Opening the front door after a day at work and being greeted by the inviting smells of dinner cooking can be a dream come true. Using a slow cooker can help that dream come true.
A slow cooker can make life a little more convenient because by planning ahead, you save time later.
Using a slow cooker also saves on your power bill. Using this small appliance can avoid introducing heat from a hot oven into your kitchen and making your air conditioner run more. It takes less electricity to use a slow cooker rather than an oven.
It is safe to use a slow cooker. The slow cooker cooks foods slowly at a low temperature -- generally between 170 degrees 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 combine to destroy bacteria and make the slow cooker a safe process for cooking foods.
Start 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, wont get a head start during the first few hours of cooking.
Always thaw meat or poultry before putting it into a slow cooker. Choose to make foods with a high moisture content such as chili, soup, stew or spaghetti sauce. If using a commercially frozen slow cooker meal, prepare according to manufacturers instructions.
Fill the cooker no less than half full and no more than two-thirds full. Vegetables cook slower, so if using them, put the vegetables in first. Then add the meat and desired amount of liquid such as broth, water or barbecue sauce. Keep the lid in place, removing 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.
If possible, turn the cooker on the highest setting for the first hour of cooking and then to low or the setting called for in your recipe. However, its safe to cook foods on low the entire time -- if youre leaving for work, for example, and preparation time is limited. While food is cooking and once its done, food will stay safe as long as the cooker is operating.
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 range, 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 the leftovers in shallow covered containers and refrigerate them within two hours after cooking is finished. Reheating leftovers in a slow cooker is not recommended. Cooked food should be reheated on the range, in a microwave oven or in a conventional oven until it reaches 165 degrees. Then, the hot food can be placed in a preheated slow cooker to keep it hot for serving -- maintaining the temperature at 140 degrees as measured with a food thermometer.
Clean up can be easy if you use slow cooker liners. Each slow cooker is made differently. Some have heavy crock cooking vessels, making it tricky to take it out to wash. Some cookers have the cooking vessel built-in, making it difficult to clean. If cleaning your cooker after use has been your excuse for not using it, now you can use it without worry.
Jan Baggarly is Bibb County Extension coordinator with the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension working in the field of Family and Consumer Sciences. Contact her at 478-751-6338 or email@example.com.