After a long day at work ends, it can often seem daunting to spend another hour or so preparing a wholesome dinner. After pondering the willpower needed to accomplish this feat, we find ourselves at the drive-thru of our favorite fast food chain or on our phone ordering delivery. Instead, we may want to consider utilizing a tried-and-true solution to this common dilemma: the slow cooker.
Who doesn’t want to come home to a hearty meal, warm and ready to eat? However, we also don’t want to come home to a potentially unsafe meal that may have us wishing we remained in line at the drive-thru. It is critical we know how to utilize food safety when operating a slow cooker.
Begin with a safe working area
Start with a clean work area, clean slow cooker and clean utensils. Make sure you properly wash your hands during food prep.
Prepare meat and produce separately
Never cut vegetables on a cutting board previously used to cut meat. If you only have one cutting board, be strategic and chop your produce first and then the meat. Or, optimally, use separate boards designated for each food product.
Keep perishable products in proper storage
After you cut up your meat and vegetables, store them separately in the refrigerator until you are ready to start cooking.
Make sure your meat or poultry is defrosted before placing it in the slow cooker to ensure the food cooks evenly and all the way through. Food should be defrosted in the refrigerator and not at room temperature.
Slow cooker contents
Make sure your slow cooker is not overly-full for proper, safe cooking. Contents should not exceed two-thirds capacity of the slow cooker.
Pay mind to size
Make sure you cut your meat into smaller pieces; larger pieces greatly increase cooking time. Cut meat pieces in similar size to the vegetables you include.
Maintain safe cooking temperatures
If possible, utilize the “high” setting on your slow cooker the first hour to reach a safe cooking temp (where any bacteria will be killed) and then lower it to the “low” setting to cook for the remainder of the cooking time. This will allow your food to avoid being in the “danger zone” (defined by temperatures between 40°F-140°F) for longer than necessary. Otherwise, utilize a food thermometer after cooking (see below). If you are leaving the slow cooker on while at work, using the “low” setting the entire time is acceptable as long as the slow-cooker is operating.
Use a food thermometer to measure completion
Each cut of meat or poultry requires a specific minimum internal temperature to ensure it is safe to eat. For example, beef and pork require a minimum internal temperature of 145°F (unless ground which should be 165°F) while poultry requires an internal temperature of 165°F. Invest in a food thermometer if you do not have one already to be certain your food is properly cooked and safe to eat.
If there is a power outage while you are not home, the food must be discarded. If you notice the slow cooker power off while at home, you can salvage the ingredients by adding it to a pot on the stove. If the food was completely cooked (measured using a food thermometer) before the power went out, the food will remain safe for up to 2 hours after the power outage occurred.
Leftovers should be stored in shallow containers and refrigerated within 2 hours of completion. This helps greatly reduce the risk of food poisoning. When reheating leftovers, make sure they reach a minimum internal temperature of 165°F.
-Magda Ogorek, SPU intern
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