Slow cooker safety
A slow cooker or "crock pot" is a convenient portable electric appliance that is very popular in today's kitchens. Slow cookers have several advantages. It's "all-day cooking without looking." They are economical to operate. It's a great way to tenderize less expensive and tougher cuts of meat (shoulder, round, and chuck).
Are slow cookers safe? Yes, if you use them correctly. Most slow cookers have two settings: low and high. The low setting cooks at around 200°F and the high setting at about 300°F. Most slow cookers have a crockery insert. The heating elements are along the side directly heating the food. The lengthy cooking time and the steam created within the tightly-covered 'pot' increases the temperature quickly enough to kill bacteria, making slow-cooking a safe cooking process.
Test your slow cooker for safety
Make sure that the food inside the slow cooker reaches 140°F (or higher) within four hours. This ensures that the cooker is heating correctly to keep food safe to eat.
- Fill the cooker 1/2 to 2/3 full with one to two quarts of water.
- Heat on low (200° F) for eight hours.
- Check the water temperature with an accurate food thermometer. Do this quickly because the temperature drops 10 to 15 degrees when the lid is removed.
- The temperature of the water should be at least 185° to 200° F.
Temperature readings below 185°F indicate that your slow cooker does not heat food high enough or fast enough to avoid possible food safety problems. If your slow cooker doesn't pass this test, don't use it. It's unsafe to use and should be replaced.
Temperature readings above 185° to 200° F indicate that a food cooked for eight hours without stirring would be overdone.
Food safety tips when using a slow cooker
- If possible, turn on high for the first hour of cooking and then to the lower setting called for in your recipe.
- Begin with a clean slow cooker, utensils and work area. Wash hands well before and during cooking.
- To prevent foods from sticking and to simplify clean up, spray the inside of the crock with a non-stick cooking spray, before adding ingredients.
- Preheat the cooker and add hot liquids, if possible. Preheating the crock before adding ingredients or cooking on the highest setting for the first hour will ensure a rapid heat start. Either will shorten the time foods are in the temperature danger zone.
- Make sure meat or poultry is completely thawed before putting into a slow cooker. If frozen pieces are used, they will not reach 140° quick enough and could possibly result in a foodborne illness.
- Keep perishable foods refrigerated until preparation time. Refrigeration assures that bacteria, which multiply rapidly at room temperature, will not get a "head start" in the first few hours of slow cooking.
- If you cut up meat and vegetables in advance, store them separately in the refrigerator.
- New research conducted by USDA FSIS indicates it is safe to cook large cuts of meat and poultry in a slow cooker. Follow the manufacturer's instructions and safety guidelines.
- Fill cooker no less than half full and no more than two-thirds full.
- If possible, turn on high for the first hour of cooking and then to the lower setting called for in your recipe. This is highly recommended when cooking meat or poultry in a slow cooker.
- Do not lift the lid or cover unnecessarily during the cooking cycle. Each time the lid is raised, the internal temperature drops 10 - 15 degrees and the cooking process is slowed by 30 minutes.
- Do not reheat foods in a slow cooker. However, cooked food can be reheated on the stove or in the microwave to 165° and then put into a preheated slow cooker to keep food hot until serving.
- Before taking a bite, check meat and poultry with a food thermometer to make sure it has reached a safe internal temperate to destroy bacteria. Roasts: 145° to 160°F; chicken: 165° to 170°F; ground meats: 160°F. The thermometer should be inserted in the thickest part away from bone.
- Dried beans, especially kidney, contain a natural toxin. These toxins are easily destroyed by boiling. Safe steps for preparing would include soaking the beans for 12 hours, rinsing, and then boiling for at least 10 minutes, before adding the beans to a slow cooker.
- When cooking meat or poultry, the water or stock level should almost cover the ingredients to ensure effective heat transfer throughout the crock. Water or liquid is necessary to create steam.
- Since vegetables cook the slowest, place them near the heat, at the bottom and sides of the slow cooker.
- Do not leave cooked food to cool down in the crock. Either consume it immediately or place leftovers in shallow containers and refrigerate immediately. It is not recommended or safe to reheat leftovers in a slow cooker. Heat leftovers in the oven, microwave, or stovetop, until it reaches 165°F and then add to a preheated slow cooker. In the slow cooker, food should remain hot for serving, 140°F or above, as measured by a calibrated food thermometer.
Fill cooker no less than half full and no more than two-thirds full.
- USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, 1-888-674-6854
- USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, Common Questions
Revised by Kathy Brandt and Glenyce Peterson-Vangsness, University of Minnesota Extension educators, and Roselyn Biermaier, University of Minnesota Extension educator emerita, 2010.