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Use slow cooker for comforting winter meal

During the cold and windy winter season, nothing is more comforting than coming home to a hot dinner.

Using a slow cooker makes this possible. With a little preparation, your dinner could be cooking while you carry on 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.

It can take several hours for the slow cooker 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, cut-up ingredients in a slow cooker. Frozen meat or poultry should be defrosted before cooking, 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 halfway full but no more than two-thirds full. Vegetables cook more slowly than meat and poultry in slow cookers. They should be put in first at the bottom and around the sides of the cooker. Meats should be added toward the center. Add liquid, such as broth or barbecue sauce; then put the lid securely in place. The lid should only be removed to stir the food or check for doneness.

Slow cookers generally have two or more temperature settings. If cooking all day, it is best to use the low setting. Ideally, the cooker should be turned on its high setting for the first hour and then switched to a lower temperature for the remainder of the cooking time. After foods are done, they will stay safe in the slow cooker as long as the cooker is on.

If you leave the slow cooker on 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. If the food has finished cooking, the food will stay safe in the cooker for up to two hours with the power out.

Store leftovers in shallow, covered containers and refrigerate or freeze within two hours after cooking.

Web posted on Thursday, January 13, 2011

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