Safety of food prepared in a slow cooker

There is nothing like a bowl of beef stew or chicken noodle soup to warm you on a cold winter day. Many consumers wish to use a slow cooker for these foods, but they are concerned about the safety of food prepared in it. According to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the long cooking times, direct heat and steam of a slow cooker create an environment which kill harmful bacteria, making food safe to eat. Foods most often recommended for cooking in these appliances include soups, stews and chili. Other foods with high moisture content may also be safe. It is important to defrost food before cooking it in a slow cooker. Large peices of meat such as roasts should be divided into smaller pieces before cooking. Because foods cook very slowly in the slow cooker, the center of large pieces of meat could remain in danger zone temperatures (40’F to 140’F) for many hours, allowing time for harmful bacteria to multiply to dangerous levels. A slow cooker should not be overfilled. Fill the appliance one-half to two-thirds full. When filling, place vegetables on the bottom and around the sides because they cook more slowly than meat or poultry. Add meat, poultry or other ingredients and cover the food with liquid. The lid of a slow cooker should only be removed to stir the food or check for doneness. Food is cooked through heat and steam, and removing the lid allows some of the steam and heat to escape. Many cookers have at least two settings. For food that is to be cooked all day, use the low setting. If possible, cook food on the highest setting for the first hour and then turn it down to a lower setting or the setting recommended by the recipe. Foods that are cooked on low for the entire time, however, should be safe to eat according to FSIS information. If the power goes out during the cooking process and you are at home where cooking is taking place, immediately finish cooking the food if another cooking source is available, such as a gas stove. Throw the food away if no other cooking source is available or if the power goes out when you are not at home, even if the food appears to be done. Leftovers should be stored in shallow containers and refrigerated within two hours. Never reheat leftovers in the slow cooker because the food will not reach proper temperature within the recommended time. Instead, leftovers should be brought to 165’F (steaming hot or boiling) and then they can be placed in a preheated slow cooker to keep them hot.

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