeatable Team from the USDA
Also do not put a refrigerated slow cooker insert into the heating base; the ceramic could crack and food is at risk of not reaching proper food safety temperature. Instead, store food in a separate container in the fridge, then transfer it into the slow cooker after it is reheated and steaming.