Do you own a slow cooker? If the answer is yes, then consider using it to prepare summer meals. Slow cookers can be helpful in the warm summertime when you want to avoid using a hot oven.
Looking for something to do this weekend? Find what you need in our Weekend Entertainment Guide newsletter.
Using a slow cooker requires some advance planning; however, it is a time saver and it uses less electricity than an oven. An added bonus is when you come home you will be greeted with inviting smells, plus dinner will be ready.
Most slow cookers cook food at temperatures between 170 and 280 degrees. 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.
Consider these suggestions for safely using your slow cooker:
Begin with a clean cooker, clean utensils and a clean work area. Wash your hands before and during food preparation.
Look for recipes that have been tested for use in a slow cooker and be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions for the recommended use of your slow cooker.
- Keep perishable foods refrigerated until preparation time. If you cut up meat and vegetables in advance, store them separately in the refrigerator. Because a slow cooker may take several hours to reach a safe, bacteria-killing temperature, refrigerating foods assures that bacteria, which multiply quickly at room temperature, won't get a head start during the first few hours of cooking.
- Always defrost meat or poultry before putting it into a slow cooker. Cut food into chunks or small pieces to ensure thorough cooking. Brown the meat if the recipe calls for it.
- Fill the cooker no less than half full and no more than two-thirds full. Put vegetables in first, at the bottom and around the sides of the crock. Then add meat and cover the food with liquid, such as broth, water or barbecue sauce.
- Keep the lid in place, removing it only to stir the food or check for doneness. It takes time for the cooker to replace lost heat.
If possible, use the highest temperature setting for the first hour of cooking and then turn to a lower temperature. It is safe to cook foods on the lower setting for the entire time, especially if you plan for all-day cooking.
What should you do if the power goes out? If you're not at home during the entire slow-cooking process and the power goes out, discard the food even if it looks done. If you are home, finish cooking by other means: on a gas stove or on an outdoor grill.
Store leftovers in shallow, covered containers and refrigerate within two hours of cooking.
Using your slow cooker for a summer meal will leave you more time to swim, garden, hike, bike, climb, run and play or just relax, sip lemonade and enjoy.
For more tips and information on using a slow cooker visit www.fsis.usda.gov and search for "slow cookers and food safety."
Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Extension in Washington County.