Food safety with slow cookers

Tips for staying safe with slow cookers.

Various vegetables in a slow cooker.

No matter the season, come dinner time, the smell of a delicious, ready-to-eat meal is a welcome relief in today’s busy world. By planning ahead and using a slow cooker you can make this a reality, saving time during the dinner rush. When you use a slow cooker, it is important to follow some simple guidelines to make your experience a food safe one. Properly used, a slow cooker is a safe, effective kitchen tool, yet foodborne illness can be an unintended dinner companion if food safety tips are ignored.

First Steps

After selecting a delicious recipe, always begin with a clean cooker, utensils and work area. One of the most important food safety guidelines to follow is to always wash your hands before and during food preparation, especially when working with different types of foods, such as raw meat and produce. You will also need to keep foods refrigerated until prep time to ensure that food spends as little time as possible in the temperature “Danger Zone,” which is the temperatures where bacteria grow the best. Additionally, when preparing meat and produce always use separate cutting boards, or clean and sanitize your work area and utensils between different types of food. 

Food safe ingredients are another key to a food safe meal. A tip to save time during a busy day is to prepare items for slow cooker meals the day before they are needed. If you prepare foods ahead of time, store the items separately in the refrigerator to avoid cross-contamination. Does your recipe call for meat? Always thaw meat in a safe manner, such as refrigerator thawing or cold water thawing, before putting it into a slow cooker. Thawing meat on the counter is not a food safe choice.

Size and Temperature Matter

Slow cookers are a great tool for making recipes of all sizes, from one-person meals to recipes for a crowd. It is important to choose the right size slow cooker for the amount of food you will be preparing, fill the slow cooker between half full and two-thirds full. If your recipe has root vegetables, like potatoes and carrots, put the vegetables in first, then add the meat, and finally the amount of liquid called for in your recipe.  Also, keep your slow cooker covered while it is cooking; only open it to stir or check for doneness. Every time you open the lid to your slow cooker, you need to add 20 minutes to your cook time. The only way to ensure that a food for has been sufficiently cooked to destroy bacteria, is to check the temperature using a kitchen thermometer.

Most slow cookers have more than one setting for cooking. According to The United States Food Safety and Inspection service (FSIS), slow cooker temperatures generally range between 170 and 280 degrees Fahrenheit. Check with your slow cooker’s manufacturer to confirm settings. Ideally, when using a slow cooker for all day cooking, you should use a combination of the settings. In this case, turn the cooker on high for the first hour and then turn it to low for the remainder of the day, which helps get your food out of the temperature danger zone more rapidly. However, if that can’t be done because of your schedule, it is safe to cook foods on low the entire time.

Finishing Touches

Practicing food safety should not stop after cooking is complete. The FSIS recommends cooling the food within two hours after your meal is cooked. Leftovers should be stored in a shallow covered container and refrigerated. Once the leftover container is cooled, you can either freeze it for a future meal, or eat it within three days. Do not reheat the leftovers in a slow cooker! Leftovers should be reheated on the stove, microwave, or in an oven until they reach 165 degrees.

By making healthy choices and keeping food safety in mind, you can avoid food poisoning. Don’t wait for a bout with foodborne illness; be proactive to keep yourself safe. Be aware of cross contamination, wash your hands, thaw your foods correctly and use recipes that are food safe. For more information about food safety, visit MSU Extension's Safe Food and Water website, Ask an Expert or call the MSU Extension Consumer Food Safety Hotline at 877-643-9882.

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