21 Jul Cook Slow and Safe This Summer
By Caryn Huneke, MS, guest blogger
The summer heat fries my brain and zaps away my will to cook. Just looking at my oven makes me sweat. Unfortunately I live in an apartment so I can’t escape by heading outdoors to grill, and I can only eat so many cold salads for dinner. Instead of slaving over the stovetop or ordering takeout (again), I use my slow cooker (or “crock pot”) to prepare dinner without heating up the whole kitchen.
Not just for winter stews and soups, this countertop plug-in appliance can be used year-round to conveniently cook inexpensive meals. And by cooking foods low and slow, typically between 170°F – 280°F, slow cookers safely destroy bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses through a combination of direct heat, long cooking times, and steam. This is especially important during the hot summer months, as bacteria thrive in warm temperatures, particularly 70-125°F. In fact, any temperature between 41-135°F is considered the danger zone for bacteria.
To stay safe (and cool) this summer, use these easy tips when using your slow cooker.
- Thaw ingredients, especially meats and poultry, in the refrigerator before use. Frozen ingredients can take too long to cook through, and will spend too much time at temperatures where bacteria grown and thrive.
- If you chop or prep ingredients before use, store them separately in the refrigerator (and not on the countertop) to prevent bacterial growth.
- Never refrigerate prepped materials together in the slow cooker pot; the cold pot will take too long to reach a safe cooking temperature.
- Some things shouldn’t be prepped ahead of time, such as defrosting items in a microwave or searing or sautéing food to finish cooking later; do these immediately before use.
- If time allows, preheat the pot on high for one hour to shorten the amount of time food spends at room temperature.
- Water or liquid is needed to make steam, which kills bacteria. Liquids should cover the ingredients to facilitate even and effective heat transfer.
- The heat from slow cookers typically comes from the sides, so the pot should be ½ to ¾ full to ensure safe cooking.
- Never lift the lid to check on your meal or to stir. Each time you lift it, you reduce the temperature by 10-15 degrees and prolong the cooking time by 30 minutes!
- Use a food thermometer to check that meat and poultry has reached an appropriate and safe temperature.
- Use the “warm” setting to keep cooked food hot and safe (the “warm” setting should never be used to actually cook food).
- Cool food safely by placing it in shallow containers and refrigerate within two hours; don’t let food cool down in the pot.
- Reheat food on the stove top, oven, or microwave until it reaches 165°F; never use the slow cooker to reheat food.
Caryn Huneke earned her Master of Science degree in Nutrition Education from Teachers College, Columbia University in May 2014. She is completing her dietetic internship this July and plans to work as a registered dietitian in the New York City area.