This Is the Safest Way to Use a Slow Cooker

Make every meal easier without a This Is Us-style ending.

If you love the delicious, low-effort meals your slow cooker makes possible, but have concerns about the safety of cooking in one, you're not alone.

For many home cooks, the main question is whether their meat-based meals will be cooked to a safe temperature using the "slow and low" method most slow cookers employ. Luckily, the answer is yes. If used properly, your slow cooker will allow you to achieve a tender texture without risking exposure to undercooked meat or harmful bacteria. Slow cookers heat your ingredients gradually over a span of many hours at a temperature somewhere between 170 and 280 degrees Fahrenheit. This is comfortably out of the rapid bacteria growth "danger zone", which sits between 40 and 140 degrees.

However, according to a report released by the University of Minnesota, there are still some safety measures you must adhere to. First, it's paramount to thaw meat before putting it in the cooker. If you neglect this step for convenience, it's possible that your food won't reach that 140 degree safe zone quickly enough, and you could be exposed to foodborne illnesses. Begin by preheating your slow cooker at the highest temperature to minimize the amount of time your food spends in the danger zone. This is especially important when cooking poultry, which can transmit salmonella, E. coli, and campylobacter if cooked under a slightly higher safety threshold of 170 degrees.

The USDA also suggests being mindful of how much food you cook at once, and recommends consulting your slow cooker manual to determine what portions are safe to cook. If you are stewing a larger portion of meat, it's best to turn your cooker on high for at least the first hour. You can then reduce the temperature for the remainder of cooking time. This will give you all of the tenderizing and flavor-enhancing benefits of a slow cook, while maintaining a safe temperature throughout.

Finally, slow cookers require a bit of restraint from cooks who like to tinker with their creations as they go. Bear in mind that by keeping the lid closed for long periods of time, the steam trapped inside is doing much of the work to regulate a consistent temperature. Opening it frequently to check on progress or add ingredients undermines this feature, so your overall slow cooker approach should be relatively hands-off, at least once you've added any meat items.

After that first high-temperature hour, you can safely leave your slow cooker on while you tend to other things—even if that means leaving the house. So go ahead: enjoy your home-cooked, healthy meals without spending the whole day cooped up in a hot kitchen. And when you want to want to make your whole kitchen set-up safer, This is the Safest Way to Sharpen a Knife!

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Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more