After a long, busy day, there is nothing more comforting than coming home to a hot dinner that is already prepared. Using a slow cooker makes this possible.
A slow cooker, otherwise known as a crock pot, is a countertop appliance that cooks food slowly at low temperatures, usually between 170 and 280 degrees. The combination of direct heat, extended cooking time and steam trapped by the lid destroys bacteria. Meats and vegetables cut up in advance should be stored separately in the refrigerator to prevent cross-contamination.
The slow cooker can take several hours to reach a safe temperature that is hot enough to destroy bacteria; therefore, it is important that perishable foods that will be used in the slow cooker be kept refrigerated until they are prepared.
Always use thawed and cut up ingredients in a slow cooker. Frozen meat or poultry should be defrosted before cooking in a slow cooker, and food should be cut up into chunks or small pieces to facilitate thorough cooking.
Foods with high moisture content such as chili, soup, stew or spaghetti sauce are ideal choices for the slow cooker.
The amount and arrangement of food needs to be considered when using a slow cooker. It is important that a slow cooker be filled at least half, but no more than two-thirds of the way, full.
Vegetables cook slower than meat and poultry in slow cookers; therefore, vegetables should be put in first at the bottom and around the sides of the cooker and meats should be added towards the center. Cover the food with a liquid, like broth or barbecue sauce, then put the lid securely in place.
The lid should be removed only when necessary to stir the food or check for doneness.
Slow cookers generally have two or more settings for cooking temperatures. If you will be cooking all day with the slow cooker or are using tough cuts of meat, it is best to use the low setting to cook. It is ideal to turn the cooker on its high setting for the first hour of cooking time, then switch to low; although it is safe to cook foods on low for the entire cooking time. If you leave the slow cooker to cook while you are away from home and you return home to discover that the power has gone out, throw away the food.
If you are home during a power outage, continue the cooking process without interruption by some other means available, such as a gas stove or outdoor grill. Cooked food will stay safe in the cooker for up to two hours.
Leftovers need to be stored in shallow, covered containers and refrigerated or frozen within two hours after cooking is done. Using a slow cooker to reheat leftovers is not recommended, but it is acceptable to use a preheated slow cooker to keep food warm that has been brought to steaming on the stove top or in the microwave oven.
The lengthy cooking time associated with slow cookers makes it very useful for tenderizing inexpensive cuts of meat. Also, slow cookers use less electricity than an oven. Using a slow cooker during the warmer months offers the benefit of introducing less heat into the house than an oven. Although foods cooked in a slow cooker are especially comforting during the chill of winter, they can be enjoyed any time of year.