There is nothing like 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. Besides the good aromas, there is the satisfaction of knowing that your meal is ready to serve. Winter is not the only time a slow cooker is useful. In the summer, using this small appliance can avoid introducing heat from a hot oven. At any time of year, a slow cooker can make life a little more convenient and it takes less electricity to use a slow cooker rather than an oven.
Use your slow cooker properly to insure a safe meal is made. The slow cooker cooks foods slowly at a low temperature — generally between 170 and 280 degrees. 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 combines to destroy bacteria and make the slow cooker a safe process for cooking foods.
Handling your food properly in the beginning will ensure a safe meal. Begin with a clean cooker, clean utensils and a clean work area. Wash your 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, won’t get a “head start” during the first few hours of cooking. Always defrost meat or poultry completely before putting it into a slow cooker. Cut food into chunks or smaller pieces to ensure thorough cooking.
Fill a cooker no less than half full and no more than two-thirds full. Vegetables cook slower than meat and poultry in a slow cooker so if using them, put vegetables in first, at the bottom and around the sides of the utensil. Then add meat and cover the food with liquid such as broth, water or barbecue sauce. Keep the lid in place. Remove it only to stir the food or check for doneness.
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.
While food is cooking and once it’s done, food will stay safe as long as the cooker is operating. If you are not at home during the entire cooking process and the power goes out, throw away the food even if it looks done.
Store leftovers in shallow covered containers and refrigerate within two hours after cooking is finished. Reheating leftovers in the slow cooker is not recommended. However, cooked food can be brought to steaming on the stove or in a microwave and then put into a preheated slow cooker to keep hot for serving.
Slow cooking is a convenient time-saver for busy families. Some types of nutrients may be lost during the long time they are stewing during slow cooking, but a covered pot that keeps the cooking juices locked in minimizes the nutrient loss. Even with some nutrients lost in slow cooking, home cooking is bound to be more nutritious and healthful for your family than fast food and processed food products. Try your favorite recipe today, or if you are in need of something new, search slow cooker recipes on the Web. There are several great sites to choose from.
Nickels, MS, RD/LD, is Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service Family and Consumer Sciences educator for Garfield County.