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Slow cookers can save time and help create great meals

During the cold and windy winter season there is nothing more comforting than coming home to a hot dinner that is already prepared. Using a slow cooker makes this possible. With a little prior preparation, your dinner could be cooking while you carry on with your daily activities.

A slow cooker, otherwise known as a crock pot, is a countertop appliance that cooks food slowly at low temperatures, usually between 170 and 280 degrees. The combination of direct heat from the pot, extended cooking time and steam trapped by a lid destroys bacteria.

It is important to start with a clean cooker, clean utensils and a clean surface for food preparation. As always, hands should be washed before and during food preparation. Meat and vegetables cut up in advance should be stored separately in the refrigerator to prevent cross-contamination.

The slow cooker can take several hours to reach a temperature that is hot enough to destroy bacteria; therefore, it is important that perishable foods to be used in the slow cooker be kept refrigerated until they are prepared. The extended time it takes for a slow cooker to heat to a temperature high enough to destroy bacteria, puts foods that are not kept cold up until preparation time at risk for being in the bacterial "danger zone" for too long.

Always use thawed and cut up ingredients in a slow cooker. Frozen meat or poultry should be defrosted before cooking in a slow cooker and food should be cut into chunks to facilitate thorough cooking. It's best to use a slow cooker to make foods with a high moisture content such as soup, stew or sauces.

It is important that a slow cooker be filled at least half way full but no more than two-thirds full. Vegetables cook slower than meat and poultry in slow cookers. To accommodate for this, vegetables should be put in first at the bottom and around the sides of the cooker and meats should be added towards the center. Add liquid, such as broth or barbeque sauce, then put the lid securely in place. The lid should only be removed when necessary to stir the food or check for doneness.

Slow cookers generally have two or more settings for cooking temperatures. If cooking all day, it is best to use the low setting to cook. It is ideal to turn the cooker on its high setting for the first hour of cooking time and then switch to a lower temperature for the reminder of the cooking time. After foods are done, they will stay safe in the slow cooker as long as the cooker is running.

If you leave the slow cooker to cook while you are away from home and you return home to discover that the power has gone out, throw away the food. If you are home during a power outage, continue the cooking process without interruption by some other means available. If the food has finished cooking, the food will stay safe in the cooker up to two hours with the power out.

Store leftovers in shallow covered containers and refrigerate or freeze within two hours after cooking. Using a slow cooker to reheat leftovers is not recommended but it is okay to use a preheated slow cooker to keep food warm that has been brought to steaming on the stove top or in the microwave.

The lengthy cooking time of slow cookers makes it useful for tenderizing though, inexpensive cuts of meat. Although foods cooked in a slow cooker are especially comforting during the winter, they can be enjoyed anytime.

Web posted on Thursday, February 19, 2009

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