This information has been reviewed and adapted for use in South Carolina by E.H. Hoyle, Extension Food Safety Specialist, Clemson University. (New 02/99. Revised 02/07.)
Many consumers prefer the convenience of a slow cooker for preparing soups, stews and other favorites. These countertop appliances cook foods slowly at a low temperature, so vitamins and minerals are retained, less expensive cuts of meat are tenderized and meats shrink less. Best of all, the slow cooker can do all this while you're away from home.
Yes, the slow cooker cooks foods slowly at a low temperature - generally between 170 and 280 °F. The direct, intense heat, combined with the bacteria-killing steam created inside the tightly covered container, make the slow cooker a safe alternative to the risky process of cooking foods for extended periods at a very low temperature in a conventional oven.
To qualify as a safe slow cooker, the appliance must be able to cook slowly enough for unattended cooking, yet fast enough to keep food above the danger zone ( above 40 to 140 °F). To determine if a slow cooker will heat to a safe temperature:
Begin with a clean cooker, clean utensils and a clean work area. Wash hands before and during food preparation.
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 may take several hours to reach a safe, bacteria-killing temperature. Constant refrigeration assures that bacteria, which multiply rapidly at room temperature, will not get a "head start" during the first few hours of cooking.
Most cookers have two or more settings. Foods take different times to cook depending upon the setting used. Certainly, foods will cook faster on high than on low. However, for all-day cooking or for less-tender cuts, you may want to use the low setting.
If possible, turn the cooker on the highest setting for the first hour of cooking time and then to low or the setting called for in your recipe. However, it is safe to cook foods on low the entire time, if you are leaving for work, for example, and preparation time is limited. While food is cooking and once it is done, food will stay safe as long as the cooker is operating.
If you use your slow cooker to keep foods warm, heat the food to steaming before placing it into the preheated slow cooker.
If you are not at home during the entire slow-cooking process and the power goes out, throw away the food even if it looks done. If you are at home, finish cooking the ingredients immediately by some other means: on a gas stove, on the outdoor grill or at a house where the power is on. When you are at home, and if the food was completely cooked before the power went out, the food should remain safe up to two hours in the cooker with the power off.
Store leftovers in shallow covered containers and refrigerate within two hours after cooking is finished. Reheating leftovers in a slow cooker is not recommended. However, cooked food can be brought to steaming on the stovetop or in a microwave oven and then put into a preheated slow cooker to keep hot for serving.
USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (January 2006). Slow Cookers and Food Safety. http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Focus_On_Slow_Cooker_Safety/index.asp
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This information is supplied with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service is implied. All recommendations are for South Carolina conditions and may not apply to other areas. Use pesticides only according to the directions on the label. All recommendations for pesticide use are for South Carolina only and were legal at the time of publication, but the status of registration and use patterns are subject to change by action of state and federal regulatory agencies. Follow all directions, precautions and restrictions that are listed.